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Special Report: Welcome to the “New Age” of Spiritual Luxury

  • Words: Christopher Morency

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.

In this edition of FRONTPAGE, we explore how in today’s increasingly spiritualized world, fashion is poised to become a new vessel that leads us the way.

In Paris, on the final Sunday morning of women’s fashion month in late January, Kanye West had something to preach.

During a last minute summoning, 150-odd fashion insiders — including Simon Jacquemus, A.P.C.’s Jean Touitou, and Balenciaga’s CEO Cédric Charbit — gathered for a surprise edition of West’s Sunday Service in Paris’ historic Bouffes du Nord theater. Since January 2019, West’s traveling, non-denominational Christian masses have seen high-profile attendees like Kid Cudi, A$AP Rocky, and Katy Perry sing to a mix-mash of West’s back catalog and Christian gospel classics performed by the 100-something Sunday Service choir, fully cloaked in YEEZY uniforms. West’s choir leader evangelized: “A lot of time we put our faith in material things, but those things won’t fulfill us. We love Jesus Christ more than an expensive outfit.”

Despite early warnings following the Covid-19 outbreak during Milan Fashion Week, the group sang, danced, and united in close proximity. Sisters Kim Kardashian West and Kourtney Kardashian attended the passionate 90-minute religious ceremony in latex bodysuits by Balmain. Singers cried, others were ecstatic. A single face mask was seen. It was the church of the present.

The next night that same group of editors — and many fans — came together outside the futuristic Espace Niemeyer for the launch of YEEZY Season 8. Now, West had something to sell. Ye’s spiritual awakening made it back into a single garment, a guardian angel printed on a sand tank top. Before the show, fellow journalists and I asked Kanye — whose YEEZY business does over a billion dollars in annual sales — why he had brought Sunday Service to Paris. “To spread the Holy Spirit, that’s my job as a Christian,” he explained, adding how his faith has directly impacted his fashion business.

West isn’t the only person in the fashion-hip-hop-complex who has made a louder and louder habit of proudly announcing his faith. Rappers including A$AP Rocky, Skepta, Yasiin Bey, Stormzy, and Jaden Smith have long referenced spirituality in their work and interviews. But in fashion, the relationship is more playful and precarious. For decades, surface-level appropriation of religious symbolism, imagery, and costumes have occasionally popped up on the runways of Riccardo Tisci’s Givenchy, John Galliano’s Dior, Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, and Jean Paul Gaultier. Each has looked to the visual aesthetics of religions including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism to sell clothes, but the spirituality of its makers has always been kept at the level of innuendo.

However, with a new generation of consumer comes a much less ironic outlook on the existence of a high power. As Gen Z-ers and millennials — who, according to Boston Consulting Group, will make up approximately 61 percent of the global personal luxury goods market by 2026 — are finding new guidance in spirituality, it’s no surprise the global fashion industry, hungry for a slice of the youth culture pie, is increasingly latching on to new age spirituality in their marketing and product design.

“We think many creatives are genuinely interested in things that inspire them, so it’s not surprising that some of us would be focused on infusing these ideas and practices into our work far ahead of others,” explain Advisory Board Crystals founders Remington Guest and Heather Haber. As their name suggests, the Los Angeles-based label founded in 2015 sells crystals — such as opal aura citrines and orange cactus spirit quartz — alongside limited-edition gear that has elements of the crystals tied to it. The label has also created merch for rappers like Lil Wayne and Migos. “On the other hand, a lot of creatives, and especially a lot of the industry of ‘brands,’ follow trends to get their ideas, and there’s that side that leads to the more disingenuous aspect of it all,” the founders add.

Through religious symbolism, astrology readings, tarot cards, crystals, and yin and yang signs, brands both big and small are aiming to buoy the next generation’s appetite for the metaphysical. Zodiac motifs covered couture gowns at Maria Grazia Chiuri’s debut couture collection for Christian Dior’s Spring 2017 show; Dapper Dan launched his Harlem Gucci boutique designed with chakra symbolism that same year; and the following year, Vetements dropped a range of star sign tees and rain coats.

