“Normcore.” “Grungewave.” “Seapunk.” “Health goth.” “New lad casual.” These are just a few of the labels peddled by various corners of the fashion industry over the past several seasons to add breadth and depth to momentary fads.
As soon as a few people start wearing a certain item of clothing like, say, heavy metal t-shirts, or a designer like Alexander Wang converts a Facebook group into a wildly popular collection that gets consumers consuming and competitors imitating, the fashion media promptly sticks a tenuous label with subcultural undertones on it; and it really needs to stop.
First off, it sounds completely ridiculous. Like, what’s a health goth and does it have any relation to a run-of-the-mill, hang-out-in-graveyards type of goth? Are regular goths unhealthy or merely not that concerned about physical activity and nutrition? Can seapunks exist on land, and, if so, does that make them amphibious?
These questions are quite obviously rhetorical, and it’s patently clear to everyone with eyes that something like “health goth” is simply a catchy name for a look that’s heavy on athletic wear and dark palettes, but I’m trying to illustrate how nonsensical it is when you really think about it. And I’m not being some sort of linguistics pedant either, as my gripe with these sort of quasi-subcultural labels isn’t with their semantics, it’s with what they represent.
When the fashion industry and media use tags like “seapunk” and “normcore” they do so because it adds countercultural weight to what is, to put it bluntly, really just an Action Man outfit for grown-ups. I’m not the sort of person that dismisses fashion as superficial out of hand simply because of its focus on beauty and the physical, but so much of what’s produced by the industry at this point in time feels utterly transient and totally disposable. It’s probably always been that way, but it feels so much more pronounced now – and that’s not an inherent fault of fashion as a craft, it’s a product of its contemporary business model.
How much depth can an individual collection have when a designer is expected to produce another one in six months time before turning their thoughts to the next one and the one after that, ad infinitum? No other artistic field, whether that be literature or art or music (of the indie label variety, at least) functions this way because ideas need time to ferment. This relentless churn of collections in accordance with a pre-ordained schedule is the application of an industrial model to inspiration-based work. It pits two diametrically opposed hemispheres of the brain against each other. No wonder that designers like Raf Simons prefer to bow out rather than burn out in an industry that farms its greatest minds for inspiration like battery-caged chickens. Also, what’s the point of depth, of timeless appeal, when the whole industry model relies on convincing its consumers that their entire wardrobes need major modernization twice a year?
Beyond that, our modern, digitized world is completely antithetical to subculture. Subcultures still exist, but they’re not living, breathing, evolving organisms like they once were. These days, they’ve got more in common with Civil War re-enactment societies, acting as a portal to another era as opposed to an adolescent rite of passage. The only difference is their focus on fashion, music, and common ideals, instead of muskets and historical fact.
The youth these days create communities on the Internet (health goth, started as a Facebook group, in fact, and the fashion industry helped propel it from a meme with clothes attached to a brief fashionista fad), and their interests are too broad for the traditional subcultural model. Subcultures are built upon partisanship, its adherents define themselves in opposition to the rest of the world. Back in the day, you couldn’t be a punk and admit to being a fan of hip-hop at the same time, at least not publically, because exclusionary teenage fanaticism was a precursor to entry. Furthermore, before the Internet proliferated downloading, you had to commit to music financially, and a broad palette of interests was simply beyond the reach of most meagre teenage allowances and dial-up modems. The subcultural era ended around a decade ago with emo, and modern fashion, with its web-optimized modus operandi, bears no resemblance to it.
So why does the fashion world like quasi-subcultural labels so much? Because they add artificial weight to hollow trends, and the payoff to that is two-fold: first of all, it feels meatier and more significant to the consumer, rather than something engineered to be horribly passé in half a year’s time. Subcultures are steeped in ideology, they have rituals, identities, and self-made musical genres that they stand by with partisan conviction. They stand for something and change is denigrated as “selling out.” Giving an outfit the feel of a countercultural tribe is the mental equivalent of wrestling a mouthful of steak between your teeth as opposed to nibbling on a kale salad. The consumer, you’d imagine, must feel like they’re getting more bang for their buck. Secondly, these sorts of grand titles stroke our fragile fashion media egos and give us a feeling of self-importance that we so crave.
No one likes to feel like their work is insignificant, but the fashion industry’s current business model degrades not only the people who design disposable collections, but also the ones that write about them and those that follow them as well. It’s not like everything is terrible and there aren’t any brands or designers out there doing noteworthy work, but when the system is geared towards mass, it usually comes at the expense of quality and significance. Writing about fashion within this sort of industrial model is more akin to cataloguing than it is to documenting moments of cultural importance worth remembering. By using quasi-subcultural labels, we get to feel like we’re anthropologists, rather than mere stock checkers.
And therein lies my beef with fashion’s bogus subcultures: it gives the industry something to hide behind, further enabling a system that engineers transience and disposability. Luckily, it appears that we’ve reached a watershed moment on that issue. Earlier this year, Business of Fashion devoted an entire issue to what needs changing in the industry’s current model and those such as Vetements, Burberry, and Paul Smith making moves to shake things up. The sight of totemistic figures such as Raf Simons leaving major fashion houses should serve to accelerate that process. Now let’s give them an added nudge by killing of quasi-subcultures too.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.