Minimalism : what is it really about ?

As anyone can guess, minimalism is about keeping it simple. Minimalist style seems to be more about great materials and sculptural shape than color and movement. But why is that? Why do minimalist designers tend to select such rigid fabric and focus on white and black only? These were my initial questions, which had me realize that my understanding of minimalism was actually very minimalist, and that some research would do me good.

Minimalism developed among American visual artist in the 1960s and early 1970s, but the word “minimalist” was first used in the 1920s, apparently to describe a painting by Russian artist Kasimir Malevich in 1914 (see below), and/or in the catalogue introduction for an exhibition of John Graham’s paintings at the Dudensing Gallery in New York in 1929. In this catalogue, David Burlyuk wrote: “Minimalism derives its name from the minimum of operating means. Minimalist painting is purely realistic—the subject being the painting itself.” (source : MoMa).

MoMa’s website gives the following definition of minimalism : “term used in the 20th century, in particular from the 1960s, to describe a style characterized by an impersonal austerity, plain geometric configurations and industrially processed materials”. Another definition of minimalism applying to visual arts is “a school of abstract painting and sculpture that emphasizes extreme simplification of form, as by the use of basic shapes and monochromatic palettes of primary colors, objectivity, and anonymity of style. Also called ABC art, minimal art, reductivism, rejective art” (source:

In the 1960s, minimalism started to spread among western musicians too. John Cage, Philip Glass and John Reich were some of the most famous artists involved in this movement. Quite similarly to visual arts, minimalist music is defined as “marked by extreme simplification of rhythms, patterns, and harmonies, prolonged chordal or melodic repetitions, and often a trancelike effect” (source:

As examples you will find below 2 videos that I find particularly interesting and, I hope, representative :

  • John Cage – Water Walk (1960) : John Cage performing live one of its composition, as you will see, a minimalist piece of art can involve a rather large set of unusual instruments
  • Steve Reich – Different Trains (1988) : a music by Steve Reich, who focused on trying to relay the essence of one particular realistic sound, here a whistling train

Minimalism is a specificity of the final composition, not of the tools or techniques that are being used in the making process. This rule also applies to the fashion area, as minimalist fashion designers exert sometimes tremendous efforts to create a perfectly seamless look.

The famous wedding dress designed in 1967 by Balenciaga is a perfect exemple of an apparent simplicity hiding a fastidious work through which the designer managed to build the dress with only 3 seams.


Minimalism in the fashion area gained exposure over the 1990s, with the first collections of Tom Ford for Gucci in 1996, and Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton in 1998. The 1990s were also characterised by the purchase of Jil Sander and Helmut Lang, which already had adopted minimalist aesthetics, by Prada.

G12     G13 marc-jacobs-at-the-louis-vuitton-fall-1998-finale

The 1997 Comme des Garçons collection is also assimilated to the minimalist movement, as an example of clearly impersonal clothes, so impersonal that they seem to abnegate models’ bodies, encapsulating them in counter natural shapes.

cdg-ss-975 cdg2 cdg3 cdg-ss-9711cdg-ss-971 cdg-ss-977

Nevertheless, with this collection Rei Kawakubo does not perfectly respect the monochrome rule implied in minimalism design definition. Actually, to my point of view, this collection does not consist in a representation of minimalism, but rather a demonstration of the fact that body shapes structured by designers have never been representative of our bodies, they have always intended to create a standard silhouette that should be calked on any women, hiding her imperfections and specifities, and this from the invention of the corset to cocoon sweaters and platform shoes.


Lookbook (2013)

A lot of different definitions apply to minimalism, and minimalism applies to a lot of different areas : from novel writing to chairs design. Consequently, it may be more rational to look for a minimalist definition of minimalism, stripped down to the essential, and which would apply to any area likewise.

From the definitions quoted so far in this post, two main characteristics generally apply to minimalist compositions, which are also pointed out in The Rosenrot blog’s great article :

  • simplified to the extreme / stripped down of anything not absolutely essential
  • impersonal / not-figurative

However, and as stated above, I realize that “impersonal / not-figurative” aspect is a consequence of the necessity to keep only what’s absolutely necessary : to design something figurative a creator would need to add “unnecessary” elements that would indicate to the viewer what is referred to. However, I feel like minimalist clothes are not more impersonal than other garments. In fact minimalist clothes, because of their apparent simplicity, give a very different impression depending on the person who wears it, on his/her carnation, body shape and his/her way of evolving through space. Minimalism does not impose one designer’s taste and personality the same way on everyone, it leaves more space for everyone’s personality to shine by its own, simply enhanced by qualitative cuts and materials.

As a conclusion, and at least as regards fashion, minimalism really is about keeping it simple. This straightforward definition applies to any other area (architecture, painting, music, novel writing, and even philosophy) and does sum up what a minimalist style is about : focusing on the essential only, because as stated by Antoine de Saint-Exupery : “perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

To see more : 

Below is a selection of Spring-Summer 2014 collections by designers who are usually singled out as minimalist.

Helmut lang

Helmut Lang – SS 2014

Derek Lam

Derek Lam – SS 2014  ChloéChloé – SS 2014  Céline Blue Céline – SS 2014DKNY DKNY – SS 2014Jil Sander Jil Sander – SS 2014

To learn more :

MinimalissimoMoMaStyle & Minimalism, The Art StoryThe Rosenrot


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