Today, boutiques like Browns Fashion sell sets of crystals, brands like Alighieri by Rosh Mahtani are looking to crystal readings and sound baths as fresh avenues to present their new collections, and everyone from Givenchy, Valentino, Moschino, Rick Owens, Supreme, Noah, Ganni, and Brother Vellies are incorporating spiritual symbols into their designs.

However, spirituality that only touches the product-level surface falls short of what our generation is seeking. Earlier this month, Highsnobiety launched ‘Inner Life,’ a capsule collection aimed to connect with our inner selves. “Tackling topics that are closely connected to happiness and giving thought starters is important, especially to a younger audience,” explains Highsnobiety’s Herbert Hofmann, who oversaw the creative direction and launch of the project. “It’s about focusing on your inner life and finding out out what matters beyond superficial social media presence and suggested lifestyles that aren’t mentally healthy.”

To fully sense where the relationship between our generation and spirituality is heading, and how brands can mirror the fundamental fulfillments found in higher forces, we first need to understand what’s changed.

MASTER OF NONES

Over the past four decades, traditional religion in the US and Europe has been in decline. According to Pew Research Center, religious “nones” — those who say their religion is “nothing in particular,” or self-identify as atheist or agnostics — made up roughly 23 percent of the US adult population in 2018. It’s a notable increase from 2007, when a similar Pew Research study was conducted and only 16 percent of Americans were “nones.” In 1991, the total stood at just six percent.

At large, religiously unaffiliated people in the US, Europe, and in Latin America were mostly concentrated among young adults — far more so than any other demographic, with 35 percent of millennials self-identifying as “nones.” And the median age is getting lower.

“About a quarter of US adults — 27 percent — now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious,” says Claire Gecewicz, a research associate focused on religious research at Pew Research Center. "It’s an eight percent increase compared to five years ago."

While organized religion’s set-in-stone rules around ethics are increasingly at odds with the social mores of the next generation, the need for guidance in an increasingly polarized world is still clearly felt. A closer look at US and UK-based millennials and Gen Z-ers shows that 80 percent of them say they feel a sense of spirituality and believe in a higher power, according to Virtue. In the age of Covid-19, natural disasters, Trump, and Brexit, we want to believe the human race will sort itself out. Enter: some kind of mystical force.

“I think it comes down to wanting to believe that there's something out there beyond ourselves and our immediate reality,” explains Maude Churchill, a London-based writer and editor, who in 2016 released lead the creation of "The New Spirituality" for Protein Agency where she was working at the time. “I think religion is just as toxic as politics in so many ways. And spirituality is what you make of it. It’s just such an intrinsic part of humanity.”

Next to the many external macro factors adding to the infatuation of new age spirituality, the gradual erosion of the traditional norms that once made up (and continue to make up) our identity — like gender, nationality, religion, and age — have equally “played a part in consumers searching for new modes of guidance,” argues Churchill, who in her report states that through social media, culture now arrives splintered through a myriad of filters, which results in too much noise that distracts from a true awareness of ourselves.

“It’s not a coincidence that the shift is coming at a time when it really feels like the world is going to shit and kind of falling apart,” she says. “We can’t stop the way the environment is affecting us, but we can feel like ‘my horoscope today is telling me something of the times with how I’m feeling.’”

The idea of spirituality giving you a sense of purpose dates back to the New Age movement, which spread through occult and metaphysical religious communities of the 1970s and 1980s, spinning like crystal-colored aftershocks from the beatnik and hippie movements of the decades prior. Pioneering architects of the faction included American theosophist David Spangler and the late Ram Dass, who strived to create a sense of community within the decentralized movement. Traditional occult practices — including astrology, yoga, meditation, mediumship, tarot readings, and later crystals — were tools used by the movement to achieve personal transformation.

