When describing how she and her friends dress, 13-year-old Calgarian Tala Mottahed uses the word “basic.” For the past decade, that term has most often been employed as an insult to describe a look that’s common, predictable and unexceptional. But it has no negative connotations for Mottahed. “It’s just comfy stuff – leggings and baggy jeans and crop tops and shirts,” she says. “Just basic.”
This example of the evolution of the increasingly nuanced ways we talk about personal aesthetics is the stuff that trend-forecaster nightmares are made of. The days of fashion and beauty brands neatly dictating seasonal colours, hemline lengths and silhouettes via their runway shows and advertising campaigns are long gone. Consumers are no longer rushing to the mall to blindly wear what they’re told. Instead, we pick and choose pieces that express the story we want to tell about ourselves and shuffle in and out of style tribes of like-minded people.
Ascribing to an aesthetic is nothing new. The mods of the 1960s were distinguished by their Chelsea boots and military parkas worn to keep their slim-cut suits clean on their Vespas, while the punks of the 1970s preferred torn clothing, combat boots and safety-pin piercings that signified their rebellion against the status quo. In today’s Information Age, however, these tribes are becoming more and more fractured and specific. The meaning of the word “aesthetic” has grown beyond the philosophy of beauty and taste to describe how we categorize our own identities, with the goal of having all visuals align in a consistent style that works equally well online and off.
In his book, The Generation Myth: Why When You’re Born Matters Less Than You Think, author Bobby Duffy refutes dated modes of categorizing people by focusing on generational clichés, such as the idea that baby boomers are selfish and millennials more narcissistic. “Much of the discourse on the topic is based on stereotypes and lazy thinking, making it useless or dangerous,” he writes, explaining that more systemic thinking is required. “We need to carefully unpack the forces that shape us as individuals and societies.”
Unpacking style aesthetics today can be as complicated as researching a family tree that goes back generations, with offshoots appearing at every juncture threatening to lead you down an endless tangent. Amanda Brennan, senior director of trends at marketing agency XX Artists (whose work has earned her the nickname “meme librarian”) uses the “cottagecore” aesthetic as an example of how contemporary trends can emerge and spread. The look exploded online though pretty Pinterest images of young women wearing ruffled dresses in pastoral landscapes before leaching into popular culture through moments such as Taylor Swift’s 2020 album, Folklore. Whether you’ve ever heard of cottagecore or not, it has likely influenced you to buy something with a more handcrafted look lately.
Brennan says today’s aesthetics are constantly evolving, a process that began when millennials took the seeds of 1980s and 90s Gen X subcultures and put them online. “Millennials really drove adoption of aesthetics with the internet. The internet is where millennials figure this stuff out,” she says. Now, those aesthetics – with names like Y2K (a nostalgic riff on late 1990s and early 2000s style immortalized in paparazzi shots of celebrities such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton), goblincore (an earthy reference to gnarly forests and creatures like worms and snails) and Old Money (a country-club look positioned as a backlash against the airbrushed Californian influencer style) – are readily available for anyone to experiment with, something today’s youth has embraced. “With Gen Z, they see all of these options on the table. They have a lot more freedom in what they can try and explore,” Brennan says.
Maddy Buxton, the culture and trends manager for YouTube Canada, has seen videos about these more precise aesthetics garner millions of views on the platform. Beyond the evolution in meaning and merging of independent aesthetics to create new ones, she says what’s interesting is how an aesthetic has moved beyond the clothing and accessories themselves to encompass larger themes, including self-improvement and personal growth.
“Some of the early aesthetics we saw were really tied to the objects you can buy that will help you project this aesthetic,” she says. “While that’s definitely still a part of it, another component that’s growing is, what is the mood that you’re embodying when you’re taking on this aesthetic? What are you thinking about yourself? What are you projecting to the world? What do you want people to see in you beyond the material goods?”
As a result of this shift, style brands are rethinking old-school strategies for how they position themselves with consumers. “It worked for fashion companies to put themselves in a specific part of the market and to define their business and brand strategy depending on where they compete,” says Ana Andjelic, who has worked as chief brand officer at Banana Republic and Rebecca Minkoff and is the author of The Business of Aspiration. “None of this is relevant to the consumer – and it never was.” She says that now, more than ever, consumers buy based on their own style, mood, sources of influence, what they want to project and how they want to curate their own look.
Gucci, a designer brand that has reinvented itself countless times over its 100-year run, is navigating this disruption well. The fashion house’s name has even transformed, evolving from a noun to an adjective that classifies a certain type of cool.
Under the creative direction of Alessandro Michele – who in November was awarded the British Fashion Council’s Trailblazer Award for positioning Gucci at the intersection of culture, art, music and film – the label has stayed true to its louche brand DNA while homing in on an eclectic and inclusive style.
With consumers constantly remixing and mashing aesthetics up before quickly moving on to the next thing, the only way forward for fashion is to defy categorization.
“Post-genre fashion is ‘one size fits one,’” Andjelic says. “It’s up to the consumer what they buy and how they put it together.”
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