NEW YORK--Has fashion finally had enough of less? Minimalism--pared-down styles that eschew baubles and bangles in favor of lean designs with little detail--is a look that's been around since the days of Claire McCardell. For some designers, it's still the ultimate in esthetic purity, but for others it's sterile, cold and clinical. And when it's the trend du jour, as it has been for the last few seasons, the runways end up looking like an endless stream of black shifts, black jackets and black pants that aren't that easy to tell apart in the stores--but are plenty easy to knock off. But the lines, they are a-changing. The Paris runways were refreshingly awash in color, ornament and pyrotechnical cuts. As the fashion pendulum swings back toward the glitzier days of the Eighties, will minimalism fade to black? No, say its adherents. "Minimalism is not about abandoning pattern and print," said Calvin Klein, a leader of the Less-Is-More School. "I see minimalism to be a philosophy that involves an overall sense of balance, knowing when to take away, subtract. It's an indulgence in superbly executed cut, quiet plays of color tones and clean strong shapes." "I've always seen myself as a minimalist, because every piece is about itself," said Donna Karan, another Less leader. "I work on each piece separately; I create it in a sculptural way. But I think a lot of what people are calling minimalism now is really nothing clothes, as opposed to design." "Even at the height of the Eighties, which we called the 'Dynasty' years, we were doing quiet," said Michael Kors. "I don't know if I'd use the word minimalism, because it sounds a bit pretentious, like you're talking about religion. Ultimately, clean lines have greater longevity, which women appreciate, and to which they can add their own personality. And if you're busy, it kind of cleans the palate and lets you get on with your life." It also depends on the sophistication of the customer. Some women don't mind forking over $1,000 or more for a jacket whose clean lines and perfect seams are the only indication of luxury. But others want some proof of their purchase. "When a look is printed, or has a button or a detail, I can see that a woman would get that it's fashion," said Marc Jacobs. "I like things that are simple, but I also like things that are over-the-top." "That's the part I don't get," confessed Todd Oldham. "It's very hard to tell one black shift from another. I think minimalism is a beautiful design concept--early Halston is just beautiful--but it's hard to tell the difference." "The designer customer wouldn't say 'It doesn't make a difference to me,"' said Patrick Robinson, design director of Anne Klein. "She buys her designer clothes for those reasons--cut, fabric and the cachet. She has 15 black jackets in the closet, and each one means something different. She wants the best--not just a T-shirt, but a cashmere T-shirt, which is the most modern thing you can wear." There's a middle ground between the spareness of minimalism and the exuberance of a designer like Oldham--or, as Jacobs said, "Some people are very pure about it, and for others it's the right time for that look." "I'm not really consciously minimalist, but a couple of years ago there was a lot more detail in my clothing," said Richard Tyler. "Then I went much cleaner, but my customer really likes a little detail. I really, really feel people are getting tired of [minimalism]. As a designer you always have to have the customer in mind, that customer who comes back every season looking for something new, and there's only so much you can do with a black suit. Still, the mills are dishing up incredible fabrics, and I think minimalism lets the fabric speak for itself." But when this season's jacket isn't that different from last season's, retailers get a little concerned that they're not giving women enough impetus to buy. "The customer does not want to spend a lot of money to not enhance her look," said Ernest Marx, president of Saks Jandel, the Chevy Chase, Md., specialty store. "There has to be more that is visibly luxurious, more visible creativity," said R. Fulton MacDonald, president of International Business Development. But for the designer customer, minimalism is the pinnacle of luxurious creativity, say retailers and designers. "You understand minimalism when it is done perfectly, using the best fabric, the best quality and the best cut," said Joseph Boitano, executive vice president and general merchandise manager at Bergdorf Goodman. "It is all about perfect craftsmanship. Jil Sander does it beautifully. Rebecca Moses does it perfectly in her new collection." "There is a difference between plain and minimalist," said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus. "The best designed clothes are all about shape and silhouette. Thus, a simple black dress can be the best and minimalist. A great turtleneck and a pair of black pants--minimalistic lets you be individualistic. Lang? He's minimalist, but not really. Jil Sander is the image of minimalism at its best. "It is a very legitimate design direction, and how a designer interprets it represents his point of view. It's the age-old theory of less is more. When it's done well, it's outstanding." "It's like Bauhaus architecture," said Cathy Paul, a fashion consultant here. "I know people are always saying it, but it really is true that a perfectly cut jacket is more expensive to make than one with a lot of ornamentation, because you can't hide anything." But while it might work for the sophisticated designer consumer, what about the rest of the apparel industry, which is supposed to thrive on ideas provided by the designer crowd? For them, minimalism is meager fare. "The bridge customer does not understand it," said MacDonald. "We end up with so much safe, same looks that get marked down. I think it's more the fault of the stores than of the designers, because manufacturers usually present a pretty wide variety of product. It's how the stores buy it." But Cathy Paul thinks that's selling the consumer short. "It has trickled down already," she said. "There's some mind-set in the merchants who cater to the mass market that it won't work, but a black T-shirt and black jeans is easy; a charcoal gray A-line skirt at any price is easy. Black leggings are minimalist." "If a woman is partial to a minimalist esthetic, she won't get bored," said Calvin Klein. "She'll find the evolution of the sleek and spare exciting and new every time." And it's a palate cleanser, as Michael Kors said--especially in an era when it seems many designers are mining the past in search of an identity. "Minimalism has actually sold really well," said Paul, who recently left Certified Fashion Office. "Retro, on the other hand--the geek chic stuff, the things that look like uniforms--that's not selling very well." "Retro is tripping over itself," said Betsey Johnson, the diva of difference. "It's catching up to itself. I've had a bitch of a time doing this Mod thing. I'm ready to go back to the clothes that are outside fashion. It's such a relief to get to the end of retro florals. I'm putting my foot down, and I'm not going to do it anymore." Johnson said her fall show will be a return to her characteristic feminine, body-conscious styles with plenty of flounces, nipped waists, thrift-shop influences, puffed sleeves and "the Brigitte Bardot look." "A classic for me means the drop-yoke cotton and Lycra ballerina skirt I did in 1978," she said. "I think it's great when fashion gets deadly boring, because it can't stay that way for long. Shifts have been out there long enough. Everybody has two or three in their closet, and now they want something different." Not everyone. For a few who have always done it--Donna, Calvin, Michael Kors and others--perfect simplicity remains the elusive goal. "It's not for every woman," said Kors. "It's for the sophisticated, confident women. She knows beautiful fabrics and beautiful cutting. We ask ourselves all the time, 'Is the fabric right, is the proportion right?' Every seam counts, each button has to be perfect. The whole design has to sing."
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