Very much regarded as an alternative lifestyle from the mainstream, unlike its wider acceptance today, the New Age movement made a profound impact on Western youth culture at the time, many of whom were introduced to the movement through numerous specialized bookstores which started popping up. Among them was designer and Gucci collaborator Dapper Dan.

“[Spirituality] came to me when I was turning my life around,” Dap told Highsnobiety when we spoke at length in his Milan hotel last year. At 23, Dap stepped foot into a historical bookstore called Tree of Life on 25th Street in New York, a popular Mecca for New Age believers, to learn about metaphysics. “So I went in there and got a book called Back to Eden, [and] they didn’t have it so I walked up to this guy that looked so spiritual as if he had a halo. He said, “No brother, but look right here,” showing me a book called Man’s Higher Consciousness by Hilton Hotema. That book altered my whole life.”

By the mid-1990s, the New Age movement was dying. After losing much of its momentum throughout the decade before, things went silent. Then came the internet.

CONNECTEDNESS 2.0

“The internet and especially social media changed everything,” explains Susan Miller, founder of Astrology Zone and astrologer to the stars. Miller is the undisputed pope of astrology, and at 1.5 million unique visitors a month, 200 million page views a year, and an average dwell time of five minutes per person at any given time, her website, astrologyzone.com, is an astrological St. Peter’s Basilica.

She’s done readings for Raf Simons, taught her craft to Emma Stone, and counts Pharrell, Jennifer Aniston, Lindsay Lohan, Katy Perry, Kirsten Dunst, and many more among her readers. She advised Cameron Diaz on the right timing to buy property. She correctly predicted Beyoncé’s wedding year, Britney Spears’ comeback, and President Obama’s re-election. But most of all, Miller is proudest of being the first to recognize the potential of bringing spirituality to the masses online. On December 14, 1995, she went live with her first post.

“What I think millennials really like about astrology is the rising sun, which dictates their profession,” says Miller, whose monthly horoscopes often clock in at 40,000 words. “I think our society has trusted science so much that we’ve gone just one direction with no ability to incorporate astrology, [but] we have a human need for it. We need to make sense of all this.”

It’s where a genuine connection with fashion comes in, adds Miller. “Creative people love astrology with its rich structure and detail. Their right brain wants to know what else is possible. How else can they push the boundaries of their lives and make it more interesting? It gives them ideas. They want progress, and astrology guides the way.”

Miller sees truth in many things. She believes Kanye is doing “great things” in the world of spirituality. She believes life is supposed to be hard, otherwise we would all become marshmallows. And she believes astrology gives you ideas, shows us that we’re systematically tested and rewarded, and will tell you when to do the counterintuitive.

Most of all, she believes that public perception around spirituality is changing. “People talk about it now because it’s acceptable. We’re influenced by the social mores of the times, [and astrology] gives enlightenment, so why shouldn’t we talk about it?”

The American public agrees. Pew Research Center’s Claire Gecewicz says that roughly 65 percent of American’s between 18 and 29 now accept at least one New Age belief — including astrology, psychic foresight, reincarnation, and spiritual energy found in objects.

This shift has been fueled by the seamless digital integration of New Age ideas, which has renewed many people’s interest in spirituality. For our generation, finding a spiritual community outside of our direct culture has never been easier. What’s changed is the collectivity that has surrounded spirituality is now deeply rooted in individualism. Social media has made spirituality accessible by rebranding itself as a satirical tool for self-reflection.

“If you look at astrology through the filter of Instagram, it acts, it behaves, it communicates like a meme,” explains Churchill. “We share memes as a way to kind of interact with one another, but when you have this added layer of both being Scorpios, for example, it reaffirms the bond even more.”

Pioneering figures like Miller, along with spirituality apps including Co-Star, The Pattern, and Time Nomad, have come to prominence at a time when many young people are finding a new openness towards alternative science and New Age beliefs. It’s connectedness 2.0.

