- The communities most often considered by the sartorial microcosm historically are undoubtedly subcultures.
- Just as with most vectors of identity and creative expression—think electronic music, street art, queer history, to name a few—the mainstream coopts the underground as soon as it becomes aware of it.
- As the zeitgeist propels us into a world of increasing semiotic fluctuation, epithets such as ‘authentic’ or ‘organic’ are more slippery than ever.
If in the past couple of years, physical togetherness reached a rarely precedented standstill, retaining the zest of some kind of collective momentum has remained a priority for brands, digital platforms, and the fashion sector at large. The pre (but particularly post)-pandemic consumer buys into a business’ values—an ethos, an aesthetic, a set of moral commandments— at least as much as they buy into a product mystique. This statement holds especially true when applied to the quicksand reality of contemporary fashion, which is not as much a cause as it is a visible symptom of the late capitalism’s resort to community-building as a lofty, morally sound business strategy. But what, really, is a community?
The communities most often considered by the sartorial microcosm historically are undoubtedly subcultures. Eluding the mainstream’s clout either of their own volition or by obligation, subcultures tend to be either mutineers or outcasts, more often than not organically emanating in either reaction or sinuous endorsement of a triumphant cultural trope.
The stylistic identities of both URL and IRL subcultures are visually striking patchworks aiming to immediately signal belonging—from the Aquamarine color scheme of seapunks to the dramatic makeup of South Florida’s chongas—to insiders and outsiders alike.
All throughout this process of collective self-determination via aesthetic signaling, or at least prior to the birth of the internet, brands claiming certain subcultures as their own acted as agents of group identity, to an extent facilitators of communal existence. Streetwear, and particularly skateboarding culture-infused “youth temple” brands in the vein of Supreme, or its British counterpart Palace, at once championed and generated flocks of cult-like devotees by means of what was to become late capitalism’s ultimate form of totemic marking: the logo. Despite having opened its doors 27 years ago, far pre-dating social media, digital merchandising, and the metaverse, the New York-born label heralded the community-fetishism that was to sweep over fashion and pop culture as much as it exemplified it.
Just as with most vectors of identity and creative expression—think electronic music, street art, queer history, to name a few—the mainstream coopts the underground as soon as it becomes aware of it. Brands frequently feed off community—whether through appropriation, commodification, or romanticization—but the subcultural connotation isn’t all there is to it. Global ready-to-wear titans such as Tommy Hilfiger or Ralph Lauren have made fortunes reifying the fundamentally elitist country club or frat boy chic, therefore crystallizing it as both a pragmatic societal reality and an aspirational ideal.
As the zeitgeist propels us into a world of increasing semiotic fluctuation, epithets such as ‘authentic’ or ‘organic’ are more slippery (and perhaps insignificant) than ever, particularly in describing community formation. The main players of the fashion circuit are quick to prove it. Contemporary brands running the gamut of couture and streetwear find heavily bank on aestheticizing communities whose origin and mission become so diffuse and obscure, confused by their own self-generated swirl of irony, their purpose becomes almost impossible to distinguish. When subculture is commercially diluted into virtual meaninglessness, but belonging persists as a collective necessity, the only way forward seems to come in embracing chaos and its ensuing loss of meaning.
The glory days of normcore attest to that. When any rejection of the mainstream starts to feel like the mainstream itself, rebellion comes in jaded, ironic (or not?) acquiescence. The normcore culture has sought to position itself as the disaffected punk energy of the post-truth era, in the process blurring the lines between origin and objective. Where ‘post-Soviet’ aesthetic of Gosha Rubchinskiy, and Drake’s stratospheric popularization of Caterpillar worker boots sought to widen previously narrowly circumscribed communities, Vetements’ espousal of the normcore packaged and priced as high-end couture, and Off-White’s rebranding of the mindless hypebeast as both self-aware and self-derisive confuse the definition of what community can still mean in fashion today. Is it in what you were born into? Is it in what you reject? Is it in what you knowingly, and at times cynically, buy into?
Once championed, then coopted, today, most communities in fashion are self-generated, operating as compendiums of curated values (or lack thereof), drawing from abstracted mood boards rather than from lived experiences—under no other conditions could seeming oxymorons such as the Rick Owens’ ‘health goth’ have otherwise surfaced on runways to global acclaim. If aesthetics no longer seem to be a sufficiently sturdy vessel of community affirmation, leaning into the generalized alienation of the times—and its willfully incongruent stylistic setup—is the dubiously wrapped gift that keeps on giving.