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In the Aesthetic Blender

Whereas we were once required to make strong commitments to semiotic tribes, we now live in a ‘Supermarket of Style’ where young people cut-and-paste stylistic identity at will.
L to R: Vaquera Spring/Summer 2018, Charles Jeffrey Loverboy Spring/Summer 2018, Gosha Rubchinskiy Spring/Summer 2018 | Source: InDigital
  • Osman Ahmed

LONDON, United Kingdom — Where there is youth, there is fashion. The last century was defined by big swings of the fashion pendulum, often between the youthful ideals of doe-eyed optimism and teenage rebellion. The Post-War '50s had its noir-clad Left Bank existentialists and Teddy Boys and Girls. The Swinging Sixties fizzed with mini-skirts and Mods. The Protest-Era '70s sparkled in glam rock sequins and roared in punky leather. The '80s had its fluoro-leggings and ecstatic club kids. The '90s hit peak logomania only to retaliate with anti-conformist grunge. Then, the first decade of the 21st century put everything into a blender and collaged it together with digital verve.

Today, we are living in what cultural theorist Ted Polhemus calls the “Supermarket of Style” where every world and every era you dreamed of is on offer like tins of soup on a supermarket shelf. “You can try ‘Cream of the ’70s' one night, then switch to ‘Chunky Heavy Metal’ the next night,” wrote Polhemus. “Or, alternatively, you can ‘sample and mix’ your own brand of Gazpacho — throwing, say, a Hippie tie-dyed bandana, a pair of Skinhead DMs, a ’50s leopard-print cocktail dress, a Punk mohican and Swinging London mascara into the pot. Give it a good stir and, presto, you’ve got your own, synchronic take on 50 years of popular culture.”

Whereas, once, we were required to make strong, long-term commitments to semiotic tribes, we now live in a more fluid and fragmented world where young people can cut-and-paste stylistic identity at will.

So what is the look of Generation Next? The answer is, of course, that there isn’t one. At least, it’s certainly not all hyper-branded sportswear and fleshy cut-out Kardashian dresses.

"The current generation has been born into this generation which is completely fragmented and also has no dominant aesthetics," says Lulu Kennedy, the founder of non-profit fashion incubator Fashion East, which has fostered designers including Simone Rocha, Jonathan Saunders, Roksanda Ilincic and Craig Green. "It's post-truth and post-ugly."

On the third floor of London department store Selfridges, in the slick designer galleries, womenswear buyer Ruth Hickman points out the young labels favoured by today’s youth. “It’s basically what Bella Hadid has worn,” she quips. Her “Millennial edit” is a corner of the store with a heavy emphasis on swift-selling streetwear-inflected brands such as Yeezy, Vetements, Off-White, Palm Angels, Unravel and Heron Preston.

We now live in a more fluid and fragmented world where young people can cut-and-paste stylistic identity at will.

"When you buy Gosha [Rubchinskiy] and Off-White, it is a way of connecting with a community of other like-minded people who like the same music, hang out in the same places and watch the same films," argues Stavros Karelis, owner of Machine-A, a boutique in London's Soho known for its focus on youth culture. His store is a stone's throw away from skater brands Palace and Supreme, and walking distance from Comme des Garçons' multi-brand fashion emporium Dover Street Market (he says on Saturday his customers often cut a trail between the four). "Sexuality, gender or even geography doesn't apply — they could be anywhere in the world. When I was younger, we were wearing things to belong to a very small community, but now they're much bigger."

There is certainly a sense of community at the core of streetwear brands like Gosha Rubchinskiy. But there's also more at play. For Demna Gvasalia's Vetements, making use of the DHL logo or Titanic merchandise reflects a social media-friendly irony that is not unlike internet memes. In fact, one could even call Vetements fashion's equivalent to "clickbait".

“Designers know that if people are consuming their clothes primarily on a small screen, then you want something that’s going to grab the eye on a small screen and get people to respond to that,” says Dr Valerie Steele, fashion historian and museum director at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “It’s things like big logos, bright colours and patterns; it’s things that you’re seeing from the front, there’s a certain flattening effect to what you’re putting out there because you know it’s important to see it on that little handheld screen.”

Back at Selfridges, on the other side of the room from the store's luxury streetwear selection are labels such as Art School, Area NYC, Dilara Findikoglu and Matty Bovan. "Their customer is very different — actually a lot of Middle Eastern customers have been drawn to the decorative embellishment," explains Hickman. Many of these labels share an exuberant queer-tinged fantasticality, colourfully gender-neutral in sentiment, heavy on narrative and escapist in spirit. Charles Jeffrey, Michael Halpern, Molly Goddard and Palomo Spain are also pin-ups for the movement. Somewhere aesthetically in between, there are a handful of labels such as Y/Project, Ambush, Vaquera, Rottingdean Bazaar, Grace Wales Bonner, Martine Rose and Marine Serre.