“I’m deeply suspicious about the degree to which it’s actually a trend,” says Banu Guler, founder and CEO of Co-Star. The New York-based, AI-driven horoscope app is hyper-personalized to each user’s entire chart based on NASA data interpreted by astrologers, and shows daily compatibility with friends on the app and in person. “I think a lot of this stuff really just gives people avenues to have deeper relationships with others, where you talk about deep-seated fears and anxieties and hopes and dreams. That’s what real relationships are about.”

Guler, a fashion veteran who once served as director of product and design at VFILES, founded Co-Star in 2017 as a democratized platform for young people to connect. Today, the company has over 7.5 million registered users, with 5 percent of 18 to 25-year-old American men having used Co-Star. To date, it’s raised investment shy of $6 million and has been used in 192 countries.

“Both astrology and fashion are conduits for connection. Everyone desires connection, but there isn’t a common language to facilitate any of it,” explains Guler. “When you look at astrology and fashion, you see people use them as an excuse to get together, to signal what they're into, to find a shared language to develop this real, deep connection. They spark needed conversation in a sea of small talk, whether on social or at these weird shows, or literally through the clothes or signs themselves. Walking up the street and seeing someone who's wearing the same obscure designer makes you say, ‘We're the same kind of person.’ It creates a powerful moment of real recognition and an intense connection.”

FASHION’S METAPHYSICAL FRONTIER

The parallels between the function that both spirituality and fashion fulfill in our lives are indeed no longer as far-fetched as they once were. Fashion houses like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Burberry are constantly racing to quench the ever-evolving tastes of the super-consumers which push the world’s collective aesthetic drive. Their cultural impact has reached beyond expensive products alone.

In light of this, fashion brands have evolved to encompass what you would expect of an older sibling, close friend, or even something bigger. From frequent, two-way communication to consistent accessibility, to taking an active stance for what is right — be it sustainable practices, politics, or worker welfare — we expect brands to align with our personal values and beliefs. Winners in the space therefore need to look deeper at the forces driving young shoppers to spirituality in the first place. Far beyond product alone, they’ll adopt the spiritual characteristics around self-growth, identity, and create a unified cause for the group they’re selling to.

Those that successfully do so win us over. True brands are bigger than life. Public perception aside, brands like Supreme, JW Anderson and Gucci hold up a mirror to society. They increasingly urge us to pay attention to causes like equality, anti-gun violence and Covid-19 relief, educate us on culture, and are vessels for connection, ultimately turning consumers into fans. They make us strive to be better, and sell us a belief that guides us where they go (i.e. we listen to the Louis Vuittons and New Balances of this world more than we do the leaders of our country when they tell us to stay home during this Covid-19 epidemic).

HOW TO PREACH TO THE CHOIR

Fashion’s biggest current challenge with adopting spirituality to connect with youth culture is to not follow the same literal path it did when it decided to appropriate streetwear. In the early 2010s, the demographic driving the luxury market forward started skewing younger, and fashion brands scrambled to absorb streetwear and its creators as a gateway to prosperity and as a means of connection with its new audience.

This last decade’s tried and true approach of elevating working class dress codes by producing "Made in Italy" leather sneakers, artisanal hoodies, and overpriced graphic tees took consumer behavior too literally. It pushed the needle for some, but most others missed the mark and found themselves following culture instead. In this climate, winning brands were able to learn from streetwear’s ‘drop’ system, adapt to the way it spoke with its community in order to be part of it, and made products responsive. And, in effect, they successfully gained the trust of a new tribe of shoppers.

The same lessons apply to the fashion industry’s adoption of New Age spirituality. Those who speak honestly to their customers and seek to understand them will find a way to surf through this sea change. Those who don’t and confuse this change in zeitgeist for a trend will end up with sale racks full of cringe-worthy products.

For the kids lining up outside Supreme and Dover Street Market, brands are as much an extension of their identity as they are a way to connect with others in the know. The community created around these brands and retailers isn’t simply a fortuitous outcome of their efforts so much as it’s a consequence of the community itself, who have united around a shared cause. For true fans, products themselves solely serve as a trophy of belonging and identity — the ultimate main drivers of brands acting as guiding lights for inner self-improvement.

