The business of trends PART 2: NORMCORE
Welcome to part two of my four-part series that looks at how trends begin and spread. Today I look at the phenomenon of Normcore. It started life as a parody of trend forecasting and immediately turned into an international trend that had everyone using Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Jobs as their style inspiration. Scroll through to get the full story!
At the Frieze Art Fair in October 2013, the art collective K-Hole presented a youth culture analysis titled 'Youth Mode: A report on freedom.' Their presentation was a tongue in cheek critique of the flashy trend reports produced by trend forecasting agencies. With proclamations like "We live in mass indie times" and "The New World Order of Blankness", the report honed in on the cliche that millennials think they are all special, unique snowflakes. 'Normcore' is the portmanteau of 'normal' and 'hardcore', and according to K-Hole, it was the next youth wave. The emotive manifesto explains, "Normcore seeks the freedom that comes with non-exclusivity. It finds liberation in being nothing special, and realizes that adaptability leads to belonging."
Normcore's associated fashion became the most salient element of the message. The Normcore adherent preferred to dress in an inconspicuous way to avoid standing out in the crowd. The bland approach to dressing couldn't even claim to be anti-fashion. Think Jerry Seinfeld's clean denim jeans and white sneakers, or Steves Jobs' uniform of black turtleneck, and again, those darn white sneakers. Your dad was the style icon for Normcore.
Grunge style of the 1990's tapped into a no-fashion
look, but the slackers of that decade were about rejecting society. Normcore is about fading into society.
As explained in Youth Mode: "Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts into sameness." It's funny, right? It was never meant to be serious.
K-Hole's 40-page report was a completely fabricated commentary on society. They weren't a forecasting agency but an art collective; Youth Mode was an art piece performed at an international art fair. Yet, the media latched onto it something fierce and it ended up shifting the conversation in fashion... and marketing! The 'non-trend' fake trend quickly become a trend, whipped up by the media into a marketing frenzy. Google Trends shows us the dramatic spike in the usage of the term Normcore, kicking off around the time of K-Hole's presentation toward the end of 2013.
Normcore was covered extensively. From the New York Times to The Guardian, through to GQ and of course Vogue, everyone had an opinion on Normcore. "Everyone can be fashionable, therefore no one is" claimed GQ in February 2014. And in New York magazine: "By late 2013, it wasn’t uncommon to spot the Downtown chicks you’d expect to have closets full of Acne and Isabel Marant wearing nondescript half-zip pullovers and anonymous denim"
Most coverage would include a knowing wink to the irony of reporting on Normcore as a fashion trend, but it didn't stop people talking about it and buying into it. Outfits became logo-less, gender-neutral and basic, and New Balance sneakers were added to shopping carts all over the world. Major brands and retailers latched onto the term and incorporated it in their marketing messages, as seen here in tweets from Gap and Hanes.
The word had well and truly seeped into society. Normcore was an Oxford Dictionary 'Word of the Year' runner up in 2014 (it lost to 'vape' and tied with 'bae'). The popularity of Normcore died down after the initial burst (as seen in the Google Trends graph above), but its impact on the fashion industry has been long-lasting. The term 'Normcore' has evolved and flexed with the times.
And what is K-Hole's take on Normcore's whip-fast adoption back in 2013? In the Future of Fashion, a video produced by Vogue in 2016, two members of the art collective suggest that when the #normcore mentions began, there was a vacuum of new fashion words. "People needed more vocabulary for fashion," says Emily Segal. The use of the word 'hipster' had been exhausted. The 'massed out' trend had reached saturation point and young people were keen to talk about something new. What was the thing they could latch on to that would allow them to assert their individuality again? Normcore tapped into this exact need, in a zeitgeisty, marketable way. The concept was neatly packaged with a catchy name and a guide on how to dress (even though they weren't trying, obviously).
"The most different thing is to resist
being different together"
Youth Mode, 2013
K-Hole says their work sits in the cross-section of art and marketing. Through their Youth Mode report, they gave a framework to the concept of Normcore and made a statement about society. They also created a pervasive marketing campaign that went on to sell lots of (beige, bland) clothes and garner many clicks, and that's an outcome I am sure they didn't predict.