"There are individualists, specialists, sometimes even separatists," says Sarah Mower, chief fashion critic at Vogue Runway and the British Fashion Council's ambassador for emerging talent. Mower is keen to point out that they have "been dealt the worst hand economically... This is the most politically engaged young generation we've seen for decades, with a conscience and quite a lot of anger and despair at the state of the world, as well as understandable frustration at a corporate system which has largely ceased to offer the opportunities which were dangled in front of them when they went into expensive education. For the first time since the early '80s, young designers are putting overt meanings and messages into their work."

Grace Wales Bonner, who won the LVMH Prize in 2016, is interested in rebalancing representations of black masculinity. Wales Bonner is known for her intense research process, which focuses on alternatives to the hyper-aggressive and sexualised imagery of black men in mainstream media, where they're often depicted as criminals, thuggish brutes or ostentatious nouveaux riches. Her experience of dual English and Jamaican heritage certainly informs her outlook — there's a fusion of symbolisms such as African cowrie shells and European tailoring, or riffs on Indian Ocean ornamentation combined with a south London 'Ragga' style and the photography of Malick Sidibé. "It's also about a fluidity or flexibility of what things could be," she points out. "There's a mixture of seriousness and playfulness that have to happen together. There's this intellectual curiosity, but then there's also this fantasy side."

Illustration by Jan-Nico Meyer for BoF

When 25-year-old Marine Serre graduated with highest honours from La Cambre Mode in Brussels in June 2016, her graduate collection, “Radical Call for Love” — an answer to the recent terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, blending 19th-century Arab dress with sportswear cuts from the 1990s and 2000s — was met with critical acclaim and would go on to win her the 2017 LVMH Prize. Throughout the collection, the Islamic crescent moon symbol is used as an alternative take on a corporate sportswear logo, and the collection expressed connections that to Serre were always already present in modern day Belgium and France, but not necessarily celebrated in fashion. “My way of dealing with [the terror attacks] was to dive precisely into this apparent tension between pre-modern Arab dress and modern sportswear in my neighbourhood in Brussels,” she explains.

While Serre has worked in the Balenciaga studio and produces highly polished pieces, many of today’s young designers are unafraid of their clothes looking DIY, homespun or low-brow — and their casting often reflects their own friends and collaborators. “The previous generation seems concerned with a beauty and perfection that is much different than ours,” the four designers behind New York-based Vaquera wrote via e-mail. The collective consists of Patric DiCaprio and Bryn Taubensee, both 27, and Claire Sully and David Moses, both 23. “Our generation seems more interested in breaking boundaries.”

“I think images of perfect plastic people and fast low-cost clothes have created a massive homogenised trend which in turn encourages people to resist, be independent and creative,” adds Molly Goddard, the LVMH Prize finalist who is best known for her colourful tulle dresses.

"Ugly things do trigger me," says Glenn Martens of Y/Project. Martens is one of many designers who grew up idolising John Galliano. His favourite ever fashion show, as it happens, is Dior's "Madame Butterfly" Spring/Summer 2007 haute couture outing. This sense of theatrics can be felt in his sweepingly dramatic proportions and a tension between grandiose opulence and the codes of the street. "Sometimes it just takes a new perspective to see that hidden beauty in things. It's a state of mind. I'm obsessed by dissecting the reason why I feel things are ugly. Once I grasp the identity of ugliness I try to change the focus."

Many young designers point to John Galliano as a design hero. "As far as shared reference points go, I see a lot of idolisation of John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Meadham Kirchhoff," notes Mower. During the late 90s and 2000s, Galliano was celebrated as the first English couturier to conquer Paris, since the days of Charles Frederick Worth. He and his peers, such as Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier, Gianni Versace, Tom Ford, Karl Lagerfeld and Vivienne Westwood staged shows that were both dramatic and fantastical. The 00s, especially, were dubbed the "Dior Decade" due to the monumental fashion shows at Christian Dior and glossy Nick Knight-lensed campaigns, which dominated tabloid newspapers in a pre-social media world. For a younger generation, those designers are a perennial source of inspiration and after McQueen's suicide and Galliano's meltdown in 2011, a new era of Céline-like minimalism became the thing to rebel against.

Charles Jeffrey’s Loverboy label is perhaps the most obvious heir apparent to Galliano’s mantle, but his sense of fantasy is placed within the firm context of the digital world and the desire to return to the joy of dressing. Jeffrey follows in the grand tradition of British designers who prefer narrative-led collections with a sense of chaos and control. The mantra for his last collection was “the past is a foreign country and everyone is welcome.” Historical styles were pieced together with a narrative that fidgets and the show itself involved choreographed dancers in giant pink cardboard sculptures. “We have instant access to so much content, so I suppose there’s a link there to the way we piece together the Loverboy universe, where historical art references live alongside weird things we’ve found on Facebook,” he explains, pointing out that his label began as a club night in Dalston and will always be based around that underground world. “I’m a child of the MySpace generation; I understand the internet as a means of communicating who you are though the way you ‘curate’ yourself — be that good or bad.”

