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Fashion Is high fashion going low? The rise of Gen-Z aesthetics in 2020

Nov. 17, 2020
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In August, a New York Magazine article titled “Sweatpants Forever” blew up. Fashion writers and influencers posted about it, and art history professors at Ivy League universities have been assigning it as canonical reading since school resumed in September. The article discusses everything from the rise of Entireworld, a brand of sweats and leisurewear, to Marc Jacobs calling the pandemic “the end of fashion as we know it.” In the wake of quarantine completely shifting the way that we dress, major fashion brands have started to adapt: all-digital Fashion Week shows, new athleisure lines, age-old department stores going out of business, and FaceTime shoots functioning as high-fashion editorials. Marc Jacobs announced a new brand, Heaven, full of cropped graphic tees with phrases like “more teen angst”—and promoted the launch by hiring Gen-Z influencers, such as Eileen Kelly of Killer and a Sweet Thang. Eileen was invited to hang out in a ‘90s-esque teen bedroom in Manhattan’s Marc Jacobs store and live-stream herself watching movies, talking to friends, and ordering takeout for twelve hours. In the wake of pandemic-induced uncertainty, fashion is looking for new ways to adapt to the changing world, and Gen Z is one major source of that adaptive inspiration.  

All of the photos on the Heaven website are untouched, taken with what appears to be a digital camera, and in an actual bedroom, with an unmade bed and decorations that feel right out of Lindsay Lohan’s bedroom in Freaky Friday. During COVID-19, there’s an understanding from the consumer that fashion production must be done with a limited team and outside of a traditional office environment. With this in mind, it seems less like Marc Jacobs and other designers are trying to get the teenage DIY bedroom effect—and instead are simply achieving it. According to his Instagram, Marc Jacobs has been doing his own nails, makeup, and hair, as well as creative directing all of his posts, which are taken on an iPhone or digital camera and are circulated as official content for his brand. 

During this pandemic, many of us twenty-somethings are back at home with our parents. Professors are looking into our bedrooms during Zoom classes. We can’t go shopping at a mall, but we have time to spend hours in a black hole of virtual shopping. Our shopping habits themselves are different, though. Before the pandemic, I would’ve seen a $250 & Other Stories coat and sacrificed other splurges to buy it; now, I see the coat and love it (because fashion design appreciation runs deep) but can’t imagine an event in the near future when I could really get use out of a garment like that. On the contrary, I’ve already worn the two cropped t-shirts I ordered from Heaven four times since I got them in the mail a few weeks ago. 

Right now, brands are all trying to create products that are comfortable but still appeal to those who are mourning their past routine of finding unique items and assembling outfits for special occasions. On a surface level, one could say that brands like Entireworld and Outdoor Voices, who sell only athleisure, are gaining popularity because sweatpants and comfortable clothing are the only products we’re wearing on a daily basis during the pandemic. It’s true—but why wouldn’t people just go to Target, then? If no one is seeing the sweats on Zoom, why not just go pantless? That’s where it gets tricky. Clearly there’s an appeal to not only the product, but the brand. Entireworld’s most circulated product is their matching sweatpant/crewneck combo. It’s something you could assemble using products from anywhere, but I saw an Instagram ad from Entireworld filled with calming music, monochromatic aesthetics, and effortlessly cool people around my age wearing Chas Tenenbaum-style matching sweatsuits—and so I was sucked in. Why would I spend half an hour scrolling through Target when I could go on Entireworld’s aesthetically pleasing website, where I know exactly who the brand is, where the garments are made, and complete the checkout process in ten minutes feeling excited to unbox my sweatsuit in a week?  

Quarantine has afforded many of us the time (and energy) to research new niches of art and culture. When I was pitching this article, the editor said that Marc Jacobs’ Heaven collection was put on her radar largely because of his collaboration with Gregg Araki: Jacobs is selling vintage Araki materials in tandem with new, original designs under the Heaven brand. In a time when traditional fashion launches, large-scale editorial photoshoots, and Fashion Week shows are impossible, events and marketing are going full teenager. Marc Jacobs has been sitting in his penthouse with his pearl necklaces and iconic fashion brand for years, but in 2020 he was motivated to create punk clothing that Gen-Zers would actually purchase, wear, and promote. The brands who have mastered and perpetuated a punk aesthetic, such as Chrome Hearts and Vivienne Westwood, are experiencing a revival. You can’t find a Vivienne Westwood signature pearl choker or a Chrome Hearts tank top for under $300 on resale websites, because TikTok users, taste makers, and influencers have sold them out. High fashion is going low.