Death of a fashion genre
How cultural acceleration, social fluidity, and the global market made fashion genres obsolete
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“An $800 tracksuit is not a tracksuit. A $1,000 denim jacket is not a denim jacket. They're tuxedos in different forms,” Telfar Clemens said in a recent interview. Beyond semiotics, the New York-based designer’s observation perfectly captures the fashion’s post-genre future.
Fashion has always been playing with hybrids, and the trend has recently accelerated. Sacai comes to mind as one of the pioneers of fashion deconstruction: bomber jackets stitched with blazers, puffer-fur coats and half-wool sweater-half-wool-coat combos. Confusion as to what workwear even looks like these days gave rise to mixes of essentials, tailoring, streetwear, sportswear, mens- and womenswear at large, and everything in between.
It would be a mistake to equate post-genre fashion with hybrid fashion, though. Genre-less fashion is a fundamental change in fashion’s core organizing principle. Recently, it has been brought to a fever pitch by cultural acceleration, social fluidity, and the global market. But its foundations have been laid with the decreasing importance of traditional retail formats. When department stores reigned supreme, fashion genres were a convenient way to organize shopping malls and customer journeys in-store.
Fashion genres also reflected social status, and by proxy, taste. Couture, high street, JCPenney all implied a social class and taste of their shoppers. The trends and fashion genre evolution followed the taste-class dynamic: the moment that lower class adopted certain tastes, upper class abandoned them and moved towards the new ones. Luxury stores were, until recently, designed, staffed, and serviced in a way that welcomed some visitors and put off others.
The way we express our status, taste, and identity creates new social formats. Streetwear culture and its stores, wait lines, language, communities, and drops are a new social format. Vintage is another: vintage aficionados talk for hours about their recent finds; they know the right dealers and can recognize a year of production by a label, and they have their communities, vocabulary, and social media accounts that they follow. Taste is an activity that is developed, cultivated, and refined by absorbing social and cultural capital around us.
In the same way that department stores imploded once they stopped being relevant to consumer behavior, genres dissipated when the social, cultural, and economic status they signaled disconnected from the way consumers signaled their taste, status, and identity.
No one on the Internet speaks in genres. We speak in memes, references, and remixes. This language of boundary-crossing and cross-pollination breaks down genres by default: it takes elements of different genres and turns them into a new cultural output. On the Internet, we are not buying something that belongs to a specific genre (e.g. tailoring); we are buying into a look of, for example, Timothée Chalamet, Pharrell or Tyler, the Creator. These looks themselves are memes that get to live on in the endless references they generate.
In this fluid cultural landscape, fashion genres are too narrow a way of organizing clothes. Like music genres, those in fashion were once upon a time a tool for companies to categorize, brand, market, and promote themselves for decades. This tool is increasingly irrelevant to how consumers actually discover, buy, and wear fashion.
No Context Is the Context
Fashion genres refer to distinct and separate contexts where the clothes are meant to be worn: casual, sportswear, black-tie. De-contextualization of our social, cultural, and economic settings and our roles within them have been spurred on by the 2020 pandemic, the referential nature of the Internet, and the modern aspirational economy where status is signaled through taste and insider knowledge and not through money.
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