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  • Writer's pictureFashion and Retail Association

90's Minimalism: Back to Basics

Updated: Mar 22, 2022

By: Emily Ho

“Less is more.” This could not ring more true when talking about 90s minimalism. All of nineties fashion was unbothered and low maintenance, which distinctly separates it from previous fashion decades. In my opinion, minimalism stands out because of its long-lasting and powerful influence - it’s essentially timeless. Hints of 90s influence can be spotted almost anywhere, on your feed and IRL. Lily Rose Depp, Zoe Kravitz or Matilda Djerf’s style might immediately come to mind, as each woman incorporates well-fitting, flattering pieces into their outfits, which is reminiscent of 90s minimalism. Many gravitate towards this style due to its dependability and effortless, chic look.

Nevertheless, in the most recent years, minimalism with regards to fashion has often been misunderstood. Some think of this style solely as being an Instagram feed aesthetic or associate it with ‘trying too hard’ or being boring and basic. However, true minimalism is about elongation and proportionality, requiring you to know your figure and dress to flatter it. Minimalism is also about aura. Think of all the famous photos of 90s celebrities and supermodels dressed in this style. The mood of the photo and the person’s features are always the most memorable. The simpleness of the clothing allows for more attention on your character, attitude, and physique. You are wearing the clothes; the clothes are not wearing you.

With its rich, iconic history and pervasive influence, we will cover the origins of minimalism in fashion, those who shaped this phenomenon, and inspiration for incorporating this style into your wardrobe.

Origin of 90s minimalism

Stepping away from the excess and glamour of the 80s, 90s fashion focused on toned down hues, simple but flattering lines, and innovative textiles such as nylon. 90s minimalism was very cognizant of the body, concentrating on highlighting your silhouette, drawing the eye vertically up and down. In the 80s, it was pretty obvious if someone was wearing something expensive and high fashion as the “in-your-face” type of luxury was in. However, luxury in the 90s looked different. Minimalism was a sense of luxury that could only really be viewed as such by those who understood fashion. People also turned to simple wardrobes in this decade because it was beginning to be considered tacky to flash your wealth with your fashion choices. 90s minimalism also helped to re-popularize the ‘capsule wardrobe’, which promoted versatility and supported the “busy working woman.”

The Designers and those who sparked this phenomenon

Calvin Klein, Donna Karan (DKNY), Helmut Lang, and Jil Sander are the designers that helped to pioneer minimalism in the 90s. These designers, while having distinctive aesthetics, all share the common theme of simplicity.

Calvin Klein promoted a no-nonsense fashion style that was defined as “American casual style” in its time. Klein played a major role in bringing back basic, linear style, designing lingerie, denim, cotton T-shirts, and slip dresses. Calvin Klein is one of those brands that is easily associated with 90s fashion and timeless basics.

Donna Karan created her functional “7 Easy Pieces” for those who wanted a capsule, no-fussy wardrobe. She was the queen of basics.

Helmut Lang embodied 90s minimalism on the runway – models walking makeup-free, wearing flat shoes.

Jil Sander opened and ended minimalism. She stuck to her roots and designed clothes for selective, ambitious working women.

90s minimalism was also made memorable and iconic due to the people associated with it. The 90s gave birth to the model-off duty and streetstyle looks as supermodels and celebrities were more regularly captured in their everyday casual clothes. Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Anniston, Naomi Campbell, Julia Roberts, Cindy Crawford, and of course Kate Moss – all powerful 90s muses – are some of the most recognizable figures from this decade.

To Achieve This Look – The Essential Pieces

The key to achieving the 90s minimalist look is to dress to your silhouette, keeping it straight and streamlined. Shopping for minimalist pieces is a practical choice as these purchases simply won’t date. These buys are smart investments that transcend seasonality. Essential clothing pieces include slip dresses and skirts, form-fitting tanks, straight-legged pants and jeans, leather blazers, oversized boxy blazers, mid-calf length skirts, and thin ribbed knitwear. To accessorize, try matrix/oval sunglasses, subtle jewelry, and a baguette bag. For footwear, great selections include heeled black boots, kitten heels, black loafers, and white sneakers. Whether you dress completely in the minimalistic aesthetic or integrate specific minimalist inspired pieces, I think the most important takeaway from this style is dressing to your proportions and understanding your physique.

Modern Designers w/ 90s influence

90s influence can be seen in so many collections and brands today – taken either directly or used as a foundation to their pieces. Listed below are 12 designers who incorporate 90s minimalism to the tee:

1. The Row

2. Bottega Venetta

3. COS

4. Theory

5. Vince

6. Max Mara

7. Ralph Lauren

8. Olivia Hurts Designs

9. Susa musa

10. Tankair

11. Aya muse

12. Frankie shop

*On a cheaper note: If you want to mix 90s minimalism into your wardrobe, I highly recommend thrifting pieces directly from 90s brands (such as DKNY and Calvin Klein) because you get the authentic design and amazing fit. Try searching these brands on Poshmark, Depop, ThredUp, etc., or look out for them in-stores.

Concluding thoughts: Minimalism is forever

To me, minimalism is not trendy or a trend, it simply is a foundational pillar in fashion, forever present and seen. I personally love everything about 90s minimalism in particular. The mood, designers, runway, creative direction, and clothes always land for me. It’s fun to take inspiration from this period in fashion, whether that’s buying inspired pieces or trying to recreate the same vibe. Although I don’t consider my style to be minimalistic, minimalism does influence the way I select the fit of my clothing and can be seen in my wardrobe with those staple pieces. Every closet needs these types of pieces because as they say, “when you feel as though you have nothing to wear, you can always go back to the basics.”

P.S. Check out @90sanxiety on instagram for some more inspo and don't forget to send us your 90's inspired outfits for a feature!

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