The Death of Irony

Consumers should no longer sustain the burden of irony in any creative output

Key Takeaways

  1. Customers should no longer sustain the burden of irony in any creative output. Today, a game-changing, revolutionary—yet exaggeratedly cynical—experiment such as Balenciaga is no longer needed. 
  1. Designers need not avoid releasing luxury products they are not intellectually and aesthetically linked to. Irony and detachment are not cool in times of crisis—the1980s are over. The 2010s are over.
  1. As the New Sincerity trend responded to the collapse of post-modernist irony and cynicism, today we must embrace our shapeshifting creative environment to make something new—something that customers deserve to buy.

Irony (from Ancient Greek εἰρωνεία eirōneía, meaning 'dissimulation, feigned ignorance'), in its broadest sense, is a rhetorical device, literary technique, or event in which what on the surface appears to be the case or to be expected differs radically from what is actually the case.

It’s been 25 days since the Zurich-based brand Vetements had posted the meme on their IG feed. The image, divided in half horizontally, shows two products created by the same person but for two different brands, here marked with yellow typography signalling the year in which these products were created. The image adheres to the specific language of what we can call “memetic justice”—it is comparative, as it shows two distinct items; and moreover implies one’s virtue opposed to the other. You have seen this language applied throughout the year, everywhere, in the digital who-copied-who stream of content—Drew Zeiba wrote about this meme extensively and poignantly in a previous iteration of 1MOQ.

This meme—a blatant, circulable image—was deliberately self-proclaimed and self-referential; i.e. was designed by the brand to meme itself. Moreover, it came with no particular surprise from a creative director—Demna Gvasalia—who created a signature language out of irony in recent years.

As the world faces an unpredicted instability—being it climatic, political, pathological, or behavioral—we, global customers, should no longer sustain the burden of irony in any creative output; we should be all on strike against unnecessary layers of meaning injected into luxury products; we should be consuming any kind of luxury we’re capable of, but without the totally-irrelevant demand of making it funny and self-referential. To say it loud and clear: today, a game-changing, revolutionary—yet exaggeratedly cynical—experiment such as Balenciaga is no longer needed. 

If we look at high fashion (whatever that means today) for proof, we could argue how many of the brands that have emerged and subsequently claimed their space in the past few seasons are far beyond the reiterative, self-exhausting rhetoric of irony. Wales Bonner and Eckhaus Latta are equally cerebral towards the intellectual ground of their collections, and it’s evident that this comes with a certain degree of ease, realness, straightforwardness; Martine Rose, who worked closely with Gvasalia in Vetements, has definitely incorporated some of the ideas and shapes proposed by the brand, although without making a big deal out of it: it’s couture, and it speaks a comprehensible language; Bottega Veneta, on the more established end of the spectrum, delivered a proposition for a timeless idea of beauty that has literally no strings attached: you can be Bottega even if you don’t shop Bottega.

Around the late ’90s, the cultural world had been affected by a post-traumatic shock caused by decades of post-modernist values in art, literature, cinema, fashion. Irony and cynicism were integral to the post-modernist ideology—embedded in any imaginable intellectual output of a cultural panorama characterized by tendencies to self-consciousness, self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, and irreverence. In the ‘80s we see this ideological paradigm being applied to everything: irony was chic.

At the verge of the New Millennium, a certain spirit of discomfort permeated the cultural scene, acting as an agent of change for a reworked, edited attitude towards the future that didn’t necessarily aim for a total deconstruction carried out through irony. At that time, the collective trauma of the 9/11 attacks had prompted a serious recalibration of tone and style in cultural production: sobriety was praised.

The need to break away from the post-modernist matrix was testified by the rise of the New Sincerity movement, an all-encompassing cultural stream praising for the end of the age of irony, as Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, wrote in a 2001 editorial. Popularized by the late American author David Foster Wallace, the principles of New Sincerity were pretty simple and direct: a total, instinctive refusal of the hip, self-conscious, nihilistic detachment fostered by post-modernism.

Today, we’re experiencing a comparable cultural shock. Over-articulation and unnecessary layers of meaning will have little or no importance at all in the future architecture of things. No time, no emotional bandwidth, no intellectual resources will be any more invested in the business of irony—seems fair to assume. Luxury will have to speak for itself, and the language around it will have to be compelling and direct. Adaptation to abrupt changes in history requires a tremendous amount of emotional capital—a resource that, in time of emergency, is of primary importance—and the cerebral effort to understand and appreciate redundant irony in the creative industry will no longer be sustainable in the long run. We pleasantly regress to honesty. We’re innocent now.