How to succeed in the post-genre fashion future
Fashion genres are too narrow a way of organizing clothes
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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.
In this world, sneakers are the new loafers, comfort is king, and vintage plays are on the same pane as the latest season. What was once a niche (streetwear, vintage, gorpcore) is now mainstream. Old prep — and its exclusive and rarified nature — has nothing to do with the new prep: Rowing Blazers style their tailoring with hoodies, windbreakers, and body piercings. It is a far cry from Ralph Lauren’s gilded American Dream, and that is precisely the draw. Aimé Leon Dore recently collaborated with Martin Greenfield, a Brooklyn-based bespoke tailor, on its formalwear. The result is a double-breasted tuxedo worn over sweatpants — equally suitable for a night out in a fancy restaurant as it is for a Saturday morning paper run.
The ability to bring things together from different contexts in unexpected ways has become the ultimate stylistic flex, no more reserved for celebrity stylists and artistic directors only, but for everyone. What was once a conceptual exercise is now daywear.
From Dressing to Belong, to Dressing to Stand Out
Once, fashion genres like punk, preppy, and minimalist used to mark a subculture and define one’s identity, cultural affiliation, values, interests, and social orientation. Now, the tables have turned, and a feeling of self defines genres. One-of-a-kind point of view gives one-of-a-kind personal genre. Breaking down fashion rules and recontextualizing fashion items has become a vehicle of signaling one’s authenticity and difference. Before, we dressed to belong; now, we dress to stand out.
Blame secondary fashion marketplaces like Depop where individual expression and experimentation made fashion genres obsolete by the very platform design. Popular looks are created by “regular” people doing creative things with their clothes, and this creativity is what we are buying: someone's look, not a particular genre within it. Everyone is a fashion curator, a creator and an influencer, and many fashion voices inevitably result in quicker trend cycles. People get bored and move onto the next look, making genres increasingly and irretrievably less relevant. Anything can be discovered, bought, and sold everywhere, by anyone, and to anyone.
Self-expression as the ultimate fashion genre is intrinsically linked to our new social, psychological, and cultural appreciation for personal identity, self-care, and mental health. The feeling of self, and keeping oneself in regard, also merges fashion with other cultural forms, like music, film, art, or food. Telfar expresses himself through his fashion shows that are theater, performance art, and a party.
Self-expression translates into products. Today’s icons — retro Jordans, 450s — are no longer reflections of social distance. They are cultural references with a promise of belonging, connoisseurship, and a shared identity. That, and purpose, are linked to our pandemic-induced questioning of priorities, values, and our role in the world. Fashion today is less about established genres that brands represent and more about what brands stand for and are doing in the world.
On the other end of the purpose spectrum are style algorithms. Just as Spotify does in music, StitchFix and The Yes do in fashion: they learn our style and serve us personalized recommendations. But Instagram and TikTok go even further, though less overtly. Algorithmic personalization of these platforms effectively obliterates fashion genres as it lets us enjoy highly appealing looks, regardless of who created them, where they came from, or how they were originally categorized. Looks are delivered based on algorithmically created style profiles, rather than editorially.
Algorithms level fashion’s playing field: we get to randomly discover niche categories of people, styles, and behaviors. Trends that emerge in smaller communities get more easily and more quickly picked up by wider audiences; a niche lives (and dies) in the mainstream quicker.
The New Fashion Ledger
Potentially the biggest feature of fashion’s post-genre world is its openness to interpretation. If genres were fashion’s grammar, today’s fashion operates predominantly around words, a.k.a clothes. Like a DNA sequence or blockchain, the possibilities are endless. There are only signifiers — physical and digital — that we recombine at our disposal. The only blueprint is the person wearing clothes, and the way they wear them. Just like an observer makes a great work of art, a wearer finishes the fashion narrative. Art is not in any of the objects; fashion isn’t in any of the clothes. It’s in one’s own feeling of self and where they want to take it.
Post-genre world forces fashion to expand its aesthetic vocabulary, with tokens from video games, cartoons, film, art, performance, music, identity studies, history lessons, and fashion. To be successful here, fashion brands need to develop their signature aesthetic ledger. But it is the rest of us that buy it, trade it, and own it.
This article first appeared in Highsnobiety on November 2nd, 2021 and was edited by Christopher Morency.
Last week, I had a pleasure of repeating my cameo at Ben Dietz’s [SIC] Talks. Check out Ben’s excellent newsletter, [SIC] Weekly, and listen to our conversation about human brain, blockchain, aspiration and taste, why we are all status-seeking monkeys, and why this episode should become an NFT asap.