The great debate: The difference between Japanese and Scandinavian minimalist style

Minimalism has long been associated with art. But the popular movement of less-is-more, which dates back to the 1960s, has since seeped into various facets of our lives.

Today, “minimalist” is a colloquial term used to describe a vast array of pared-down items — from interior aesthetics and art to beauty and our clothes.

“Modern minimalist style is using pieces and materials that are strong enough to stand alone, unobscured by fussy extras,” explains Jonathon Litchfield, owner of the Vancouver lifestyle boutique Litchfield. “Ultimately, it feels so good to have an element of quiet. We need it. Our lives are full of endless choices, every moment is scheduled and spoken for.”

So, what’s the motivation behind the sartorial side of the trend? Experts believe it may have to do with a blanketing desire to express individuality, in a discreet way.

“Customers nowadays are not looking for something assertive. They are looking for something that is low-key,” Naoki Takizawa, the design director of UNIQLO, says of the movement toward more simple pieces. “By choosing something that is low-key, they can actually express their individuality.”
This inclination to not be overwhelmed by design is a main motivator for the Japanese brand, which has two stores in Canada (both in Toronto), to create wardrobe basics that can best be described as “anonymous”.
“A good basic item is an item that can make the individuality of the wearer stand out,” he explains. “The more assertive the clothes are, the clothes become the main feature. Not the person.”
To stand out in your clothes without making a loud statement is something Takizawa says is intrinsically Japanese — and comes as much from a cultural philosophy of interpretation as it does from personal preference.
“Minimalism is often used in the context of art, but minimalism in Japan is about expressing emotion,” he says. “It does not have any form. It’s unspoken.”
While European brands such as Jil Sander and Helmut Lang certainly express minimalism in their garments, Takizawa says they’re “a little bit different” from traditional Japanese minimalism.

“In Japanese aesthetics, there’s actually a vanguard without words. Unspoken,” he says. “Westerners communicate by using words, for example, in ads to the audience. (The Japanese) leave space so they can make their own interpretations. So they can feel emotions.”

That interpretation translates into garments that are wardrobe “icons” rather than trend-based pieces. Think: cashmere sweaters, ankle-length trousers, classic indigo denim and simple wool coats.

So, how does that compare to Scandinavian minimalism, which has broadly been at the forefront of the European movement thanks to brands such as Acne Studios, Bruuns Bazaar, Designers Remix and Filippa K — and on a more mass-market scale, COS (the older sister of H&M)? Perhaps it’s important to look at how they’re similar first.

“What these two styles have in common is timelessness and simplicity – clean, complementary lines that are sculpted with architectural flare,” Glenda Reid, the manager and buyer of OSKA in Vancouver, says. “The contrasts come from a neutral palate against dashes of colour; textured monochromatic fabrics blended with abstract prints.”

The brand, which is designed in Germany be Stefanie Schmitz, specializes in textiles and set silhouettes rather than prints and visible branding. Its garments represent a unique blend of Japanese design and European textiles, in that it serves up wardrobe staples each season that feature innovative textures and tones but are inspired by iconic designers such as Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo.

“(Schmitz) … gleans inspiration from purist collections that embody a high standard of quality and clarity,” Reid says.

So, while both minimalist aesthetics are similar in that they share a foundation that focuses on simple and chic designs, they differ in one major way: inspiration.

“The difference between the two is largely philosophical,” Litchfield says. “To me, Scandinavian minimalism is ultimately about achieving the strongest, cleanest, truest design possible. … On the other hand, I think Japanese minimalism is very deeply connected to the Zen and Buddhist traditions — the ideas of using only what is needed, longevity, respect, and providing space for introspection.”

In a sense, he explains, Japanese minimalism comes from the past while Scandinavian minimalism looks into the future.

Takizawa goes further to say the two also differ in actual design purpose.

“In Scandinavian minimalism, there’s a forest, nature and trees. And so, perhaps it’s a little bit similar to the Japanese minimalism because both are using nature as a common denominator,” he says. “However, the Scandinavian, if you take a look at the fundamental designs, their daytime is short and they have longer evenings. So, that means they spend a lot of time at home versus outside.”

He believes that lifestyle prompted Scandinavian designers (of both home decor and fashion) to explore ways to create a more calming and enjoyable space in their daily lives.

In comparison, Japanese minimalism focuses primarily on the intangible.

“There is a Japanese philosophy called the ‘iki’, which is a concept. For example, stripes look chic, smart and cool. But checks look a little bit more (country),” Takizawa, who studied the two minimalist sources when he worked in Italy for designer Issey Miyake, says. “And blue, as a colour, represents sophistication. But brown represents soil, so it has a bit of heaviness to it.”

Takizawa says the fluidity of the inspiration of Japanese aesthetics and philosophy is often a point of frustration for people, recalling an Italian journalist who once got angry with him for being unable to succinctly define ‘iki’.

“I can’t describe it,” he says in a matter of fact way of Japanese minimalism. It’s intangible and also, as it seems, indefinable. 

But regardless of the source of modern minimalism, Reid says it’s a movement that’s found fans among shoppers of all ages in recent years, especially older women.

“As women in our 50s, 60s, 70s-plus, we have reached the age of wisdom and reason, looking for comfort and longevity in our sense of life-style,” she explains. “Minimalism is the sheer definition of this – less is more. We seek simplicity in our lives, choosing to wear clothing that moves with our bodies giving a sense of freedom without restriction.”

She says customers are looking for pieces that can hold up to the rigours of their daily lives – while also looking chic and modern.

“What we are hearing from our customers is that they are looking for fashion that is sustainable – a wardrobe that comes from simple, timeless building blocks,” Reid says.

And minimalist designs — no matter their source, and no matter the age — are proving to be a perfect fit.

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