What Happened to "Scandinavian Minimalism" Anyways?
What Happened to "Scandinavian Minimalism" Anyways?
- Words Andrew Craig
- Date August 1, 2018
Four pairs of sneakers are lined up, all nearly identical at first glance: Paul Smith Levon trainers, Reebok Club C 85s and two pairs of Common Projects—the Bball Low and the inimitable Achilles low. All clean white, photographed in a neat row against a white sweep. "Spring and Summer sneakers," the Instagram caption says. Most people would pick one. To @ScandinavianCloset, its 24 thousand followers and all other observers of a certain kind of Nordic-inspired minimalism, the differences are stratospheric; of course the leather panels on the Bball low separate them enough from the clean lines of the pared-down Achilles to make both indispensable. When your outfit is reduced to the absolute basics, you tend to notice the small things.
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Common Projects' Achilles, one of the most indelible pieces from the past 10 years of popular menswear launched its first collection in 2004. The design wasn't particularly groundbreaking, but the buttery-soft leather (made by an Italian factory that had been producing dress shoes for over a century) and a lower, cleaner, more classed-up profile put them in a different world than the cheap tennis sneakers they were inspired by. “Everyone was interested right off the bat,” co-founder Peter Poopat told Business of Fashion, citing how demand for the product doubled every season.
While Common Projects certainly didn't invent the concept of minimalism in menswear, and broader cultural trends were also at play (the stratospheric ascent of Apple's stripped-down design and branding in the '00s, to name just a single reference point), the Achilles seemed to be the spark (or, at least, a spark) of a larger movement. Clean leather sneakers began to grow in popularity alongside a new kind of pared-down aesthetic in popular menswear: unbranded raw indigo denim, solid crewneck sweaters or knits, solid oxford shirts, and unremarkable accessories like solid baseball caps and tote bags. Brands like A.P.C., Common Projects, Our Legacy, Stutterheim, Uniqlo, COS and Acne Studios became the new guard of a look that valued simplicity and versatility.
At the same time, interest in Scandinavian thinking—in clothing, furniture, flatware, interiors, and vocabulary—was growing. "Copenhagen, as a city, has become incredibly zeitgeist-y," Bruce Pask—Men's Fashion Director of Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus—told Dry Clean Only. "When Noma made it on the map, Copenhagen immediately became more of a destination for people not only eating there, but looking into the stores and observing how people dress." As general cultural interest in Scandinavia (Copenhagen in particular) grew in tandem with a new breed of minimal menswear, the two began to blend together. "It's very utilitarian by nature. It's cold up there, and they dress for it. There's a necessary simplicity to it," Pask explained, "and a uniform nature to what they wear. There's a pared-down aesthetic that's born out of necessity, but has more of a life beyond that because the aesthetic is so appealing."
That spurred the soaring popularity of outfits like you'll find on @ScandinavianCloset and similar accounts—@MinimalBeast, @NordicStyle, @FredrikRisvik and @MinimalWithMe, to name a few. The focus is on simplicity, obviously, but with specific signifiers: lots of white. Few logos appear, with the exception for status signifiers like a Comme des Garçons heart, the gold numbering on a pair of Common Projects or an Acne standard face. Clean denim is seen in simple shades of indigo, sometimes dark and raw, but sometimes washed with an even fading. "When I think of [the Scandinavian minimalist] look in particular," says Derek Guy, fashion writer and author of Die, Workwear!, "I think of boxy T-shirts, washed jeans, block colors, chinos, Chelsea boots, thin wire-frame eyewear, long topcoats, plain-colored sweatshirts, papery cotton fabrics, drapey wool." Almost always, it's photographed against clean white backdrops or in perfectly clean and colorless interiors. It's an aesthetic that's clearly distinctive—despite being pared-down and similar in concept to a much more ubiquitous and generic way of dressing, it's the kind of thing that you can notice right away.
Though it's thought of as a specifically Scandinavian minimalism, the real provenance of the style is hazy and multi-faceted. Minimalism in fashion existed, obviously, long before Common Projects sneakers and Acne sweatshirts, from multiple reference points and with all kinds of varying execution. "There's that kind of '80s emphasis on proportion that Yohji [Yamamoto] and Rei [Kawakubo] really championed," says Pask. Speaking to Dry Clean Only, Guy adds that, "there were elements of Helmut Lang that fit into this in the '90s. Calvin Klein and Donna Karan were also minimalists, and it's probably not so clear how some of their designs differ from these Scandinavian brands."
On that note, too, there's something of a disconnect: Not all (or even many) of the brands associated with the aesthetic hail from Scandinavia. Common Projects is an American company with Italian production. A.P.C. is French (extremely so). Comme des Garçons PLAY is Japanese, as is Uniqlo. Maison Kitsuné, also French, appears in Scandinavian style Instagram shots just as often as anything from Denmark or Sweden. It's less of a specific point of origin, and more an ‘idea’; a concept of what hip, young twenty-somethings in Copenhagen, filtered through a global menswear consciousness. "The idea or dream of it has been a source of inspiration to people all over the world," Simon Hogeman told Dry Clean Only. Hogeman is co-founder and buyer of Très Bien, the small but powerfully influential menswear shop based in Malmö, Sweden. "Though over here, I don’t think people generally think that much about it. It’s the standard mode of life."
