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Two years ago, Stella Ishii visited the Dia:Beacon art museum in upstate New York with a close friend, designer Rozae Nichols. “We saw [the work of] this conceptual artist Fred Sandback,” recalls Ishii, president and founder of The News Inc., a downtown Manhattan showroom for young designers. “There’s a beautiful piece there where he defines space with thread.” Something about those string sculptures, set against a spare, white-walled room, ultimately stuck.

This story first appeared in the November 9, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Fast-forward to spring 2010. Sandback has become the unlikely first muse behind a new contemporary collection launched by Ishii and Nichols, dubbed Ian. Look closely at the simple shirts and sheath dresses, for instance; there are subtle, stray lines tracing from front to back and side to side, reminiscent of Sandback’s work. “The world of conceptual and minimalist art is a really strong comfort zone for me,” explains Nichols. “It will continue to be a strong point of reference for the collection.”

Contemporary art also lies at the root of the co-founders’ relationship. Ishii is married to an artist; Nichols, to an art director. The two were introduced nearly two decades ago by Los Angeles gallerist Marc Foxx. “[Foxx] wanted me to see [Ishii’s husband’s] work,” says the Los Angeles-based Nichols. “I got a [mixed media piece] of his that day. We have been friends as two couples, sharing a dialogue of all the things we love in art and architecture, for all these years.”

And though the friends have long discussed working together, Ian is actually their first collaboration. As for the unusual moniker, it comes from Nichols’ husband, Ian Murrough — and interestingly enough, came at the suggestion of Ishii. Of course, it wasn’t exactly a hard sell for Nichols. “It’s such a beautiful, concise little graphic and word,” she says. “And I certainly didn’t want any more collections with my name on it.” (The designer’s other labels include the craftsy Rozae Nichols line and its contemporary counterpart, Rozae by Rozae Nichols.)

Priced from $100 to $250, wholesale, and picked up by Barneys New York, Opening Ceremony, Ikram in Chicago and Joan Shepp in Philadelphia, Ian channels a strong minimalist attitude. Nichols even uses the word “spartan” to describe its pared-down sensibility.

“We’ve been in fashion overdrive these last several years,” she says. “Stella and I believed that customers are ready to embrace clean and more streamlined clothing.” All of which, for the two fashion veterans, suggested a return to classics. “We wanted to make the line about our favorite things,” adds Ishii. “What’s your perfect jacket? The perfect dress? The perfect slip?”

The collection’s appeal is ultimately in the elegant twists and tweaks to those familiar items. Cardigans, for example, come backed in chiffon, while louche jackets are cut long at the hip. Embellishments are kept pretty spare — whether those Sandback lines, geometric honeycomb cutouts or simple netting effects inspired by cardboard packing material. Still, for all that visual intrigue, there’s nothing tricky about the collection, which focuses on a palette of mostly blacks, whites and powder blues. “The line carries a sense of effortlessness, both in cut and weight,” says Nichols. “There’s nothing overwhelming about any one of these garments. It’s a completely reductive and simple point of view.”

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