BY Collier Schorr in Profiles | 11 NOV 98
Featured in
Issue 43

Why Has Fashion Gone Minimal?

The industry’s appropriations of minimalist aesthetics offer a vision of social isolation

BY Collier Schorr in Profiles | 11 NOV 98

For a time, fashion loved ornament: visual condiments like bangles, brocaded throw-pillows, beads, patterns recalling the Orientalist smorgasbord of Huysmans' Against Nature (1884). Later, accessories were soda cans, ashtrays and ripped things. Suddenly, however, the room has been swept clean, all tracks erased. The question is: why is the room so empty and white?

Calvin Klein can be used as a timeline. The empty (beige) room was where Brooke Shields first modelled his jeans. (Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.) One could argue that Shields' radiant face with its dewy, jail-bait glow and hormonally rampant eyebrows was an ornament, but emptiness abounds; even the white panties are absent. The seamless background is all Avedon, but the emptiness has become vintage Klein.

Soon after this campaign, Klein himself posed in a whitewashed New Mexico-style house that could have been Georgia O'Keefe's. This was way before he opened his white and empty-looking John Pawson flagship store on Madison Avenue. His white clothes made his Jewishness seem like a tan and his dubious good looks shone against bone and bleached floors; Gatsby in Taos. Partnerless desire led the way to magnificent simulations of union. It was the first TV spot for Eternity, (Is it you touching me or me touching you?) that jumbled together androgyny, masturbation and throw pillows. The image of a hand that knows-not-where-it-roams, in a harem-like den, was titillating, but too 70s too soon after the fact to be iconic or even ironic.

Peter Lindburgh's image of Eternity soon switched to Jürgen Teller's Christy Turlington adrift with a man and a child; sometimes on a boat, an island, sometimes a beach. The family is the thing. The landscape is basically empty so that the family is protected; almost as if it were a species being maintained in a reserve. The empty room is the natural progression of the wrecked room, where skinny models with lank hair were all too convincing as smack heads and speeders. Corinne Day - who snuck in undesigner clothes and unlikely models - in particular, made rooms that if not cluttered, were peeling at the seams. Like the best pornography, this type of campaign was lauded for its realism and condemned for its existence. But heroin-chic, even as it occurred in its waning moments in the Avedonesque white space in CK1, was too easy to blast. Vincent Gallo was just too convincing.

What to do when the whole world scolds the fashion world? Relocate. Where? To the monolithic monument. To the white empty room, where skin texture is no longer porcelain or greased up, but finished in eggshell white. We have shifted out of the colour and abandon of the early 90s that was way too real, into the asylum of Miesian architecture that quite plainly advertises the artifice and unreality of fashion. Young Hollywood, which has appeared on the covers of fashion magazines for some time now, loves Richard Neutra's houses. The new black may be grey, but the most important accessory is without doubt the Nelson bench.

Jil Sander's padded white dress is nothing if not a wrapping made out of a Sol LeWitt grid. We don't know what the future will bring, says Sander, but apparently it should include a Donald Judd chair (part of Klein's personal collection used as a set dressing for his Fall Collection). The Robert Mandal house in the new Calvin Klein catalogue shot by Steven Meisel is so neutral and pulseless that Christy Turlington and Kate Moss look like twins within it. This is quite a feat. It acts as a barricade behind which fashion is impenetrable. Nothing is extreme except the lighting and the concrete edge. The clothing is soft and woollen; pale greys, black scoop necks, a bit of leather, all in scrupulous good taste. Kate and Christy sit or lie stiffly on chairs next to male companions who resemble Vermeer's ladies in waiting.

Like the models in Wallpaper, who wear clothes to adorn the furniture, they blend into a lifeless style; the antithesis of every previous Calvin Klein campaign from the homo-hetero country outings in the late 80s to the be anything floating parties of CK1. What began as a clever idea on the part of Wallpaper to elevate the sexiness of furniture, to animate a dinette set, becomes a way to de-animate a fashion photography that has become too life-like. Perhaps we are safest when fashion asserts itself as unreal. When it is presented high up on a shelf, dust- and gland-free, it can be admired as fake, beautiful and faraway. Fashion is at its most dangerous and potent when it pretends to be just like us, because it's easy to want to be just like it. Now scolded, taken seriously for the first time, it is hiding its smoulder beneath the glare of the white room.

For Prada, shoes and ankles are the focus. A bent body recalls the contradictory-looking plastic Eames lounge chair. The claustrophobia of chaste takes its toll in men's Prada where a window is just another shade of white. In this vacuum-packed viewing room a stunning top coat breaks at the arms, revealing the slightest shudder. In the CK1 spots, the models' black clothes were used to contrast with, or aggress, the white (society) box or cube, not unlike the cigarette smell and burnt-out car used by Sarah Lucas to make her latest mark in a Chelsea gallery.

