Maximum Effect: An Interview with Fashion Critic Elyssa Dimant

by Sarah Scaturro Photo by James Moore

My interest was recently piqued when I began hearing about a new book called Minimalism and Fashion: Reduction in the Postmodern Era. Having admired the recent minimal designs of people like Raf Simons (for Jil Sander), Jil Sander (for Uniqlo) and Francisco Costa (for Calvin Klein), I was even more intrigued when I realized that the author was none other than Elyssa Dimant, a fellow alumna of FIT's MA program in Fashion and Textile Studies. After seeing some of the beautiful photographs and reading the glowing reviews in places like NY Magazine and the New York Times, I knew that I had to talk to her. While her research into minimalism and fashion is mandatory for any fashion scholar, it's her unique approach to the field of fashion studies that I find inspirational. Dimant graciously took a few moments out of her busy schedule to answer the following:

Fashion Projects: You just recently wrote a gorgeously illustrated book called Minimalism and Fashion that was published by Harper Collins. Instead of merely examining the aesthetics of minimalism in fashion, you traced the movement back to its roots in art. What was your inspiration for the book, and what were some of the most interesting findings you discovered?

Elyssa Dimant: To be totally honest, I was inspired to write the book because I felt that the subject of Minimalism as it pertained to fashion had been omitted from fashion scholarship, for the most part. The word ‘ minimalist’ is so often used in fashion criticism, but it has kind of avoided formal definition previous to this point. Though Rebecca Arnold has presented a compelling examination of 1990s sartorial minimalism, in various forums, I felt it was important to trace the genesis of the style—artistically and culturally—in order to clarify its relationship to minimalist design in other mediums and to understand its relevance and impact to movements of “(post-)modernity” in fashion. I suppose the most interesting discoveries emerged as a result of the study of product development across disciplines. For example, it was exciting to see the pared down shapes of Courreges and Cardin in the 1960s—executed as they were in luxury fabrics or new synthetics—adapted as minimalist staples by the emerging ready-to-wear market, and then to juxtapose them with Judd’ s Cadmium series – boxes that he had produced in quantity by industrial workshops, but exhibited in prestigious New York art galleries. I suppose that example also beckons the minimalist conflict between high and low, commercial and elite. As a more contemporary, and perhaps more straightforward example, there’s Nicolas Ghesquiere’s Spring 2008 collection, with its refined architectonic shapes, and it’s quite easy to see its kinship to objects produced by Ron Arad and Anish Kapoor. These all demonstrate a neo-minimalist aesthetic where surface embellishment is reduced in favor of a clean exterior, but more importantly, each of these objects is clarified through technologically-advanced materials and digital design programs. They each relate so strongly to their architecture…which I think is a very significant departure point for minimalism in general.

Photo by Mark Steinmetz

Minimalism and Fashion is not your first book - you published Fashioning Fabrics: Contemporary Textiles in Fashion in 2006, and have written for numerous publications including Vogue, Elle Canada, Selvedge and City. You also were a curatorial assistant at the Costume Institute, where you co-curated the exhibition WILD: Fashion Untamed. Did you always want to be a fashion writer and curator? How did you enter into the field?

I suppose, like many individuals who have always been interested in fashion, I wanted to design when I was a child. But as soon as I began to actually study the histories and theories of fashion, first at the University of Massachusetts under Patricia Campbell Warner and Susan Michelman, then with Patricia Mears and Lourdes Font at FIT, I think I was quite happy to make my way as a critic, whether as a curator, a writer or a journalist. I was certainly very lucky to be able to come on board at the Costume Institute full-time directly after graduate school – I learned more from just listening to Harold and Andrew discuss an object than from the countless texts and articles one tends to read as a student. In any case, I have benefited from the knowledge and generosity of several extraordinary mentors.

You actually left the Costume Institute to work for a fashion PR company. How did that compare to your experiences in the museum world? Would you ever want to back to working for a museum, or do you prefer to straddle the divide between fashion industry and fashion scholarship?

I actually think it’ s quite important to understand the mechanics of the fashion industry—the cycles of its production and promotion—in order to be a successful critic. I had the good fortune to work with Jaqui Lividini, who is an unbelievably creative and thoughtful person, so while the tempo of the work was quite different, I think that the spirit of wonderment when approaching all things fashion was still very much retained for me when I made the move into the private sector. As for where I will end up, I certainly will never be able to suspend my critical instincts when it comes to fashion, and have every intention of continuing as a part of the academic community for as long as it will have me. That said, I realize that there is a divide between the industry and the academic realm – one which is quite crucial to the academic’ s objectivity, actually – so I suppose the simplest answer to that question is that I’ m looking to land with a project or role that is more long-term…no matter how inspiring and enjoyable the Minimalism book experience may have been, it was a solo journey, and it’ s so important to be able to observe and create within a larger framework or community.

Photo by Marcus Tomlinson

The field of fashion studies is growing rapidly - NYC alone has at least six competing graduate programs that deal with fashion theory/history in some manner (FIT, Parsons, NYU, Bard Graduate Center, CUNY and the combined CH/Parsons Dec Arts program). Unfortunately, this rapid growth hasn't translated into a large number of available jobs - at least in the traditional sense of academia and museums. As someone who has successfully forged your own career path, what sort of advice can you give new scholars coming into the field? If someone wanted to publish a book like you have, how should they go about it?

I actually think it’ s a much more promising time to enter the field than when I graduated from FIT in 2003. There are more fashion exhibitions. Critical work in fashion is more widely accepted in the academic and cultural panorama and, most importantly, fashion has a more friendly interaction with other design disciplines and mediums. The best advice I can offer new scholars coming into the field is to be careful to regard fashion as its own artistic form—and learn from objects!—but second, to see fashion as it evolves in artistic culture and society overall. Don’ t let anyone tell you that fashion can’ t interact with photography, painting, sculpture, 3D modeling, or whatever in the broader academic realm because it also lends to function and utility. The more we allow fashion a place in academia among the other disciplines, the more venues will emerge to support that research, and hopefully more jobs can be created. Until then, students of this field will need to jumpstart their own careers – pitch exhibitions to small galleries, start publications such as this one, and try to contribute papers and critical work to forums that you respect and have learned from yourself. Working as a fashion academic, unless you’ re one of a very lucky few, is a self-starter career – you have to be open to translating that perspective to other mediums and skills and learning and growing wherever you can.

If someone wants to publish a book, especially if you’ re publishing as an independent author, you have to be very passionate about the subject and willing to invest a great deal of time and energy into putting that scholarship out there – with little compensation. And draw yourself very distinct boundaries within which the research and dialogue is contained.

What projects do you have in store for the future?

I am currently working on a follow-up manuscript for Harper Collins, which will be released late next year. Other than that, I have been fortunate in that I’ve been able to take on a lot of little inspiring, fun projects. I’ve been pursued by various firms and brands to consult, which I’ve really been enjoying.

Photo by Fabien Baron