While perceptions around menswear have changed significantly, the stigma behind men and fashion still exists. However, thanks to a new subset of meme culture, humor has become a palatable way to make fashion less mystifying to a more general audience. What began as playful online lingua franca is now a full-blown movement celebrating the various facets of the fashion industry, and promoting its democratization in the process.
Just as memes are a reflection of the zeitgeist, they are also a reflection of the pace at which fashion trends are disseminated. Pieces like butterfly-embroidered Needles track pants or accordion-esque Homme Plissé Issey Miyake trousers have become go-to items for internet style neophytes, essentially becoming “viral garments.” On the lower end, COMME des GARÇONS PLAY is a punchline for dilettantes who are too afraid to wear Rei Kawakubo’s more avant-garde collections.
In poking fun at these cosmopolitan fashion tropes, the hope is to encourage casual enthusiasts to continue to broaden their horizons. It’s also become a good barometer for when certain labels or hyped items have peaked.
“Memes help spot trends and call them out,” says Karsten Kroening, who runs the Instagram account @memesaintlaurent. “When I was first getting into fashion it was apparent that clothes had an expiration date on them and then they become a meme…That’s what the internet has always done–make memes about whatever is viral. Clothes are no different.”
Whether you are dripped out in head-to-toe ACRONYM or breaking in a fresh pair of selvedge denim, it’s clear that fashion’s meme culture is all-inclusive. Through the coexistence of these distinct styles and aesthetics, an impassioned, yet humorous banter takes place. “The most popular memes will always be the ones that are creating some sort of hierarchy,” says Kroening. “The human mind is obsessed with different classes and fashion memes are no exception.”
In the early days of the internet, a small community of style-conscious guys utterly consumed with their appearance found their people. Through forums such as SuperFuture and StyleForum, men were finally allowed the opportunity to converse about their unspoken interest in fashion. They discussed canvassed suits from ISAIA, drop-crotch shorts by Rick Owens, and Stüssy x Futura World Tour Tees like guys comparing engines in aspirational supercars, or comic nerds arguing over if Spider-Man could beat Batman in a fight.
This language spilt over from forums and onto social platforms like Instagram and Tumblr. Of the latter, a community formed around #menswear. In a post-recession world, men ditched streetwear for more classic tailored pieces, at the same time, a new generation of “jawns enthusiasts” turned to the internet to learn the basics of dressing well. In this particular subculture, bench-made double-monk strap shoes (or “dub-monks”) and unstructured Italian tailoring (or sprezzatura—the Italian art of looking perfectly effortless) were grails.
“It felt like a special moment in time,” recalls Lawrence Schlossman, brand director at resale platform Grailed. “This was a collection of guys and readers who were discovering this ‘safe space.’”
It was out of this love for sartorial that Four Pins was born. A subsidiary of Complex, Four Pins was originally meant as an elevated men’s lifestyle platform—think expensive watches, high-end cars, and bespoke suits. But when Schlossman was hired as its editor-in-chief, he turned it into something else entirely—a website that poked fun at hyper-masculine attitudes towards dressing, and never ceased to remind its audience about how ridiculous it was that dudes somehow formed a community around wearing clothes on the internet.
Four Pins’ voice juxtaposed sartorial terms with a new slang, demystifying cult labels and introducing younger readers to a mature style of dressing. “Jawnz” evolved from a Philadelphia-born pronoun into a catch-all term referring to covetable gear. Beyond tailoring, Four-Pins was also known for its Jon Moy-penned manifestos covering everything from Crocs to Wacko Maria military shirts, subverting the blog news post and turning it into a dose of absurdism. But in 2013, the site was effectively folded into the Complex umbrella, although its posts live on within Complex’s archives.
“I like to think that we played a part in de-stigmatizing menswear enthusiasm on the internet,” says Schlossman. “We had a hand in changing the way that people write and talk about clothing and the culture around it—making it more conversational like how you would talk to a homie.”
In the wake of Four Pins, a new crop of Instagram accounts taking the piss out of fashion is on the rise. Think something along the lines of @fuckjerry, but with more jokes about Raf Simons, Off-White™, and Supreme. One of the most popular subjects is Rick Owens.
Perceived as an oddity within the fashion industry, Owens is renowned for his unorthodox behavior. Whether it be his 1:1 human furniture, showing dicks on the runway, or that time he punched a model for carrying a “Please Kill Angela Merkel” sign on the catwalk, fashion memers love Rick not only for his designs, but for his character.
Founded by Grailed employee Davil Tran, VETEMEMES has pivoted from a Demna Gvasalia-approved VETEMENTS parody line to a full-on fashion meme account. After finding out about the self-professed “parody of a parody,” Gvasalia refrained from taking legal action.
Gvasalia’s welcome attitude supports the idea that fashion is quickly moving away from established notions of elitism and towards that of inclusion and democratization. According to Tran, humor and satire are assuming new precedence in the industry as traditional guidelines begin to vanish.
