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Illustration by Benjamin MacDonald/The Globe and Mail

The text landed late on a weeknight. “Is this The Sweater?” my friend Dakshana asked.

The sweater in question – worn by a friend of ours on Instagram – wasn’t a particularly flashy one. It was a navy-and-white striped turtleneck with a boxy, oversized fit. The only distinguishing flourishes were the bell sleeves and slits up each side.

It was a sweater from the Gap, and cost $99.95 – up to half off, if you caught one of their frequent sales. Nothing about it seemed extraordinary. Definitely not high fashion.

Yet, “The Sweater” had become, in recent months, a subject of fascination among this particular group of friends. Among our specific set of urban, senior Millennial friends – all of us with at least moderate aspirations of stylishness – two of us had already bought the sweater. And the others had noticed it all over their social-media feeds.

The sweater, it seemed, was everywhere. When I’d first bought the sweater back in early fall, it had been back-ordered for three months. And on TikTok, the search “Gap striped sweater” yielded videos with some 29 million views.

In a few short months, it had gone from what Women’s Wear Daily called a “fashion insider secret” to certified viral. It followed in the footsteps of the “Amazon coat” of 2018, the “vegan leather” Aritzia pants of 2020 and the “lift leggings” of 2021 (also from Amazon).

Every sweater has its own origin story. In the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, Anne Hathaway plays Andy, a plucky but pretentious young writer at a fashion magazine who thinks she’s too smart for her job. In an early scene, Andy’s boss Miranda (played by Meryl Streep) breaks it down for her.

“You think this has nothing to do with you,” Miranda says, gesturing at the racks of couture around them. She focuses on Andy’s frumpy blue sweater.

The sweater, Miranda notes, is not turquoise, not lapis, but cerulean blue. She explains how Oscar De La Renta first used cerulean blue on the runway years ago, and was quickly copied by several others. The colour filtered down through department stores and, eventually, into “some tragic, casual corner discount bin” for Andy to find.

“You think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry,” says Miranda.

“When, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you.”

The Gap sweater’s origin story could begin in 1858, when the French navy began wearing “Breton” stripes (“from Brittany”) as their official uniforms. Or it might start 55 years later, when Coco Chanel began using the stripes as a regular motif in her designs.

But the most recent story begins with the Swedish fashion brand Toteme. The brand, which launched in 2014, was created by fashion blogger Elin Kling, apparently as a reaction against fast fashion. Toteme’s clothing quickly gained popularity with the Instagram set for its minimalist, almost austere approach. The brand ethos was that of timeless quality – an anti-fashion approach to fashion.

Toteme debuted its striped sweater in 2019. It was a knit wool and organic cotton, striped oversize turtleneck. It came in cream or black, and had a pair of bell sleeves, and slits up each side.

It was about a year later that I first became aware of the sweater. In early 2021, every fashion influencer, it seemed, was suddenly wearing Toteme’s sweater. @Anoukyve (840,000 followers) wore it under an oversized black coat. @jessie_bush (530,000 followers) paired it with bicycle shorts. @fashion_jackson (843,000 followers) went with the obvious choice of jeans and ballet flats.

The sweater perfectly captured the Millennial aesthetic: in other words, aggressively inoffensive. And, probably most importantly, it looked good on the grid. In the typically monochromatic Instagram blur of Celine handbags, oversized coats, and Diptyque candles, the sweater’s thick black and white stripes provided a pop of graphic detail.

I couldn’t say for certain whether the influencers had actually chosen the sweater, or whether they had been paid to wear it. But that, of course, was exactly the point. It’s the reason why it’s become such a big business: U.S. brands will be spending more than US$4-billion on influencer marketing this year, according to Shopify.

I loved it as soon as I saw it. But it cost $740.

So I waited for it to go on sale. It did not.

And then, over the course of the year, I watched as other designers came out with their own versions. Every fast-fashion retailer – oblivious or not to Toteme’s “slow-fashion” mission – rolled out striped sweaters for the masses. Empires have been built off of such sweaters – and off of the demand for fast fashion. It’s the raison d’être of H&M and Zara, and the reason the Chinese online retailer SHEIN was recently valued at US$100-billion.

In a postscroll malaise, I even bought one of those not-very-good knockoffs, from Zara – a decision I now regret. It hung shapelessly and pilled incessantly.

But then came along the Gap.

Sometime in the fall, the retailer introduced its own version of the Toteme sweater. I first saw it as an ad on Instagram, my search history no doubt marking me as easy prey. It was, to my untrained eye, a near-identical dupe for the original.

I bought it immediately.

Around the same time, my friends and I had been having a seemingly endless loop of conversations about more or less the same thing: We were all thirtysomething. We were new parents. A pandemic had passed, and spit us all out onto the other side on the wrong side of Cool.

The world had changed and we didn’t yet understand the new rules. I joined TikTok, only to find myself constantly served videos with different variations on the title: “How to look less like a Millennial.”

The fashion was the most puzzling. I couldn’t make sense of the crop-tops, shiny metallics or tiny purses. Mom jeans, on me, were just Mom jeans.

Another friend, Molly, complained about how everything she tried on looked wrong. “Everything feels silly on me,” she told me. “Like, on our bodies.” Ours were thirtysomething-year-old, postpandemic, post-pasta-and-ice-cream-every-day, (and, in my case, postbaby) bodies.

Molly, too, had been a fan of the original Toteme sweater. She passed on it, but later jumped at the Gap version, which appeared as an ad on her feed.

She called it a “unicorn” – stylish but not too stylish. Comfortable enough for home, but smart enough for Zoom calls. “It’s exactly what I like to wear, which is navy blue and white stripes,” she said. “In either order.”

Another friend, Jenna – who was wearing the sweater as she texted me – called it “utilitarian.” She has young children, and wears it frequently to school drop-off. She reported that her sweater, at that moment, was covered in “snot and paint.”

She only realized it was a copy when another friend posted the Toteme version on Instagram.

“I thought, ‘Huh, I got that for 50 bucks.’”

The main problem with the Gap sweater, at least for me, was that it was from the Gap. Even setting aside the company’s history of questionable labour practices, and the megabrand’s environmental footprint, the company had, at least in my own mind, settled into a kind of mediocre irrelevance. The Gap, I thought, was the uniform of math teachers and Gen X hockey moms. Normcore, but without irony.

“Has the Gap gotten cooler?” the colleague and I wondered. Maybe, we thought hopefully, they’d hired a hip, new designer.

In truth, the Gap has had a shaky couple of years. It’s struggled to maintain relevance in a sea of brands – and a notoriously fickle retail industry. Its attempts to rebrand have fizzled. And the company lost a reported US$53-million earlier this year, after dissolving a high-profile collaboration with Kanye West. Chief executive officer Sonia Syngal stepped down shortly after.

But from what I could tell, not much had changed on the design front.

That meant having to contend with the alternative: The Gap hadn’t changed.

We had changed. I had changed. We had become Gap people.

There will be other sweaters. It won’t likely be long before the next sweater comes along. Modern retail – and fast fashion – guarantees it.

What once was a years-long, trickle-down hierarchy has flattened. Two decades ago, I might have seen the striped sweater in a magazine, then waited for months or even years before spotting anything similar at my local store.

Now, it all exists at the same time. Our phones are at once a runway, a magazine, a department store – a 24/7 shopping mall that’s always waiting.

And, thanks to social media (and its web of tracking, targeted ads and network of influencers), big brands like the Gap now know exactly how and where to find us. They know exactly who we are – and there’s already a new sweater in my shopping cart.

They know us, it seems, even better than we know ourselves.

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