Meet the Diverse Designers Rewriting the Rules of Minimalist Fashion
Words by Eyram Rafael
One of the oldest aesthetics and design principles in fashion, minimalism — by definition – is fashion that uses reductionism to create pieces often characterized by understated fabrics and colors, simpler structures, and clean cuts offering people closet staples with versatile styling options. While minimalist fashion continues to have a moment beyond the trend cycles, the “clean and pared-back” aesthetic has long been best saved for mostly Caucasian-identifying designers, and artists. The conversation starts with Calvin Klein, Jil Sander, Prada, old Céline and special mentions Issey Miyake, and Rei Kawakubo who championed the aesthetic in the early 1980s and 1990s.
The Olsen twins’ label The Row, Peter Do, and former Céline designer Phoebe Philo are often named as the faces rewriting the rule book of minimalist fashion. But what of the Black creatives and designers of color who are leading the charge and breathing life back into the stripped-back aesthetic?
Often, the style of people of color is reduced to a common aesthetic. Take Africa for example. Images of Ankara prints, tribal embroideries, or even loud vibrant colors may come to mind when discussing African fashion as these are the pieces that are synonymous with the region. In Latin America, the narrative is quite similar, where vibrant colors, intricate patterns, floral or fruity elements, and flowing silhouettes are the hackneyed style outlook. Asian style remains bound by draped sari-style clichés and patterns of elephants, peacocks, and tigers. A minimalist aesthetic is definitely not a direct style associated with these various regions.
Yet, modern indigenous designers across Africa, Latin America, and Asia are making clothes that transcend cookie-cutter representations of fashion in their regions while still maintaining elements of their culture. While this new easygoing elegance is a nod to the pioneering minimalist framework, these designers are adding that extra layer of culture and traditions to their designs. As a result, they are crafting pieces that transcend the over-generalized fashion outlook of their regions while injecting new energy into the language of minimalism.
Ghanaian-based designer, Travis Obeng-Casper started his label Ajabeng back in 2020. For his debut collection “Feiz One”, he presented a gamut of clean-cut pieces with laid-back sensibilities. Sharply tailored shirts with fabric-covered buttons were paired with free-flowing pants tailored just so; key colors were sandy beiges, rich cocoa browns, and ash.
For Obeng-Casper, minimalism goes beyond slapping black and white on every design. It is about details and honing in on things that matter. “Minimalism, to me, involves paying attention to the things you have around you and continuing to focus on the things that truly matter” he says.
Paying attention to things that matter has guided Obeng-Casper in his work as a designer for the last two years. His brand, which he describes as an “Afro-minimalist label” zooms in on culture and contemporary art to create classic high-impact pieces.
Ajabeng’s Afro-minimalism aesthetic is inspired by “the sights and sounds of everyday Africa”, in contrast to the popular Scandi pine woods, brushed metal, and neutral tones typically associated with minimalism. The mood board for his latest collection features everything from archival images of distant relatives clad in chic ensembles, matcha-green components, artworks, and other images captured by veteran photographers. Worn by the likes of musician Jidenna, Ajabeng’s pieces continue to add an extra touch of culture and history to the genre of minimalist African fashion.
Then, there is Puerto Rican designer Mónica Santos Gil, whose eponymous label, Santos by Mónica, combines sustainability and minimalist design to create one-of-a-kind pieces.
After witnessing the impact of fast fashion on the environment, Santos quit her job at Coach to start her own vegan leather fashion brand. Creating everything from insanely chic bags out of cactus leather and pieces rendered in eucalyptus Lyocell and cotton-blend fabrics, Santos challenges the common notions of sustainable fashion and Latin American style.
Like Obeng-Casper, Santos is equally inspired by simple things. “I’m very inspired by simple forms and finding ways in which those shapes can inform the entire design of a specific product I’m working on,” she says in an interview with NoKill Magazine. “For example, with something as simple as a circle, I will design the bag, the pocket and the opening, as well as the graphics behind the collection’s campaign. What I love about this is how elements such as a simple curve can create something that feels very elegant and fresh.” she adds.
Santos’ aesthetic and approach to design demonstrate that a sustainably produced fashion item can be as aesthetically pleasing, desirable, and opulent as other conventional “classic” pieces with unadorned and practical geometric designs that evoke the pared-back appeal of some of the well-known minimalist brands.
Take the brand’s latest collection of handbags, which are rendered in black and white crescent-like shapes as well as glossy triangular totes in hues of yellow, blue, and green. The clothing is uber versatile, modern closet players with angular silhouettes, cut-out details, and statement collars.
In Asia, the new minimalism wave is very much evident in the works of Indian designer Shirin Mann. Her label, Sand by Shirin builds upon India’s rich history of the Khadi fabric and minimalism through structured earth-toned jumpsuits, sculptural tops, and embellished bandeaus.
Since 2021, fluid cuts, and clean lines have been central to Sand’s brand ethos. The label’s expert manipulation of fabrics gives Indian craftsmanship an entirely different meaning to what is mainstream. Here, sage-green fluid jumpsuits with luxe hand-embroidered corset tops, dusty pink sheer linen dresses, and sand-hued playsuits embody this vision of minimalist fashion combined with Indian sensibilities.
By presenting minimalist elements through a different, cultural lens, these designers of diverse backgrounds are bringing the world of “less is more” into a new dawn. “The simple things are always beautiful so I am excited to see more designers of color like myself take on minimalism,” Obeng-Casper says. “It was never for white people only, so seeing it translated through different cultural viewpoints would never cease to intrigue me.”