“It’s fine to be chaotic with things,” says Tran. “I made a T-shirt with a woman wearing the ‘LOL’ shirt worn…the one worn by the suspect in the death of Kim Jong Un’s half brother. Why? Why not.”
Take a look at the recent “Rick on a Scooter” meme created by VETEMEMES—an image of Rick Owens zipping through the streets of Paris on a rental scooter. The meme subverts the way Owens is perceived: God-level fashion designer’s they’re just like us! A few days later, Michele Lamy posted an illustrated version of the photo on her own account, signaling her and Rick’s silent approval.
“Rick Owens is a god. He has no reason to be fazed by memes,” adds Tran. “He has gains to worry about; his life is perfect.”
Beyond Owen’s infectious personality, the real joke is in the way budding streetwear enthusiasts try to style his clothing—and often fail. In some ways, Owens was responsible for producing the first viral garments available on the market.
A perfect example of these viral garments can be seen in Demna Gvasalia’s VETEMENTS—itself a high-priced byproduct of post-irony internet culture—taking things that seemed commonplace and imbuing a new meaning to them.
While the “ironic fashion fake” (IFF) was nothing groundbreaking at the time, VETEMENTS breathed new life into the concept. Naomi Klein, author of the 1999 bestseller No Logo, once wrote: “Something not far from the surface of the public psyche is delighted to see the icons of corporate power subverted and mocked. There is, in short, a market for it.”
If Virgil Abloh was a pioneer in creating the IFF with PYREX and Off-White™, Gvasalia popularized it. This notion is quite evident when considering the appointment of Gvasalia as creative director of Balenciaga. After joining the legacy house, Gvasalia’s predilection towards the IFF was seemingly legitimized. Hence, how Bernie Sanders campaign graphics and Kering’s company logo became covetable pieces for Gvasalia’s Balenciaga collections. Gvasalia soundly documented the current zeitgeist using our culture’s most appreciated language—satire.
In many ways, the growing sophistication of fashion memes is aligned with the growing sophistication of the fashion fan. Take the “fuccboi glass ceiling,” a diagram that places several streetwear brands under 4 general labels: innovation, absorption, iteration, aspiration (with a “queer” and “straight” threshold on each end of the spectrum). Lucas Mascatello, the creator of the meme claims that “streetwear turning kids into yuppies by domesticating and selling off subcultural aesthetics is particularly gross.”
The diagram serves as a general critique of streetwear brands and the commodity culture they perpetuate. It’s in this vein of taking something hierarchical like fashion and dismantling it that fashion’s meme culture continues to thrive.
“Memes are just inserting humor into the topics that our generation is interested in,” adds Kroening. “Once brands and businesses learn to take advantage of that effectively, it can be turned into a huge means for marketing. Fashion is no different.”
Indeed, just two years ago Gucci tapped meme accounts like @cabbagecatmemes, @champagneemojis, and @youvegotnomale for its #TFWGucci and #GucciGram campaigns, tapping into the internet zeitgeist early on—even resulting in an elevated take on the Arthur’s fist meme. Despite mixed reaction, the metrics show that Gucci managed to reach over 120 million people with its humorous campaigns.
While designers like Rick Owens are memed out of appreciation, there are a few who are openly mocked. Phillip Plein has become an anti-idol for fashion memers, feigning their fandom as a thinly-veiled insult. Plein’s clothing is the equivalent of Ed Hardy designing luxury apparel for Vin Diesel.
His tactless displays of wealth, hyper-masculine personality, and Instagram feed have more in common with Dan Bilzerian than Dries Van Noten. Whether he’s unveiling a jewel-encrusted robot on the runway or body-shaming a critic on his feed, Plein has come to represent everything people hate about fashion.
“Phillip Plein is the most ridiculous—just take a look at his Instagram or his runway shows,” says Tran. “If you look at his clothing, you will get a clear understanding of his brand—clothing made for rich, loud, obnoxious people who have no taste.”
Contrasting the instant recognition of Plein’s logos or Owens’ signature silhouettes, Swedish brand Our Legacy deals in a more subtle form of subversion. While the label may embody quintessential Scandinavian minimalism at first glance, there is a sea of psychedelic prints and technical materials to uncover.
Its garment-dyed First Shirts and wide-leg trackpants are the gateway to the galaxy-brain meme of items like sheer organza button-downs and acid-print resort shirts. Just as Four Pins made menswear more palatable, Our Legacy does the same. James Harris and Lawrence Schlossman’s “Failing Upwards” podcast regularly plugs the label, and even featured co-founder Jockum Hallin as a guest.
As of late, Our Legacy is receiving widespread attention thanks to a collection of memes posted by Daniel Kallmen (who works for the label) and reposted by both fans of Our Legacy and the Failing Upwards podcast.
“Our Legacy is sometimes perceived as ‘basic pieces’ by people who don’t know the brand, but we are mostly appreciated for something else—mainly our custom fabrics, silhouettes, and collection themes,” says Kallmen. “The clash between the two views of the brand is a good start for jokes and memes—especially for those who are in-the-know.”