“An $ 800 tracksuit is not a tracksuit. A $ 1,000 denim jacket is not a denim jacket. These are tuxedos in different forms, ”Telfar Clemens said in a recent interview. Beyond semiotics, the observation of the New York designer perfectly captures the future post-genre of fashion.
Fashion has always played with hybrids, and the trend has recently accelerated. Sacai comes to mind as one of the pioneers of fashion deconstruction: sewn bomber jackets with blazers, fur puffer jackets, and half-wool-half-coat-wool sweater combos. Confusion as to what work clothes look like these days has resulted in mixes of essentials, tailoring, streetwear, sportswear, men’s and women’s clothing in general, and everything in between.
It would be a mistake, however, to equate post-genre fashion with hybrid fashion. Genderless fashion is a fundamental change in the basic organizing principle of fashion. Recently, it has been brought to a climax by cultural acceleration, social fluidity and the global market. But its foundations were laid with the decline in the importance of traditional retail formats. When department stores reigned supreme, fashion genres were a convenient way to organize malls and in-store customer journeys.
Fashion genres also reflected social status and, by proxy, taste. Couture, high street, JCPenney all implied a social class and the taste of their buyers. The trends and evolution of fashion genres have followed the dynamics of the taste class: as the lower class adopted certain tastes, the upper class abandoned them and turned to the new ones. Luxury stores were, until recently, designed, staffed and maintained to welcome some visitors and turn others off.
The way we express our status, our tastes and our identity creates new social formats. Streetwear culture and its stores, lineups, language, communities and drops are a new social format. Vintage is another: vintage enthusiasts talk for hours about their recent finds; they know good dealers and can recognize a year of production by a label, and they have their communities, vocabulary, and social media accounts that they follow. Taste is an activity that is developed, cultivated and refined by absorbing the social and cultural capital that surrounds us.
In the same way that department stores imploded once they ceased to be relevant to consumer behavior, genres dissipated when the social, cultural, and economic status they reported became disconnected from how consumers reported their tastes, status and identity.
Nobody on the Internet speaks in genres. They speak in memes, referrals, and remixes. This language of border crossing and cross-pollination breaks down genres by default: it takes elements from different genres and turns them into a new cultural production. On the Internet, we don’t buy something that belongs to a specific genre (eg tailoring); we buy for example a look of Timothée Chalamet, Pharrell or Tyler, the creator. These looks themselves are memes that live on in the endless referrals they generate.
In this fluid cultural landscape, fashion genres are too narrow a way of organizing clothing. Like music genres, fashion genres were once a tool for companies to categorize, brand, market and promote themselves for decades. This tool is less and less relevant to the way consumers discover, buy and wear fashion.
No context is context
Fashion genres refer to distinct and separate contexts where clothes are meant to be worn: casual, sportswear, black-tie. The decontextualization of our social, cultural and economic frameworks and our roles within them has been stimulated by the 2020 pandemic, the referential nature of the Internet and the ambitious modern economy where status is signaled by taste and knowledge of ‘initiated and not by money.
In this world, sneakers are the new moccasins, comfort is king, and vintage pieces are on the same panel as last season. What was once a niche (streetwear, vintage, gorpcore) is now mainstream. The old build – and its exclusive and rarefied nature – has nothing to do with the new build: Rowing Blazers style their waistline with hoodies, windbreakers, and piercings. We are a long way from Ralph Lauren’s Golden American Dream, and that is precisely the draw. Aimé Leon Dore recently collaborated with Martin Greenfield, a bespoke tailor based in Brooklyn, on his formal wear. The result is a double-breasted tuxedo worn over sweatpants – both for a night out at a fancy restaurant or a Saturday morning draw.
The ability to bring things from different contexts together in unexpected ways has become the ultimate stylistic flex, no longer just for celebrity stylists and art directors only, but for everyone. What was once a conceptual exercise is now day wear.
To dress to belong to dress to stand out
In the past, fashion genres like punk, preppy and minimalist marked a subculture and defined its identity, cultural affiliation, values, interests and social orientation. Now the roles have turned and a sense of self defines the genres. A unique point of view gives a unique personal genre. Breaking fashion codes and recontextualizing fashion items has become a vehicle for signaling its authenticity and its difference. Before, we used to dress to belong; now we dress to stand out.
Blame fashion aftermarket like Depop, where individual expression and experimentation has made fashion genres obsolete by the very design of the platform. Popular looks are created by “regular” people who do creative things with their clothes, and that creativity is what we buy: the look of someone, not a particular gender within them. Everyone is a fashion curator, designer, and influencer, and many fashion voices inevitably lead to faster trend cycles. People get bored and move on to the next look, making genres more and more and irremediably less relevant. Everything can be discovered, bought and sold anywhere, by anyone and to anyone.
Self-expression as a genre of ultimate fashion is intrinsically linked to our new social, psychological, and cultural appreciation of personal identity, self-care, and mental health. The sense of self, and the act of respect, also merges fashion with other cultural forms, such as music, cinema, art or food. Telfar expresses itself through its fashion shows that are theater, performance and party.
Self-expression translates into products. Today’s icons – retro Jordans, the 450s – are no longer a reflection of social distancing. They are cultural references with a promise of belonging, knowledge and shared identity. This, and the purpose, is tied to our pandemic-induced questioning of priorities, values and our role in the world. Fashion today is less about the established genres that brands represent and more about what brands represent and do in the world.
At the other end of the lens spectrum are style algorithms. Just like Spotify does in music, StitchFix and The Yes do it in fashion: they learn our style and serve us personalized recommendations. But Instagram and TikTok go even further, albeit less overtly. Algorithmic personalization of these platforms effectively erases fashion genres as it allows us to enjoy very attractive looks no matter who created them, where they came from or how they were originally classified. Looks are provided based on algorithmically created style profiles, rather than editorial.
The fashion playground for algorithms: we randomly discover niche categories of people, styles and behaviors. Trends that emerge in small communities are more easily and quickly picked up by a larger audience; a niche lives (and dies) faster in the mainstream.
The new big book of fashion
Potentially, the greatest characteristic of the post-genre fashion world is its openness to interpretation. If genres were the grammar of fashion, today’s fashion mainly revolves around words, that is, clothing. Like a DNA sequence or a blockchain, the possibilities are endless. There are only signifiers – physical and digital – that we recombine at our disposal. The only role model is the person who wears the clothes and the way they wear them. Just like an observer makes a great work of art, a wearer finishes the fashion story. Art is not in any of the objects; fashion is not in any of the clothes. It’s in their own sense of self and where they want to take it.
The post-genre world is forcing fashion to expand its aesthetic vocabulary, with tokens from video games, cartoons, movies, art, performance, music, identity studies, history lessons. and fashion. To be successful here, fashion brands must develop their own aesthetic register. But it’s the rest of us who buy it, trade it in, and own it.