What's so interesting about dressing normally? Rewind to autumn 2013, when the millennial-run New York trend forecasting company K-Hole published Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom. The group's insightful observations about millennials moving toward a more mainstream mentality became a buzzy fashion movement and internet meme: "normcore". It went so far that designer and programmer Daniel Spagnoli developed No More #NORMCORE, a Google Chrome extension to block the hashtag. Suddenly those ubiquitous Bushwick kids dressed like Jerry Seinfeld on his way to the laundromat had a label attached to their style. It was all about basics with a wink: Levi's 501s, baseball caps, grey sweatshirts, New Balance sneakers.
As quickly as the term was coined, it was debated as bogus. Are we so starved for novelty that normalcy itself is trendy? What's next, food blogs devoted to toast with butter, music festivals of elevator music? And haven't cool kids always flirted with proletarian looks, from embroidered mechanic shirts to 70s corduroys? From a fashion perspective, the grey area between true normalcy and studied simplicity is, well, very grey. Miuccia Prada herself burst onto the scene in 1985 with a basic black backpack made from the same nylon employed by the Italian National Army. Much has been made of the recent designer versions of suburban footwear, including Céline and Giambattista Valli's takes on the crunchy Birkenstock sandal. Fancy or not fancy, the past year has brought about a trend toward the purposeful adoption of a more basic look.
Rather than getting too caught up in the raging online controversy, I say we celebrate this moment of dressing normally! Who wants to spend time putting together complicated, bespoke looks that may or may not get us photographed for some embarrassing fashion blog? Using clothing for self-expression is uncomfortable, expensive, time-consuming and complicated. Perhaps disengaging from fashion is the best way to respond to its ever-shifting minutiae. Normal is chic.
In recent memory, there is a rich and inspiring legacy of fashion icons dressing in mainstream styles. Although Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Jobs have been tossed around as patron saints of the normcore movement, I would name John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy king and queen of normal chic. OK, clearly CBK wore high minimalist fashion like Calvin Klein and Narciso Rodriguez. But, also, the Gap? There's an excellent paparazzi photo of her on the subway wearing a black crewneck T-shirt, khakis and a stretchy cotton headband. On the subway, people! And John John cruised around 90s Tribeca in baseball caps, loose cotton ribbed sweaters and backpacks. Their style was refined and streamlined, yet approachable: realistic for a city life that involved walking, biking and rollerblading. (Hey, it was the 90s!)
As Carolyn and John John knew, real life requires real clothing. Anyone who has ever tried to hobble down subway stairs in Céline platform sandals and a pencil skirt can attest to the cruelness of staying fashionable. Comfort is elegant. Two of fashion's most decadent and prolific image-makers, photographer Inez Van Lamsweerde and stylist Joe McKenna, wear grey suede New Balance sneakers nearly every day. Inez and Joe are surrounded by the most conceptual, luxurious fashion on the planet, yet they keep it normal. When asked why he opts for norm-style, Joe responds simply, "comfort." And therein lies a huge appeal of the normcore movement. Taking sartorial cues from soccer moms allows us to focus on our busy lives instead of our outfits.
Beyond the undeniable pleasure of sinking into comfort, there is the slightly guilty pleasure that comes with fitting in. As K-Hole wrote in its trend report: "In Normcore, one does not pretend to be above the indignity of belonging." When black Nike Free Run sneakers became the de facto daily shoe for everyone from Kanye West to your mum, you might have run the other way. But instead, you bought a pair. And beyond being comfortable, well-designed, and easy to match to your wardrobe, there was something nice about having the same sneakers as all of your friends. It was a throwback to middle school, before you became preoccupied with the illusion of being special.
A new generation of designers are working with more restraint, perhaps in response to the economic turndown and a distaste for the excesses of street-style exuberance. Dayton Rinks, the 25 year-old designer of the hyper-simple line Smith & Smith, based his collection around pared-down sweatshirts and sweatpants. As he says, "Fashion over the last five years went a little bazookas, especially in menswear. All these brands popped up and everything was extremely decorative and ornamental. With us, it's a cultural backlash against the Givenchys of the world."
Rinks also talked about his clothing in relation to Eastern philosophy. With a nod to Zen Buddhism, wardrobe restraint can help to, in his words, "free your mind from thinking about clothes." I'm sure Steve Jobs would have agreed. His fascination with uniform dressing stemmed from a visit to the Sony factory in the 80s, where workers wore Issey Miyake uniforms supplied by the company. Jobs tried to have Miyake create nylon vests for Apple employees. When the idea was rejected by Apple workers, Jobs had the Japanese designer make one hundred of the black turtlenecks that became his personal uniform.
Those of us who love fashion have always gotten a thrill from wearing, or admiring, the most individual and artistic pieces from great designers. A basic black turtleneck could never eclipse the inspiration behind, say, an Alexander McQueen feathered gown. But the proportion of our society that could even dream of owning such a piece is infinitesimal. The elitism of five-figure dresses is much clearer to those who don't wear fashion insider goggles. I've bought Alaïa I can't afford with the vague justification that "it lasts a long time."
Even for those who can easily buy designer clothing, the investment is arguable. With high street brands ripping off our most creative designers left and right, originality has become less achievable. The race to bring design to the masses has stripped high fashion of its avant-garde nature, and softened its singularity. If you can run out to Zara and buy the most experimental silhouettes from the runway, why even bother?
One can appreciate fashion and not engage with its flux. Stylish people have been distinguishing themselves by dressing in undistinguished ways since Tonne Goodman bought her first pair of white jeans. As i-D NY Fashion Director Alastair McKimm says, "What is normal? I think the press are getting it all wrong: they're equating well-curated utilitarian clothing with people who don't care about how they dress. I for one am pro-normal." Ultimately, dressing normally is about using your life energy wisely. This year, it's all about spending more time doing stuff and less time buying stuff.
Originally published in i-D, The New Issue, Summer 2014.
Text Rory Satran