'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates

Rebecca Gonsalves
Friday 19 September 2014 20:30

Repeat a word often enough and it can lose all meaning – an obsessive mantra that turns to gobbledegook on the tongue. Perhaps that's what happened with 'normcore' earlier this year.

The term, coined last year by New York-based trend forecasting collective K-Hole to refer to unpretentious, average-looking outfits (think Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Jobs) has simultaneously confounded and captivated the fashion industry.

First mooted at a symposium at London's Serpentine Gallery, it was a piece in New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February which gave the idea of normcore the oxygen of publicity. It was pounced on by editors struggling to bracket a so-far rather disparate season into the bite-sized trends that are the bread-and-butter of the fashion industry.

While its definition has been disputed – and certainly the psychological implications of embracing the new normal are under contention –the sudden influx of Birkenstocks and Adidas pool slides that slip-slapped against the city streets this summer was a tell-tale sign of the concept of norm taken to its core.

It's hard to say whether it's the introduction of a new term into the fashion lexicon (with bonus points for a portmanteau), the ideal of normalisation as a point of difference, or just the blessed relief from the tyranny of high heels which has caused the spirit of normcore to be so embraced.

Normcore can mean different things to different people: a subversive trend, a unifying movement – it could just be a well-played distraction, like announcing a royal pregnancy as headlines begin to scream of a swing towards a Yes vote for Scottish independence. But, as a broad trend into which everything from sports-luxe to knitwear and shades of grey can be stuffed, it's easy to understand why it's taken off.

Of course, hipsters dressing as though they are homeless is nothing new – there's a whole cabal of not-quite-funny internet sites dedicated to just that guessing game – but the reason it has so caught the mainstream fashion industry's attention now? The three-ring circus of street style probably has something to do with it. Style is something of a misnomer in that context, as the competition to appear most like a sugar-hyped seven-year-old who dressed in the dark has reached fever-pitch. If a snapshot of the crowd outside a fashion show in the Nineties would have depicted a few true eccentrics standing out in a sea of black-clad contemporaries, the modern-day version would provide the photo negative.

Peacocking, patchworking trends and making a statement with not just your necklace, but your bag, shoes and sweatshirt to boot, has been the order of the day for the models, muses and stylists who help to shape a designer's vision. In the same way that the internet has allowed music to splinter into tiny little sub-genres, each with its own online nooks and crannies from which fans can pick and mix their playlists, so getting dressed has become the piled-high plate of an all-you-can-eat buffet. These days, thanks to that more-is-more approach, in the forecaster K-Hole's own words: "Everyone is so special that no one is special". But as with anything that grows too popular, the backlash has already begun, and blending in is the new standing out. As New York put it in February, normcore is "fashion for those who realise they're one in seven billion".

The instant gratification of social networks has notably impacted the speed of the fashion cycle – not only are the once industry-only resort and pre-fall seasons now bells'n'whistles affairs broadcast to the public, but trends and must-have items are being cycled through with alarming speed. Gone are the days when a designer handbag was a once-in-a-lifetime purchase, now you're expected to update your accessories every six months, as well as accessorise them with a charm or googly-eyed bag bug.

This is obviously a sign of the continued commercialisation of fashion; a market badly burnt by the recession wants to create deeper foundations that won't be rocked the next time the bubble inevitably bursts. Now that the pursuit of profit is no longer a badly-kept secret seen to be sullying the art of true design, the business machinations behind every fashion house are in much plainer site.

As such, the rise of new entry-level pieces has grown exponentially. Alongside make-up, fragrance and sunglasses, brands are pushing phone cases, T-shirts and sweatshirts. Relatively cheap to make and affordable to more consumers – even if it means months of saving their pocket money – these items not only widen the labels' customer bases but are the snappable, sharable items that gain social currency online. In other words, a marketing tool that pays for itself time and time again. But, as all physics students know, everything has an equal and opposite action, so each time the entry level is brought down a notch, the premium side of a brand – most notably its catwalk collection – is boosted just a little further out of reach. It's how we came to live in a world where a silk-chiffon Givenchy gown comes with a price tag of £9,100.

While there are a privileged few for whom that would seem a feasible amount to spend on a dress, albeit a beautifully cut and draped one, ready-to-wear is becoming an extension of the role long-held by couture – that of a very expensive ideas factory and marketing machine rolled into one. Lip service may be played to trends but, in fact, the order of the day is to propose a look that is at once outlandish, covetable and –perhaps most importantly – sharable. After all, who are trends really for? Are the shoppers ready to go, credit card in hand at the beginning of the season, raring to play dress-up in (delete as appropriate) folkloric/Seventies/sci-fi that will be over almost as soon as it's begun? Or are they instead looking for a new long-term addition to their wardrobe, safe in the knowledge that it nods to the texture or shape of the season without looking too try-hard?

If someone is fully briefed on whichever colour is the new black, did they look to the traditionally didactic pages of a glossy magazine for guidance? Perhaps, but they also checked Tumblr, Instagram and a plethora of websites for a second opinion, or three. And that's what normcore and the current dearth of trends is all about – standing out by fitting in.

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