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Misako Hida, an independent NYC-based journalist who writes for international publications including WSJ Japan, Newsweek Japan Magazine and Weekly Economist recently interviewed me for a feature in Weekly Toyo Keizai Online, one of Japan’s highest-profile business magazine websites. Her story focuses on what the "Normcore" trend is all about and why it seems to be catching on with the kidz stateside. "Why is it getting popular in the U.S." she wondered, "and what is the connection between this trend and American society?"
First off, what is this Normcore nonsense anyway?
1. A fashion movement, c. 2014, in which scruffy young urbanites swear off the tired street-style clichés of the last decade — skinny jeans, wallet chains, flannel shirts — in favor of a less-ironic (but still pretty ironic) embrace of bland, suburban anti-fashion attire. (See Jeans, mom. Sneakers, white.)
2. A sociocultural concept, c. 2013, having nothing to do with fashion, that concerns hipster types learning to get over themselves, sometimes even enough to enjoy mainstream pleasures like football along with the rest of the crowd.
3. An Internet meme that turned into a massive in-joke that the news media keeps falling for.
- NYTimes.com (April 2014)
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Many blame Normcore on the wardrobe department of Seinfeld. Me? I blame Nolan Miller, the costumer on Dynasty, that fabulously cheezy primetime soap from the 80s.
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Ah, the 1980s. Or the Mighty 80s, as I've heard it referred to in a commentary about how awash in cash, power and decadence the decade was. The result was a massive monoculture of high, hard glam which predictably began alienating the fringe. Enter grunge. Fashion Exhibit A: the "infamous" but completely on-point "grunge" collection by Marc Jacobs for Perry Ellis. Which cost him his job. And which probably really helped launch his career.
But I digress.
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The anti 80s-establishment fringe were congregating nightly downtown in NYC on then-desolate Ludlow Street, drinking at Max Fish, heading to the Alleged Gallery to ogle art by regulars like Spike Jonze, Mike Mills and Tom Sachs - and rubbing shoulders with fellow fringe fixtures Sofia Coppola, Harmony Korine and Chloë Sevigny. “That place was ’90s New York to the death,” reminsces Kid America, a longtime denizen of the miniscule, ramshackle "in" places of the day which included Mercury Lounge, Save the Robots, Brownie’s and the Green Door at Coney Island High. “It set off mad stupid f – – kers trying their hands at making art or being creative," continues Kid. "It was only ever a good thing.”
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The fringe morphed into the hipsters - basically fringe-dwellers with day jobs...how else to afford those self-consciously anti-brand brands like A Bathing Ape, Supreme, Comme des Garçons, Nike (which has reinvented itself once again to top-dog status) and, of course, Perry Ellis. “Grunge is anathema to fashion,” NYT's fashion critic Cathy Horyn wrote angrily at the time, “and for a major Seventh Avenue fashion house to put out that kind of statement at that kind of price point is ridiculous.”
Indeed, the kind of "statement" taking hold of fashion was summed up by the grungey aesthetic of photographers like Juergen Teller, Terry Richardson, Wolfgang Tillmans, Mario Sorrenti and Olivier Zahm (right), who - in 1992 - channeled the global counterculture of the period by founding Purple Prose magazine.
It was some well-timed hipness, both offkilter and engaging, of the witty, goofy, puerile (think Beavis & Butthead) and downright cool. But all cool things must end, particularly when they're this relentless - just Purple alone gave birth to an entire brood: Purple Fiction (1992), Purple Sexe (1998), Purple magazine (1998), Purple Journal (2004–present), the bi-annual Purple Fashion (1995–1998; 2004–present), Purple Books (a publishing house) and even a think tank/art direction "society" and consultancy, Purple Institute.
Enough with purple, decried the hipsters, who began reacting to Zahm and his fellow reactors by embracing the joys of being...normal. "The basic idea is that young alternative types had devoted so much energy to trying to define themselves as individuals, through ever-quirkier style flourishes like handlebar mustaches or esoteric pursuits like artisanal pickling, that they had lost the joy of belonging that comes with being part of the group," continues NYTimes.com. "Normcore is about dropping the pretense and learning to throw themselves into, without detachment, whatever subcultures or activities they stumbled into, even if they were mainstream."
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Possibly, or more likely, probably not; rather a big in-joke perpetuated by the trendsetters of the 718 area code, this idea that dressing in normal clothes is worthy of fashion headlines. However, beneath the buzzword-hype, I think there's something more interesting at play. "As envisioned by its creators [NY-based brand consultancy K-Hole]," the Times continues, "normcore was not a fashion trend, but a broader sociological attitude."
Whether or not normcore is a trendy reaction to too much trendiness doesn't really matter. The fact it is, it's hit enough of a nerve to generate almost 20 inches worth of text (I measured on my screen using my thumb while I scrolled down through the NY Times article). And I think Andy Warhol would agree that when it comes to media chitterchatter (and hip, socio-cultural diaries), that's the only thing that does matter.
Although Misako's Normcore feature is in Japanese, here are some highlights from our interview:
Misako Hida: What does Normcore represent in terms of a fashion movement or commentary on American culture/society? If it becomes more popular, what could it develop into?
Lesley Scott: For several years, starting I think as a reaction to the "mighty 80s" with its dripping-Wall-Street-money monoculture, artist types and hipsters have been enthusiastically pushing against the mainstream. In a bid to show how non-mainstream they were, how unique, they cultivated weirder and weirder affectations: everything from crazy handlebar moustaches to micro-micro-micro-brews to the over-the-top anti-mainstreamness you see parodied in the show Portlandia.
