In the 1990s it was no longer the done thing to follow fashion slavishly, a sharp contrast to the highly á la mode ’70s and ’80s. The phobia of being underdressed was finally completely displaced by the fear of overdressing. Fashion in the ’90s united around a new standard, minimalism, and styles of stark simplicity became the vogue. Despite the best efforts of a few designers to keep the flag for pretty dresses flying, by the end of the decade the notion of ostentatious finery had virtually disappeared. As well as the styling of the product, its promotion in the media became crucial to its success and image. The financial pressures of the decade had a devastating effect on the development of new talent and lessened the autonomy enjoyed by more established designers.
Fashion at the end of the 20th century tackled themes that fashion had not previously embraced. These themes included rape, disability, religious violence, death, and body modification. There was a dramatic move away from the sexy styles aimed at the glamorous femme fatale of the Eighties and many designers, taken with a vision of romantic poverty, adopted the style of the poverty-stricken waif, dressed in a stark, perversely sober palette, with a face devoid of make-up. Clothes by ready-to-wear retailers such as The Gap, Banana Republic, and Eddie Bauer came to the forefront of fashion, managing to tap into the needs of women who simply wanted comfortable, wearable clothes. Retro clothing inspired by the 1960s and 1970s was popular for much of the 1990s.
The famous Italian fashion house, Gucci was created in 1921, by Guccio Gucci and was originally a firm that sold luxury leather goods. Under Guccio Gucci’s children, by the end of the 1960s the label had expanded to include a plethora of products with a distinctly Latin glamor. However, only in the ’90s, when the Gucci heirs gave up control of the company to Invest Corp., who planned to turn the business around, did it truly begin to enjoy the kind of success it enjoys in the present day. Employing an unknown designer, Tom Ford, as design director in 1994, the fashion house was endowed with a great prestige, as Ford triggered a tidal wave with his chic and shocking collections, perfumes for men and women, revamped boutiques, and advertising campaigns. In 1998 Gucci is named “European Company of the year” by European Business Press Federation. Today it is the second biggest-selling fashion brand (after LVMH) worldwide with US$7 billion worldwide of revenue in 2006 according to BusinessWeek magazine. Most importantly Gucci is the biggest-selling Italian brand in the world.
In the ’90s the designer label Prada became a true creative force in the fashion industry. The Milanese company was first established in 1923, two years after Gucci, and like Gucci, it was a firm that sold high-quality shoes and leather. It was not until the Eighties that Miuccia Prada, the niece of the company’s founder, began to produce ready-to-wear fashion, gaining fame for her subtle, streamlined, yet unquestionably luxurious style, that catered for the privileged young woman who prefers understatement to flamboyant extravagance.
In America three of the most influential fashion designers of the time were Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, and Calvin Klein. Michael Kors set up his own business in 1980.
However, it was not until the Nineties that the designer reached the peak of his popularity. His knowledge and consciousness of trends enabled him to produce simple well-cut garments, whose sophistication and elegance appealed to a whole new breed of wealthy American customers drawn to the new vogue for minimalist chic. Marc Jacobs is one of the most notable American designers of the period in that, unlike many American fashion designers in the past, he was not so much the co-ordinator of a mass-produced garment as a designer in the European sense of the word.
One of the most promising talents in the fashion industry at the time, the LVMH (Louis Vuitton-Moet Henessy) group offered him the job of designing a line of ready-to-wear to compliment the de-luxe products of luggage specialist Louis Vuitton in the late ’90s. One of the first fashion designers to anticipate the globalization of world markets, the already well-known designer Calvin Klein started to market his fashions, perfumes, and accessories not only right across the US, but also in Europe and Asia, achieving an unequaled success. A brilliant artistic director, Klein used carefully constructed advertisements containing images tinted with eroticism to promote his sophisticatedly functional mass-produced designs, which won massive popularity among the urban youth of the 1990s.
The group of designers known as the ‘Antwerp Six’ (so named because all of them were graduates of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp), who first emerged in the 1980s, came to prominence in the 1990s. Three of the most influential of the group were Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten, and Walter Van Beirendonck. Ann Demeulemeester, from her first collection in 1991, demonstrated a great deal of confidence and inventiveness. Naturally inclined to understatement, she built her designs on contradictions, introducing contrasting elements into her fluid and streamlined fashions, which appealed to women who dressed, above all, to please themselves. The work of Dries van Noten was founded on a solid mastery of the art of tailoring, to which the young designer added discreet touches of fantasy in a highly personal style.
Managing to be both classical and original, his fashions appealed to those who preferred to express their individuality rather than slavishly follow trends. Walter Van Beirendonck, who erupted onto the fashion scene in 1995, produced decidedly futuristic designs under his label W & LT (Wild and Lethal Trash). Deliberately using fabrics developed by the very latest technologies, in violently contrasting colors, he produced clothes that were full of erotic and sadomasochistic references, touched with a caustic adolescent humour. His highly distinctive approach related to a resurgence of anti-fashion, but this time an anti-fashion with nothing in the least ethnic about its origins, instead based on science fiction that provided the inspiration for displays of such high-spirited provocation.
In Italy, Gianni Versace, with his brilliant, sexy, and colorful designs, and Dolce & Gabbana, with their super-feminine and fantastical style, broke away from the serious and sober-minded fashions that dominated during much of the Nineties. The British designer Vivienne Westwood produced many influential and popular collections in the early ’90s, which included outfits inspired by eighteenth-century courtesans and the Marquis de Sade, with rounded hips, corsets, and platform heels. The London-based designer Rifat Ozbek was also popular, particularly in New York and Milan. His youthful style, which mixed references to India, Africa, and his native Turkey with clever takes on historical clothing, was reminiscent of hippest nightclubs and the more outrageous street fashions of the time. Rap music was a prominent influence on popular and street fashion during the early- and mid-Nineties. Followers of hip hop adopted huge baggy jeans, similar to those worn in American prisons, with big patterned shirts and heavy black shoes. The sports label Nike had great popularity and materials such as Lycra and Spandex were increasingly used for sportswear. Increasing eco-awareness and animal rights made even top couture houses such as Chanel introduce fake fur and natural fibres into their collections.