In the new white house, models peer out of the windows like widows looking out to sea, but the sea is just a stretch of lawn with a paved path running through it. This is the suburbia of Bedford NY, dressed up as the New Canaan, Connecticut of Ang Lee's Ice Storm: not an eerie suburb, but a richly apportioned expanse where neighbours can slip unnoticed into one another's homes. In the white house, Turlington and Moss simply have nothing to say. Perhaps the echo would be too great. Without their G&Ts they'd be unable to respond to the swing lingo their house suggests. One man holds a drink that he will clearly never taste: there is the intention that action should be erased. The figures are really just vases or extended chrome floor-lamps. The use-value of the house as a home is gone, the structure seemingly deracinated, lifted into a photographer's studio. The house feels less like a location than a stunning prop. White as a metaphor for goodness, cleanliness and erasure even travels as far as the make-up on model Maggie Rizer for MaxMara. The white line under her eyes threatens to pick up the white background and sweep over her irises. The effect makes her appear as if she were made of plastic - not a new idea in fashion, but a switch from bare arms that look suspiciously scratched up.

Rizer appears again, in another surreal space, in Yohji Yamamoto's Autumn 1998 catalogue. Shot by Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, the popular (undoubtedly because her pale skin and slight features are perfect for projecting ice and lifelessness) model is 'indoors' in an outdoor space. Here, we almost have a spoof on the recent trend of white furniture. Cut-outs of beds, tables and chairs, as simplistic as Perriand and Corbusier's student's room are set into the lawn. The house is so minimised as to have lost its very walls and foundation. In a sense, fashion advertising has moved into the protective bunker of Minimalism.

As with Minimalism, these new fashion backdrops are part of a carefully controlled world where there are no variables to go unaccounted for. No piece of the model's real life edges into the picture, collaborating with photographer and art director, competing with the clothes. The move from greasy make-up, which denoted sex and sweat and movement, to a low-sheen, with accents on the cheekbones and forehead, is a shift from performer to notaligic mannequin. This shift is as radical a turnaround as the editorial overhaul at Gentlemen's Quarterly in the early 80s, when homoerotic spreads were replaced by heterosexual couplings to shake off the faggy reputation of men's fashion and its models.

Over the last 15 years or so Minimalism has become a comfortable space, a good investment. That it now looks dated is in its favour. So ungenerous in its formal motivations, it appears almost innocent, a bit naive. Uncluttered by metaphor, it is the stately mansion of art, a polished machismo filled with majestic confidence. What better place to lay a dress, a cashmere shawl, a wooden bowl? It reveals nothing about you, which may be the aphrodisiac that fashion (and the gallery) pushes. What these new ads sell is the intense quality of isolation. Sexuality, which really has been overplayed, is halted. While a Judd chair is particularly unsatisfying to the seat, its edge, the intellectual weight it throws around, creates an emotional mask. The ads are selling a kind of Republican boredom and ease, where action, even touch, are eliminated. Or perhaps this is fashion's response to criticism and deconstruction, an intentional withholding of the fantasies it traditionally provides. 

The model has moved from the pose of alienated youth to alien space, uninhabited, theatrical in a Judd-like way. Each model is a perennial passer-by. Prada's women's ads offer two possibilities: the desert, or a white, partitioned room such as one might find in a large office. In one ad a woman might be about to nap, might be examining the weave of a blanket, might be in a kind of hospitalised comatose state, might be blown out in a sea of cocaine. While the clothing may not reflect it, this is surely the Palm Springs of Albert Frey, or of Paul Schrader's American Gigolo, where a modern white house is the scene of highly monitored decadence.

On first impression, the white is the standard of virginity and innocence, but its cavernous echo, the invisibility of its borders, become more menacing; an antiseptic wall that keeps us at bay, partly with our own consent, for who would want to intrude on a space that would leave so many clumsy fingerprints? Fashion at its most elevated is beyond most of us, we are not good enough for it; it is a monument we admire, but in the throes of procrastination, we do nothing but leaf through it. If Rachel Whiteread were to cast the space of Prada, she would truly be left with sublime nothingness, with no proof that she had ever been there at all.

Collier Schorr is an artist and photographer based in New York, USA. Earlier this year, ‘Collier Schorr | Orlando: Guest Curated by Tilda Swinton’ was held at the Aperture Foundation, New York. Her work was also included in ‘303 Gallery: 35 Years’ at 303 Gallery, New York, and a commission of Schorr’s activist portraits, ‘Stonewall at 50’, was shown at Alice Austen House, Staten Island, USA. Schorr’s new publication, Paul’s Book, is published this month by Mack.