PSA: Being mainstream is cool
Fashion has long embraced the ironic. It has been pointed out numerous times over the past few years that the current trends, which are based on a strong sense of irony—Scumbro, ugly sneakers etc.—are part of a rich tradition of wry wit on the runway. The difference now is that access to these trends is available to everyone with a smartphone.
Welcome to the era of post-sellout culture. It’s a time where selling out no longer means abandoning relevancy and cult-status for a monied but mainstream cultural desert. Mass doesn’t mean uncool anymore. Young hypebeasts aren’t bothered that Supreme is no longer a small streetwear label driven by the singular vision of an actual skater, and is instead now half-owned by the private equity company The Carlyle Group, among other decidedly un-cult financial partners.
Just saying “Do you even skate?” to someone wearing Supreme or Thrasher feels, well, try-hard, or at least old-fashioned. The real evidence that no one cares if you flog whatever you’ve got to get a piece of fame and cash, is in the way that very mainstream celebs are considered bonafide fashion influencers. The kind who never sold out because their entire persona was always based on their existence being for sale. They have become exalted style icons, invited inside the world of fashion thanks to their ability to resonate far beyond its walls.
So, what happened? Did celebrities get cooler? Or do we care less about authenticity and originality? If a bunch recent of millennial and Gen-Z marketing reports are to be believed, we’re more obsessed with authenticity than ever, but I would bet against this. The subtext of many of these sorts of forecasts is that we are more attuned to commercialized bullshit than ever before and more willing and able to call out brands trying to greenwash or use diversity in a way that doesn’t really align with its real agenda. This is being translated into a quest for the authentic.
The very concept of authenticity has always been slippery at best, and most theorists purport it’s just an empty construct. We’ve clung to it for so long that just now, in the Trump era, it’s becoming starkly clear to a large swathe of the public that it’s an impossible dream.
Why will we now happily wear what very famous, very mainstream celebrities wear? While in the days of yesteryear it was only cool to take style inspiration from edgy indie actors who took their artform very seriously – like, say, Chloe Sevigny or Michael Pitt or anyone in a Sofia Coppola film – now it’s entirely legit to wear what the most well-known reality TV star deems cool, or to froth over the outfit of a boyish ultra-mainstream, religiously devoted popstar like Bieber.
What we value now are stars who are outrageously money and fame hungry and entirely un-niche. Those who make no pretensions about being blockbusters. Being a brand and turning your life into money is not just acceptable, it’s celebrated.
This goes hand in hand with our understanding that subculture is no longer a thing. There is no avant-garde that can grow and develop in the cultural margins because there is no margin, it’s all in the middle and all available for consumption. The—now long dead—concept of the hipster is partly to blame for what now seems a cringy approach to “cool.” A last-ditch attempt at reconstructing subculture; the hipster once synonymous with a militant dedication to never liking anything mass, and wearing the band t-shirt only if you were a real fan and ditching it when the said band became too well-known.
But then this small-batch, Mason-jar-locally-brewed crafty uniqueness became just another avenue for commodification. A kind of clinging to a pre-digital past that could no longer exist. In an article earlier this year on meme culture and authenticity, Jay Owens wrote:
“It was at this time, as smartphones and digital media took over our lives, that the dominant aesthetic of middle-class consumption — fashion, interior decor, and lifestyle — went the other way: rough-hewn, and wholesome. Authentic.”
So, of course, authenticity ate itself as hipsterdom co-opted the world’s biggest brands. The idea of authenticity has always been linked to scarcity. In embracing celebrity trends, in embracing mass and mainstream, we are acknowledging its impossibility. We’re swinging the opposite way to what Jay Owens described because that’s how culture moves on –– it reacts to the recent past. When everything in fashion can be copied, as DietPrada shows us day after day, and mass produced, what are we to do but face that reality?
Not only can everything be copied and quickly reproduced to varying degrees of quality, but fashion trends are instantly meme-ified. The booming ‘starter pack’ format has done its bit to render any and every look, a painfully on-the-nose joke, a cliche in four collaged images. Searching for originality and the niche now feels trite and futile when it comes to fashion (and other creative industries).
As trends have vectorized with meme culture they have come to represent all that is ironic, self-referential and relevant, and right now a big part of that is the extreme celebrity.
Fashion has long embraced the ironic. It has been pointed out numerous times over the past few years that the current trends, which are based on a strong sense of irony — Scumbro, ugly sneakers etc. — are part of a rich tradition of wry wit on the runway. The difference now is that access to these trends is available to everyone with a smartphone. The ideas spread far and wide and in an instant everyone is in on the joke. Maybe we’re embracing gaudy celebrity and mass trend because it’s our world, but we’re doing it with the same cynicism that underpins the aforementioned trends they help popularize.
We’re using an age-old resistance strategy. As R. Jay Magill, JR. writes in his treatise on irony, “Reactionary distancing—aestheticizing, ironizing—helps ironists to view these places, items, and products as something not a part of themselves.” So we embrace the obvious, but we separate it from ourselves through an armor of irony – an act of “liberating oneself from commitment to meaning. It is not serious about seriousness; it cannot be bound by what is said,” writes Magill.
Of course, there are those who embrace celebrities and blindly follow their trends sans irony, perhaps with genuine sincerity, a complete embracing of late-capitalism, but that’s a whole other story.
If irony was used as a way to navigate a desire for sincerity while coping with its commodification during the hipster era, and normcore used irony to cope with a realization that uniqueness and individuality was impossible, we’re using it now to navigate the infiltration of celebrity, fame and personal branding into all aspects of our lives.
But as culture continues to shift, this too will fracture and move on. As brands begin to co-opt our ironic stance towards celebrities in all too obvious ways, we’ll move on again. What happens post-sellout is anyone’s guess.