Despite that vagueness of how it's unique from other forms of minimalist style and how, exactly, it's Scandinavian, the aesthetic developed its own particular identity alongside the sweeping cultural interest in Nordic design and sensibility. It grew from a niche interest to a sweeping menswear trend throughout the late-'00s and early-'10s, cementing itself as a style not just in style blog and fashion editor crowds, but among a mainstream audience as well. Dark and slim denim, simple leather sneakers, pale grey crewneck sweatshirts, and the like began to replace bigger, brighter, stonewashed designs of the skate and sportswear-influence that drove much of the previous era until the aesthetic, alongside a cultural obsession with Scandinavia in general, were inescapable.
"Everything is a reaction to what you have had, what you currently have, and what feels new again," said designer John Elliott. Elliott’s breakout early collections in 2012 and 2013 shared, in a way, the kind of Scandinavian minimalist sentiment and were always styled with Achilles Lows. "For us," he tells Dry Clean Only, "that super clean, super tailored look was a reaction to the sneaker world, post-Dunks."
In 2018, though, the landscape has shifted. Slowly but surely, the simple and sleek brand of Scandinavian minimalism started to give way to a louder and looser form of menswear throughout the mid-2010s to now, with Balenciaga's Triple S sneaker (and its associated aesthetic) replacing Common Projects as the cutting edge of cool among fashion obsessives. Meanwhile, the scaled-back look bled fully into the mass market, causing the aesthetic to feel both dated and commonplace. Common Projects knockoffs became ubiquitous, slim raw selvedge denim and simple knits were available at every men's shop, and the trappings of Danish design felt omnipresent—in restaurants, home décor and beyond.
In a time when frayed-hem jeans, glitter-coated Converse, trippy oversized T-shirts, logo maximalism dominate the style airwaves, Scandinavian minimalist style and carefully-staged photos of clean white sneakers, a copy of Kinfolk and a succulent on a white marble coffee table might feel somewhat tired. So whether it's overexposure, a natural trend cycle or the insatiable appetite for newness among the online fashion echo chamber, the ‘Scandinavian look’ has fallen to the back-burner of what's considered cool to those with their finger on the pulse of popular menswear.
To an extent, you might say that's a good thing—having the curiosity and confidence to break beyond current trends is what drives culture forward, and the feeling of newness in the current landscape after years of pared-down designs and simple, dark denim is refreshing.
For his part, John Elliott (the brand) is branching subtly into bolder, louder, more retro territory with it designs and styling—exemplified best, perhaps, by its Air Monarch collaboration with Nike. There can be a tendency to go to far, though, and Elliott (the man) notes that "I think people might look back on this era and think, 'I got a little too turbo with this.' That's where you get into the danger zone. I don't think it's hit full-tilt yet, but it's getting close." He sees the modern maximalist sensibilities in his own brand as not a full-tilt brand direction, but simply a modern frame. "We still play in that minimalistic vibe, but now the thing is to show a little more range. Though it's more a reflection of, 'It can be worn this way, too.'"
In the present moment—James Harden wearing head-to-toe floral-print Gucci and sequined pink Comme des Garçons Homme Plus shorts in GQ Style; Balenciaga inspiring a wave of unapologetically clunky and multi-layered sneakers; the full-blown return of oversized, pleated and blown-out fits—Scandinavian minimalism can seem like a relic of a past era in menswear. Spend a day browsing through magazines and blogs and you'll feel the disconnect. Bright, bold and aggressive is in. Don't settle for that boring pair of all-white leather sneakers, the sentiment seems to be— take a swing on some Off-White Nikes or J.W. Anderson Converses instead. That world certainly exists, and drives a lot of present thinking in the high-concept fashion world and its devotees.
Though, as Guy says, "I feel like a lot of the stuff we talk about on the internet is just for memes and internet jokes. Day to day, well dressed people aren't walking around in Raf Simons ‘I [Heart] NY’ sweaters, Triple S sneakers, and Vetements outerwear." The Scandinavian style may not get as much online play in the current day, he says, "but it's basic and simple, doesn't draw too much attention, and when worn well, can look pretty great." Plus it is by no means incompatible with more modern trend sensibilities. "It doesn't have to be slim jeans with a sweatshirt and Common Projects. I've seen guys wear slim washed jeans, oversized tees or sweatshirts, a really rounded bomber or long topcoat. Sometimes pastels like soft pinks or powdery blues." Mixing minimalism with maximalism isn’t just something most can pull off without any major effort, that blending of styles is—in and of itself—thoroughly modern.
Pask sees a kind of minimalism back on the rise, too. "We've been in a very street style-focus, logo-driven kind of world for a very long time," he says. “I think that's not going away. It's a vital component of the fashion landscape. But with that comes a growing interest in the other, more minimal and subtle and design-focused."
So if you want to go all-in on a Vetements hoodie and some super oversized pants, or wild electric colors and prints, or whatever feels right to you, then by all means, go for it. We're living in an era where it's not only accepted but encouraged, and that can be a very empowering thing. But trends in menswear rarely ever go away fully—they just shrink, only to expand again sometime later; the present maximalist feeling is more of an expansion of one option than a contraction of others.
In other words: even if you’re rocking a pair of Triple S, you might still want to hold onto that pair of Achilles you still have in your closet.