As Protein put it: “The rewards [of a product] are not just monetary, they engender a kind of devotion that no clever marketing campaign or influencer gifting could ever replicate.”

This shift in devoted worship is something we’ve already observed in celebrity culture, where the role of the once exclusive and private celebrity has changed into a more spiritual one. Social media has given celebrities a direct line to their followers, having regained control over their personal brand in the process. It’s why we collectively listen to DJ Khaled’s words of wisdom, buy what Kylie Jenner tells us to buy, and dress the way Kanye dresses.

As London skater, artist, and designer Blondey McCoy put it in his Highsnobiety cover story in late 2019, when it comes to mass devotion, there’s little distinction between the 155 million people that live by Selena Gomez’s “truth” on Instagram or the faith others have in Jesus. “Having something to aspire to is necessary in human life. Whether that worship has slipped to celebrities or makeup tutorials over religious figures, there’s no absolute truth, neither in religion or pop culture,” McCoy explained, referring to the inspiration of his latest solo art show “Stella Populis,” which explored the manifestations of super-fanaticism related to the parallels between religion and pop culture. “Celebrities want to be remembered after they’re dead.”

And so do many brands, but most aren’t there yet. Brands like YEEZY, Fear of God, Daily Paper, and Online Ceramics get it right. They live and breathe the beliefs they’re pushing out into the market without relying too heavily on literal aesthetics. They democratize their connection with their audiences by transparently offering a full look into their universe, allowing consumers to be part of their brand narrative, and often extending their offering beyond fashion alone.

Earlier this month, Advisory Board Crystals launched Abc.Xyz, a dedicated Instagram and webpage serving as an extension of the brand’s universe and collective language. The visual moodboard, which the founders call “their version of a modern day bookshop,” includes everything from crystals to artworks, books and film posters — everything but product.

“It all has to make sense and be part of a bigger picture,” explain Abc’s Guest and Haber, who say the page is just one part of a bigger brand story created in 2015. “We felt it’s one way of helping our community deal with what’s happening in the world at the moment. Nothing comes in the way of the bigger picture.”

In fashion, that bigger picture thinking around the foundations that make up spirituality is suitably taking ambiguous forms. Zilver, the eco-concious, genderless line founded by Brazilian designer Pedro Lourenço, creates entire collections based on star signs, his latest being based around Cancers. The brand’s purpose, however, goes deeper on a spiritual level when communicating with its clients.

“Over the last couple of years, fashion has been on the opposite side of spirituality. The speed of the system isn’t sustainable for the people working in it and consuming it,” he explains. “When I think about spirituality, I feel this challenging moment [with Covid-19] is giving us an opportunity to rethink the value of time and our place on the planet.”

“In fashion, [spirituality] is illustrated genuinely and successfully when the clothing is implying a look that has nothing literal, and [instead] seems to have a surreal unexplainable value. What matters is how those references are treated,” adds French menswear designer Boramy Viguier, whose spiritual influences run deep through his brand. Since its inception in 2017, Viguier has paired each individual garment with a tarot card, received by the buyer. He believes being successful, however, means taking it to the next step: “[In the end] you can confront yourself to subjects that are greater than you, or just care about what the next sneaker collaboration is going to look like.”

It gets to the crux of how the relationship between our generation and brands has changed. The kids who are driving the luxury market forward today have grown up with streetwear, which at its core was never as much about the end product as it was about finding like-minded peers and serving as a space to come into your own. Now matured, those expectations haven’t changed, they have simply been carried over to luxury brands. Our intense devotion for brands has gotten to the extent where we see them as a religion. When consumerism has become a subculture in its own right, we expect brands to share our values, connect us and guide us forward. When uncertainty hits the world, we want to associate ourselves with those who have the ability to fill the emptiness that made us look to spirituality in the first place.

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