But in railing so much against the mainstream and expressing their individuality, these same hipster types realized they had hipstered themselves right onto an island of one. Which is the loneliest number. And people all long for connection. (Even if it means wearing a giant foam finger and supporting the local team with 80,000 of your new closest pals.) It underlies the way we dress to show membership in a particular social tribe and it drives Social Media. So people, I think, not only got lonely on their anti-mainstream islands, but they also got tired of opposing everything: the mainstream, GMOs, police brutality (the Ferguson rioting), the government, the war in Iraq, Big Pharma, the obesity epidemic, poverty....the list never seems to end. And it's exhausting. So people kind of threw up their hands. They embraced the mainstream again, if nothing else, to stop fighting all the time and more importantly: to be a part of a group again, even if it means being part of the masses. (image)
However, in typical Fashionland fashion, the pendulum overswung. Instead of just toning down the weird moustaches or choosing less hipstery (ie. deliberately strange) clothes, they embraced "icons" of normalness like the "soccer mom" in her unattractive pleated high waisted jeans, her unsightly Crocs, her boring Gap tees. Males did the same with Jerry Seinfeld from his TV show days. And good places to find such attire includethe racks of a Walmart, at LL Bean...or anything with an elastic waist.
MH: Is Normcore a trend or a fad?
LS: The way we choose to dress speaks to the social tribe to which we belong or aspire to. In that respect, I think it's a constant rather than a trend, but it's this desire that coalesces into trends. Trends, I think, aren't created by fashion designers; rather good designers tap into what's resonating strongly in the collective unconscious and then create a tangible version of it: their clothing designs. These they present on the runway and when people see the collection, they say: "Wow - that I want! I didn't know I wanted it, but I do." This reaction is what Steve Jobs was referring to when he famously observed that: "a lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."
How visionaries like Jobs and fashion designers "know" what's resonating in the collective unconscious and what to show people, is of course the mystery of the ages. In his book in The Age of Extremes, the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm observed that: "Why brilliant fashion designers, a notoriously nonanalytic breed, sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to come better than professional predictors, remains one of the most obscure questions in history and, for the historian of culture, one of the most central."
(right: Chanel Fall 2014 via source)
What's interesting about Normcore is that it kind of emerged organically from the street. Thanks to how ubiquitous social media is - particularly Instagram for fashion - people saw others dressing like an old episode of Seinfeld and embraced it. It resonated for them. However, like anything in fashion, people will tire of it. Especially a trend this plain and unadorned. And yes, pretty downright ugly in my opinion. "Normcore may have been a useful palate cleanser over this prolonged, punishing winter, and it may have looked particularly charming on the young and the cool, on bodies so helplessly fabulous that the mere act of wearing nonfabulous gear made them even more so," observed Vogue recently. " But fashion, or the act of getting dressed, should be fun, and this expressionless approach is becoming as dreary as Dad standing in the March rain in his ancient blue windbreaker."
But it's too soon in some ways for the full-on 00s and the 80s are pretty well played out on the runways, so while waiting for the "brilliant" fashion designers to tap into what's resonating in the ether and present it on the runways, people are embracing the relatively brainless ease of dressing like a "normal" mainstream person. In that respect it's a fad, the actual Normcore clothing items themselves, but what matters is the underlying drive to belong and how that gets expressed sartorially.
MH: What brands or design examples embody Normcore? Also, who are Normcore icons?
LS: Normcore was identified as by the trend-spotting firm K-hole. But I think they meant it more tongue-in-cheek. It's a cool word, however, and perfect for fashion-press soundbites, which I think is why it took off the way it did.
I think much of Silicon Valley embodies Normcore in the way they dress to show how anti-fashion they are. Take Mark Zuckerberg in that same nondescript tee he wears every day. There's nothing special about it, other than the fact that the wearer is none other than the CEO of Facebook with a net worth in excess of $30 billion. Which makes the tee worthy of a lot of scrutiny, particularly to those on the right side of the age divide. After all, when Facebook went public, it wasn't Zuckerberg's peer group that bashed his hoodies.
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Before him, Steve Jobs chose to wear the same black turtleneck every day but Jobs did kind of a reverse-snob maneuver because what appeared to be a simple black turtleneck was actually a costly and well-made piece by high-end Japanese designer Issey Miyake. With so much money being made in tech (the founder of Minecraft, Markus Persson, recently outbid music mogul Jay-Z on a $70 million Beverly Hills mansion), high-profile successes like Zuckerberg and Jobs are obviously highly influential - right down to their Normcore'ish attire.
MH: I remember back in 1996 when Sharon Stone wore a Gap turtleneck to the Oscars. This seems like an early example of Normcore. Will Normcore have any future impact on red carpet fashion?
LS: I can't help but wonder if trends like Normcore will make the Red Carpet even more fantasy-like. Everyone knows so much about what goes on behind the scenes (and seams) of the fashion industry, thanks to shows like Project Runway, that the mystery isn't there any more. And fantasy has always had a place in fashion. Wedding dresses are one way we express it, but more and more what you see on the Red Carpet is like a long line of fantastically-clad aliens heading to a festive gathering in another galaxy. Which I hope never changes.
Interestingly, I think Normcore is unlike most trends which start with the elite, the monied and the celebrities and proceed to work their way down to the common man; rather, this one started at street level and worked its way up the social foodchain. The most interesting example being the former Kate Middleton, now Duchess Catherine, who always seems most comfortable in appropriate, but not fashion-forward, attire. She proudly sports High Street labels like Zara, lives in her skinny jeans, and even did a recent public appearance in a hoodie. A hoodie. Can you imagine Queen Elizabeth ever stepping foot outside the palace - or even inside it - in a hoodie?! But then, as Bob Dylan presciently wrote in Ballad of a Thin Man: "Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is...Do you, Mister Jones?"
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If you understand Japanese, you can read Misako's piece HERE.
- Lesley Scott