Highsnobiety Q1 is the first in a series of quarterly insights weeks dedicated to the business behind youth culture and what makes our market tick. For full Q1 coverage, head over to our Q1 hub.
While research can help us understand our generation’s new morality and its changed consumption habits, the impact that the Covid-19 crisis will have on how our future looks and feels remains the most unclear. While times of crisis are when clothes seem to matter least, the irony is that fashion has been making itself at home with the idea of apocalypse as an aesthetic for quite some time.
“Survivalism” isn’t a word one normally lumps in with others like “glamour” and “style,” but according to the strategist and writer Lucas Mascatello, the idea of braving a dangerous future is one that has been a central pillar to many trends for quite some time (and will continue to be). Here, he explores the myriad ideas of the apocalyptic aesthetic — from dystopian to utopian — in our past, present, and future.
What Is Survivalism?
“Survivalism is a mentality. More than the daily practice of preparing for some unknown disaster, war, famine, or disease, it’s a complete worldview unto itself. Survivalism is a kind of reasoning that invites paranoia in, hammering your senses for warning signs and cranking your adrenaline into hyper-vigilance. In nature, we see the armored hides of armadillos and the scales of fish as practical choices made by mother nature, tactical choices that create an aesthetic. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs introduced the concept of tiered values, saying that at their most base, people first satisfy physiological needs like food, water, and sleep. These needs are followed by safety needs (security and shelter), then belonging and love, followed by self esteem and, finally, self-actualization. As a luxury market, fashion largely considers this top tier need: How can I achieve my full potential and what does that look like? It’s a far cry from where we started, concerned with security and defense ideas that inform military design and created armored organisms like turtles, serpents, and dinosaurs.”
Thirst for Annihilation
“Thinking about the end of the world is a romantic idea. And similarly, believing that you are living in the end of times is a great way to add meaning to one’s life. Fashion trends such as chest-packs, camouflage, and tactical gear all gesture toward survivalism as an aesthetic, one that feels like a rebelling against the classic luxury object (even if it’s just as expensive). There’s a long menu of world ending possibilities, each inspiring designers, authors and artists to consider what it might look like if the ice caps melted, if an asteroid hit, if locusts wiped out the crops and we were forced to live off of dehydrated proteins. The thirst for annihilation has helped propagate an array of disaster-based looks.”
Cyberpunk and Tech Gibberish
“Dystopia has its own aesthetic, one reaching deep into fetish and counterculture, mashing sex against sexlessness, turning nerds into heroes, and flipping the paradigm. The incel-meets-BDSM style of The Matrix was the brainchild of costumer designer Kym Barrett. And now, violent models dressed in spandex at a Burning Man-style orgy is how we imagine dealing with a hostile future. In Hackers, costume designer Roger Burton created the most everlasting pop-cultural reality for cyberpunk, featuring club kids rollerblading through New York City. This idea of a post-apocalyptic youth culture would later be echoed in the work of Alexander McQueen, in particular his FW99 collection for Givenchy, a collection created for the eve of Y2K that explores the possibility of a post-human type of glamour. Even in the face of disaster, there’s optimism.”
“Trend forecasting is about predicting the future, or at least making a bet on outcomes. Yet style is almost always about being ahead of the curve. At a citizen level, many of us want to be first: stockpiling, prepping, or wearing a mask before everyone is else wearing one are different ways of signaling a truth to come that most are too stupid to recognize. Crises are always a surprise, and yet they always feel inevitable in a way that hangs over even the quiet times. And it’s not always as straightforward as Diesel’s famous 2007 ads Diesel-ifying global warming. Brands like Acronym, Maharishi, and Stone Island have made their bread and butter by sexing up survivalism as a type of high tech roleplay. The apocalypse is stylish because it communicates pessimism, irony, and indifference — like being a smoker or drinking hard because we’re all going to die anyway. Rather than the classic outsider stance of ‘Fuck the World,’ it’s infinitely cooler to say, ‘The World is Fucked.'”
The Dirty Future
“If you zoom ahead 20 years, it is very unlikely that we will all be Errolson Hugh-style cyber ninjas. For while the future is generally tied to the idea of progress — the notion that things develop over time in some cumulative type of way — the unfortunate thing is that beings tend to decay. Colossal world events create the kind of disruption that upends progress, causing fissures and deltas in place of what was once stable. Films such as Mad Max show a world filled with skin rash, poverty, and violence. Kanye West’s first Yeezy Season collections (despite their flaws) were an example of embracing this kind of back to roots, spartan future. Martin Margiela’s first runway show on a playground in Paris’ 20th arrondissement was arguably the first to propose this dirty future in the context of fashion, an idea that began as something romantic and would later spin out into heroin chic. The idea of fashion role-playing destitution is so seminal that it plays a central role in the most famous fashion parody of all time, Zoolander, whose creative director villain Mugatu is planning a homelessness-inspired runway show called ‘Derelicte.'”
“Having spent considerable resources imagining the apocalyptic future in its various manifestations, generations of designers and thinkers have proposed speculative solutions that point toward an apocalyptic brand of optimism. Geniuses like Issey Miyake explored survivalism as a pure function through conceptual brands like Final Home and APOC — both dedicated to innovating adaptive solutions for the barren earth to come. Founded in 1992, by Lica and Masahiro Nakagawa, the label 20471120 epitomized Harajuku maximalism while showcasing a future aesthetic based in recycling old products, fighting industry waste, and setting up studios where fans could donate old clothes to be remade as one-of-a kind pieces. Yet even in their most earnest, these future-facing solutions were at best speculative, never made to scale and living firmly within the realm of academia.”
Conclusion: Predictions About Our Real Future
“In the face of our present global disaster, we find ourselves in a situation that feels as though we’ve skipped the bells and whistles of dystopia and gone straight into decline. Few would imagine that New York City would be enduring a shortage of medical supplies and pondering the creation of mass graves — and, for now, the future looks more like looted Wal-Marts and canned tuna than flying cars and floating cities. Today, we’ve become focused solely on what we know works, turning away from novel aesthetics and how things look and returning to our most basic instincts. The real future involves catering to our physiological needs, making masks from old dish towels, draping ourselves in plastic, and wearing latex gloves. These are the aesthetics of coping, one where many of us are considering our own survival for the first time. Rather than replace the expressive and aspirational elements of style, fashion will likely come to play dual roles — both as the expression of our fantasy self and as the reality of who we are today.”
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