Minimalist high in BLEND

I am always happy to be part of Amsterdam based yet internationally oriented magazine BLEND. In this Spring Summer 2011 issue I wrote the introduction to a 50 page fashion shoot by photographer Tomas Nässtrom, fashion director JOFF and art director Laurenz Brunner: an ode to Raf Simon’s utterly modern minimalism at Jil Sander. An exceptional fashion editorial indeed – to which I made the sort of decisive ‘secret service creative intelligence’ contribution that never gets a proper credit but alas… I feel no less pride.

Enjoy the short essay after the pagebreak.


Minimal Modernism to the Max

by Mo Veld

September 25th, 2010, at 3:15 PM (GMT+1) Raf Simons showed his Spring-Summer 2011 collection for Jil Sander in Milan. Even with an impressive track record like his – Raf Simons celebrates 15 notorious years in menswear with his own label this same spring season – that day he managed to present the fashion top with a new high. Minimalism has never been this much ‘back in fashion’. This is more like a post new minimalism, although that doesn’t sound very minimal anymore.

‘Minimalism. A design or style using the simplest and fewest elements to create the maximum effect,’ my Collins Compact Dictionary says, much to my nagging dissatisfaction. Wikipedia is more precise: ‘Minimalism describes movements in various forms of art and design, especially visual art and music, where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features.’ So minimalism is not a movement like modernism is. And the word ‘simple’ is best to be avoided altogether when talking about minimalism. On the artistic, intellectual and economic level, where designers like Raf Simons and Jil Sander operate, nothing is ever simple. And if you look closely, their work really doesn’t seem to be that simple either. At best it probably addresses a deeply rooted desire to simplify things, given our torturously overdeveloped sense of self in an increasingly complex and forever changing world. In other words, we are always in need for a sense of restraint and purification, which in fashion leads to abstracted clothes and often to elegance.

Reduction is a typical modernist trait. Modernism – a rather confusing term in itself since it became en vogue roughly a century ago – aims to offer those utmost elegant design solutions we crave, so we can express our most cutting edge contemporary ideas on life. It is essentially progressive and positive, bold yet aesthetic, experimental in an intellectual way and free from smothering traditions yet without the provocative contempt for origin we see in post-modernism. Jil Sander is known as the German pope of fashion modernism, the general leading the nineties minimalist troupes, with then new stars such as Austrian Helmut Lang underwriting her power. A living legend since she so dramatically left her own fashion house, she probably couldn’t have wished for a better art director to lead her namesake brand into the future.

Modernist minimalism is often associated with futurism, or at least it used to be. We have by now stopped thinking of the future as the ultimate phase of humanity, where it actually manages to get rid of all clutter and excess, living utterly controlled lives in an utterly controlled environment like we did in the space-age sixties. In that light Raf Simons’ SS2011 collection for Jil Sander may even be a romantic statement because it does take us back to this kind of elegant, elitist and utopian mirage of a humanity that managed to improve itself to the max..

In an article called Who’s Afraid of Minimalism?, published in The New York Times on August 25th in the year 2005, fashion critic Cathy Horyn notices a reluctant comeback of minimalism in fashion, which immediately turned out to be quite the dramatic change consumers had been waiting for. Shop owners raved about ‘a leap into mature dressing’, and, mind you; the economic recession was not even in sight at the time. ‘To some extent’, she wrote, ‘we associate minimalism with failure’, referring to both Jil Sander and Helmut Lang capitulating to the Prada Group reign. What is so interesting about her observation in hindsight is that she caught the fashion majority at that time at being overly pleasing to the commercial aspect of the discipline; they just kept adding frills instead of making strong, possibly unpopular design statements. She concludes her story with the hopeful prediction that with Raf Simons starting out at Jil Sander that season, the world would soon pay some more attention if not respect to minimalism, which she considers a higher art in realms of the rag trade.

And here we are, in the fashion year SS2011. Somehow, probably by being incredibly smart and daring at the same time, Raf Simons, who had never done women’s fashion before, managed to get to the core of what the Jil Sander brand was about: utterly modern, perfectly purist, always elegant and impeccable to the thread. All this without even once literally quoting from Jill’s archive. Horyn’s prediction was on point, the fashion community is in awe with the new Jil look.

I’ve had the pleasure of briefly interviewing Raf Simons around the time when he must have been working on this collection with his team. The effects of the financial crisis on the luxury industry were breathing down his neck as he was telling me how responsible he feels for the jobs of hundreds of people in the company, and he expressed his concerns about the long term effects of this downturn on the highest quality levels in fabrics and manufacturing, to mention but a few connected industries. We had been overplaying our fashion game for so long, and now we were at risk loosing the top level in quality and craft. In spite of these earnest concerns, he seemed most determined ‘to be the change’.

Backstage after the SS2011 show Raf Simons was telling journalists how he and his team had pondered over the ‘New Minimalism’ in fashion until they reached the heart of the matter, the Zen master view so you will, the 8th Dan of minimalism in fashion; which is the maximalism of Haute Couture. And so this minimalist-to-the-max ready-to-wear spring collection of T-shirt topped ball gowns and elegantly loose and lusciously long fitting daywear outfits in the boldest and brightest ‘mille-feuille’ color palette imaginable oozed with elitist allure. A radically modern couture look paired with what looked like some casual plastic bags instead of diamonds and pearls. And none of the pieces look like Raf Simons and his craftsmen got it right in one stroke. This is Balenciaga, Chanel and Dior back in their time, spending endless days on their knees with a mouth full of pins to create this one perfect dress that captured the New.

Guess who picked one of those gowns that look like a two-piece set of a crisp little white shirt and a voluminous, slightly tulip shaped floor long silk satin skirt with comfortable hidden pockets for the Golden Globe Awards in January this year? Precisely. Mrs. Avant Garde herself, Tilda Swinton.

At the risk of sounding shamelessly post-modernist for quoting out of context, it does bring to mind Arthur Rimbaud’s immortal conclusion of his extended poem Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell): we have no choice but to be utterly modern. And that was back in 1873.

So let this brave new Maximalist Minimalism be extremely elitist and grown up and downright romantic in its modernist attempt to show us a future that can never be this perfect. To this day I have not met a woman in fashion who does not essentially WANT one of these looks. With Phoebe Philo pulling her own minimalist weight in gold at Celine and the Jil Sander label once again at the summit of purist design, luxury fashion seems back on track. We will follow.

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