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The Complexity of Simplicity: Aesthetic Culture

The Complexity of Simplicity: Aesthetic Culture

Basic, simple, minimal, elegant—behind these catalogue descriptors is a culture in retreat. Too many choices, too much opportunity, too much pressure to create individuality through style has led to a trend of minimalist fashion. Marni Chan takes apart the stark aesthetics of contemporary dress to reveal the social discomfort born from abundance.

By Marni Chan

In 2003, science-fiction writer William Gibson wrote the novel “Pattern Recognition” around a “coolhunter” fashion, branding and pop-culture consultant Cayce Pollard. The 32-year-old Cayce works as a human litmus test for corporate logos— viscerally approving or rejecting proposed branded symbols—with perfect market accuracy precisely because she abhors them. She also cultivates highly sought-after and lucrative trend reports on everything from street style to music. In terms of wardrobe, Cayce wears the neutral-color palette and classic-lined pieces that, 12 years later, read like the mission statement of today’s most trending apparel brands.

Gibson describes her dress as “CPUs. Cayce Pollard Units … CPUs are either black, white, or gray, and ideally seem to have come into this world without human intervention. What people take for relentless minimalism is a side effect of too much exposure to the reactor-cores of fashion. This has resulted in a remorseless paring down of what she can and will wear. She is, literally, allergic to fashion. She can tolerate things that could have been worn, to a general lack of comment, during any year between 1945 and 2000. She’s a design-free zone, a one-woman school of anti whose very austerity periodically threatens to spawn its own cult.”

Since 2002, with the rapid ascent of highly edited, “luxury essentials” fashion brand VINCE, the enduring popularity of normcore style (androgynous, anonymous, purposely undistinguished), American Apparel’s assembly-line starkness and the new Gap “Dress Normal” ad campaign, the cult of minimalism has spawned real-life devotees from high-fashion houses to big-box brands. Across all social strata, sensitivity to trend-based styles has become a trend in itself.

For some, minimalism is a natural mode of self-preservation. But the popularity of this trend reveals that it’s also highly strategic. Presenting yourself as a blank canvas is, like all fashion choices, a carefully and intentionally designed construct. In an increasingly curatorial culture, where cultivating lifestyle elements pulled from every time period and any corner of the world is a constant imperative, wearing a uniform of unimpeachable and unobjectionable “units” is the last universally accepted indicator of good taste. Because if picking and choosing for yourself is the height of cool, appearing to follow what Gibson calls “the semiotics of the marketplace,” destroys credibility.

But what happens when the market catches up to this social code? Abundant thought pieces wondering “Are You Basic?” describe those who unapologetically embrace mass-marketed style, and (intentionally or not) reveal that being basic is actually the easiest way to exist. Ironically, the complicated way we’ve envisioned simplicity in the new millennium—a studied aversion to branding, visible labels and affiliation with temporal trends—is becoming the new market default. It’s a triumph of anti-basic basic that’s actually anything but.

This essay originally appeared in the Minimalism issue. For more stories dealing with minimalism, check out Women’s Bodies: Apples & Pears Are Not the Only Fruit and Waste Not Want Not.