The Minimalism of the 90’s

The minimalist legacy of the 90’s, and the designers that made it happen.

In 1993, Amy M. Spindler, writing for the New York Times, described minimalismas follows:

Minimalism is as noncommittal as fashion gets without leaving a body naked.

She was responding to what was then a new sartorial philosophy, one that distinguished itself from the excess of the 80’s. The tenets of formal minimalism—impersonal austerity, anti-figurative forms, democratic and accessible garments—all found their way into the collections of designer after designer, interpreted into sleekly reduced, personable, and clean-lined garments. 


Calvin Klein

Calvin Klein ads have a history of being controversial, and the 90’s ad campaigns (Michael Avedon, shooting a young Kate Moss) cemented a bad-boy brand image, with scandalous photography and copy. But Calvin Klein is also credited with ”pioneering new minimalism in the 90’s" by Business of Fashion, and the brand is a necessary mention here.

Calvin Klein’s minimalism was that of a sex-saturated reductionism, and the brand deftly reinterpreted the austere, high-brow minimalism of European aesthetics to serve the 90’s American zeitgeist. Erich Kessel, in The Style Con, writes:

The reduction that minimalism achieves makes it an ideal canvas onto which we can project different goals. The meanings we can create with minimalist clothes are often fluid and endless. We can say luxury; we can say austerity; we can say anarchy and rebellion. All are significations enabled by minimalism’s openness. One of the most interesting uses of minimalism, over the past few decades, has been as an expression of sexuality. It is a very specific sexuality: athletic, glistening, powerful, and sculptural. And has defined a strong vein in the visual culture of American minimalism, which has included the work of Calvin Klein…

The Klein minimalism was supremely accessible and digestible. Calvin Klein ads featured fresh-faced models with straightforward clothing—jeans, knit sweaters, briefs. The ad campaigns focused on the relationship that a wearer might have with his or her clothing—celebrating the human interaction and the lived experience of the clothing, not the clothing itself. “You want to know what comes in between me and my Calvin’s? Nothing.”



Jil Sander

Where Calvin Klein’s minimalism was eyebrow-raising, Jil Sander’s was refined, restrained, and European. Again, returning Spindler’s words on the minimalist fashion of the 90’s:

What sets the minimalists on this page above the rest is their deceit and their conceit. Deceit because these clothes look so simple but can in fact be the most difficult: many are cut on the bias (diagonally, across the grain of the fabric). The bias cut makes them drape. The conceit is the richness of the fabric. There is nothing plain about chiffon backed with silk, or cashmere woven into the rib knit of a sweater.

We see again the minimalist focus on reducing clothing to the essentials: what it was made of, how it moved. There was a determined decadence in having understated luxury. The conceit is the richness of the fabric. And nowhere is this mindset more evident than in Jil Sander.

AnOther Magazine tells the story of the Jil Sander influence:

In 1973, Jil Sander debuted her eponymous collection – a series of monochrome, streamline jackets and trousers. The collection would set the standard for minimalism, which she would stand by for decades to come. Sander took the movement under her wing, challenging, and making it modern through a number of guises. 

“There are two types of working, either one simply dreams away, reaching for ideas as if one is pulling them out of a lucky bag, or one works with reality,” the designer told AnOther Magazine…"A chair is a chair, a pair of trousers is a pair of trousers. To acknowledge the facts as they are, to really see them in a new light and to give form to them, for me that is part of the creative process. The classical wardrobe is cunning. We can exploit this for virtually ‘revolutionary strategies’.“

In the ad above, the Old Word decadence of the chiseled floral pattern contrasts heavily with Guinevere van Seenus, dressed in severe black with a delicate, fluttering neckline. It was a statement—Jil Sander was luxurious, but for women who were intelligent enough to look towards modernity.

Other ads of the decade simply showed a skirt, a woman with her eyes turned away from the viewer, models seated in a solitary stool. Everything was about the woman, about the knit, about the cotton-silk drape of a garment. Across all of them, in Futura Extra Bold: Jil Sander.


Helmut Lang

Helmut Lang with Helmut Lang at the helm was a "driving force of minimalism”, as Eric Wilson in the New York Times remembers:

When Mr. Lang showed his first collection in Paris in 1986, his spare structured designs ushered in a new wave of minimalism, which made him an instant star. His influence only grew after he moved to New York in 1998 and announced he would show his collection in early September, ahead of the European runway shows and those of American designers, who had traditionally followed Milan and Paris.

Almost immediately other American designers followed, and New York Fashion Week was moved up six weeks.

This was a man who permanently rescheduled NYFW through his influence, but he contributed to fashion’s aesthetic understanding of minimalism as well. He heavily emphasized structured forms that were almost stark in their simplicity. There were elements of deconstructionism, too, in cutout garments and seemingly-torn panels of fabric attached together. Sheer organza layers were frequently contrasted against opaque forms.  

He toyed with the construction of clothing and its representation to the consumer—Helmut Lang ads could be terribly tongue-in-cheek. Near the end of Lang’s tenure at his brand, advertisements sometimes dispensed with models entirely and were just photos of the 'Helmut Lang’ label stitched inside a garment. That was it. Severe, to-the-point advertising, as direct as his clothing.




Starting in the mid-80’s, Prada strategically commercialized a minimalism that played into a fatigue of the decade’s frills, and 90’s minimalism was given an audience with the help of Miuccia Prada’s work. To return to Spindler’s words on minimalism:

Minimalism is not by what it is, but by what it lacks. There’s no lace. No tulle. No fringe. No flouncy tiers. No rows of pleats. For those who subscribe, it is defined the way obscenity ofter is: they know it when they see it.

In this sartorial environment, the Prada look was a coherent and compelling entity when contrasted with other larger brands:

In the 1980’s, other labels were creating designs that played on sexuality. Frilly, lacy, brightly colored garments…Prada hit the runway in 1989 with elegant, simple pieces featuring clean lines, luxurious fabrics, and basic colors.

Prada employed synthetics with a deft hand—polyester, nylon—at a time when luxury brands were still distrustful of them. The utilitarian minimalism she engaged in produced pieces like an iconic nylon backpack, Prada’s first significant commercial success. These pieces resonated, in a society that was moving towards clean lines and straightforward materials. Ornamentation was precise and spare. Silhouettes were exacting.

The End of Minimalism

The 90’s heyday of minimalism had to end, of course, as things in fashion tend to do. Calvin Klein is repackaging and rebranding its 90’s legacy to today’s consumers. Jil Sander and Helmut Lang were both sold to Prada—Prada having deftly capitalized on its consumer success to buy up fashion’s most promising labels. Jil Sander left her label after conflicts with Prada executives, was replaced by Raf Simons, was re-installed, and left again abruptly. Helmut Langturned to the art world, and the relaunched label—with different designers at the helm—has failed to recapture the originality that the fashion press revered Mr. Lang for. And Miuccia Prada, always hurtling ahead, abandoned the minimalist look as the 90’s wore on to usher in a new look—and then another new look—to match consumer tastes.

But minimalism has entered the cultural consciousness again, and the designers above have had an enormous influence on the minimalist aesthetic being expressed on today’s runways, in today’s prêt-a-porter, in today’s garments sold in boutiques and the high street.


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