Minimalism vs. Maximalism: The Battle Lines are Drawn (or are they?)

Thom Browne Fall 2019 Ready-to-Wear
All photos

There are two distinct camps in fashion; those who believe “less is more” and those who think “more is more.” The Row, Narciso Rodriguez, Jil Sander, Joseph are among the labels synonymous with pared-down minimalism. Gucci’s Alessandro Michele and Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing hold the torch for maximalism.

That being said, the battle lines are not completely drawn. While there are designers who are known for their unwavering commitment to one over the other, more often than not, they waver between the two; sometimes going back and forth within the same collection. Even the most minimal might sometimes ‘resort’ to whimsical flights of fancy and vice versa.

If you look at the list of this year’s CFDA award nominees, it seems almost equally divided between those who embrace minimalism and those who identify with maximalism. The same can be said about the honorees. Eileen Fisher, this year’s Positive Change Award recipient, could not be more spare and minimal both personally and with regards to her label. Carine Roitfeld, who is receiving the Founder’s Award, is the epitome of Parisian chic; “je ne sais pas quois” unforced glamour incarnate.

On the flip side of the coin is Eugenia Sheppard Media Award Honoree Lynn Yaeger, known for her out-there highly eccentric style predicated on piled on tulle petticoats, Comme des Garcons frock dresses, vintage jewelry, and her identifiable red bob and kewpie doll cheeks. There’s nothing minimal about Bob Mackie’s sexy, sequined, colorful iconic designs which garnered him the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Award. Or J.Lo’s unabashed exuberance, which afforded her this year’s Style Icon Award. Also, I would hardly label Sarah Burton’s magical designs for Alexander McQueen as minimalist. The British designer is the recipient of this year’s International Award.

Minimal and Maximal are not only two words that are constantly bantered around in fashion; they are the title of a new exhibition at The Museum at FIT which opened this week and runs through November 16th. Organized by Melisssa Marra-Alvarez, curator of education and research at The Museum at FIT, this is the first exhibition devoted to the historical interplay of minimalist and maximalist aesthetics as expressed through high fashion beginning in the eighteenth century up to the present.

To best illustrate that there are (at the very least) two different ways of looking at everything in fashion, I selected one item from the recent runways and showed the minimal, stripped down version alongside its maximal, more decorative, highly embellished, form.

The pleated skirt
Left: Joseph & Right: Junya Watanabe

The Pleated Skirt

Left: Celine & Right: Gucci

The Fisherman Knit

Left: Jil Sander & Right: Burberry

The Trench Coat

Left: Saint Laurent & Right: Alexander McQueen

The Little Black Dress

Left: Joseph & Right: Christian Dior

The Cotton Duster

Left: Saint Laurent & Right: Gucci

The Fur Stole

Left: Celine & Right: Junya Watanabe

The Camel Coat

Left: Azzedine Alaia & Right: Balmain


Left: Azzedine Alaia & Right: Balmain

The Black Leather Jacket

Left: Marc Jacobs & Right: Gucci


Left: Cushnie & Right: Marchesa

The Wedding Dress

Minimalism or maximalism: what side are you on? It’s a matter of personal preference and one is not inherently better or more viable than the other. It’s all subjective. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a personal preference. I credit the new Halston documentary with gifting me with a renewed appreciation for the modernity of pure lines and simplicity. But, who wants a steady diet of just one thing? There’s a time and place for everything and the changes and surprises are what make fashion, and life, so interesting!

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

  1. I enjoy and respect the intelligent, knowledgeable and sophisticated depth of your fashion writings and presentations. I was a couture designer for hundreds of international clients for 35 years. Thousands of garments were produced under my direction in my studio of seamstresses and cutters that I trained. Would it be possible to meet and visit with
    you when I’m in New York in late June? Mary Anne Vaccaro Just google Mary Anne Vaccaro Fashion Designer

  2. Dear Marilyn,
    I am proud to
    Say you have covered me
    For years and I love your #lookonlme
    I will be at the CFDA awards on Monday wear #Pyermoss by Kerby Jean Raymond who is us for best men’s wear award. He began working with me at age 14, always talented and Built a brand that is inclusive and deeply socially cincious.
    My look for once will
    Be very minimal
    Especially for me a nice change see you there @kayungerdesign

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