“I think fashion’s done a full cycle and people are yearning for something to draw them in and to awaken their imaginations again,” says Eden Loweth, one half of the Art School design duo. Like Jeffrey, Loweth and his partner Tom Barratt see their label as a design collective rather than an individual point of view. “With designers like Charles Jeffrey or Art School, it’s less a cohesive look than a collection of unrelated ideas spontaneously clustered together by a movement of friends,” says Mower. “That said, in the UK at least, it is all still very colourful, resolutely and defiantly ‘up’, which is always a strength — when times are tough people are counterintuitively more likely to be drawn to buying things which cheer them up.”

At Art School’s show at London Fashion Week Men’s in June, the line-up consisted of the duo’s circle of gender-fluid friends in crystal-strewn trousers and bias-cut dresses — gender was irrelevant — and there was a strong influence of the glory days of Galliano and eccentric characters such as Isabella Blow and Quentin Crisp. Loweth has a clear explanation for why he and his partner are drawn to dramatics: “I think people are bored of seeing the same show in a tent with a name stuck across the back.” Sportswear it is certainly not.

It all has the air of escapism and it’s no surprise that young creatives are trying to distract themselves from the world around them. Michael Halpern’s brightly-coloured sequin jumpsuits are a glorious throwback to the days of Studio 54, epitomising the power of sparkling glitter as an antidote to a dire political situation, just as it was at the time of Ziggy Stardust. Despite only graduating from Central Saint Martins last year, Halpern has amassed a long list of stockists and starry collaborators, and says that it is the most OTT ensembles that are most in-demand. “The idea of escapism is still very relevant for me, especially with what is happening in the world and in my home country, the United States,” he says. “What is going on with Trump and his administration is so beyond my comprehension at this point. More than ever, I think people need some glamour in their lives.”

It all has the air of escapism and it's no surprise that young creatives are trying to distract themselves from the world around them.

Nostalgia is also a major driving force for today’s young designers. In the sticky-floored queer clubs that are more often the watering holes for young fashion creatives — and where many creative collaborations are made — the playlist is often a throwback to ‘00s-era pop music, or ‘90s R’n’B and hip-hop. On Instagram, it’s accounts such as @popculturediedin2009, a curation of tabloid coverage on the likes of Paris, Nicole and Lindsay, and @unforgettable_runway, a torrent of the most exuberant catwalk shows from the ’90s, that are avidly ‘liked’ by the young fashion community.

Gabriel Held, a New York-based stylist and vintage clothing dealer, came of age in New York City at the turn of the Millennium, and is renowned for his selection of music and fashion references from the era on his namesake Instagram account. “It was certainly the first time that people of colour were really celebrated as style icons and logomania was not necessarily considered good taste,” he says. “There was once something subversive about wearing logos. I would go to Canal Street and get fake Gucci monograms and get them made into platform Converse boots.”

Now that major fashion houses are reinterpreting Canal Street-style counterfeits of their designs, the look has come back full circle. Held has frequent visits from Versace staff, who are eager to see his collection, and he says that his most requested pieces are logo-laden items, such as the Dior red-yellow-and-green striped “Ragga”-inspired saddle handbags and bikinis, which Kim Kardashian bought.

At college, fashion students are often cautioned against using too much “secondary research”, but the breadth of information and imagery now available at one’s fingertips can be difficult to ignore. The result can be a hyper-referenced aesthetic, of which Toronto-based Vejas Kruszewski is a dab hand, combining complex pattern cutting, which he taught himself, with a range of time-travelling moods. “Everyone that is younger is very referential, never before do we have such access to images and knowledge, so people are drawing from an incredible breadth of history of garments,” says 20-year-old Kruszewski. “I think the pervasive sentiment of the time I grew up in [and the] time we are living in currently, is profoundly dissociative, and the speed and turnover of cultural production is exponentially fast.” He says that his design aesthetic is informed by an incessant onslaught of information and images. “Whatever I take in, I try to make it into something new and add that element of unfamiliarity.”

There are also rising designers who are interested in the art of pattern-cutting and tailoring, which may seem like a rarity today. "Does anyone still wear a suit?" could well be the new "Does anyone still wear a hat?" Kiko Kostadinov, the prodigious menswear designer who is also creative director at Mackintosh, focuses on Cubist pattern-cutting and elevating traditional workwear uniforms. "Somehow my work is dictated by what I don't like in the aesthetic of my generation," he explains. "There is real lack of understanding and respect for garment-making and I hope my work sits on its own."

Martine Rose, the London-based designer, has made waves with her perpendicular-shouldered suits at both her namesake label and through her contributions as a consultant to Balenciaga’s design team. “It’s something I’m interested in exploring,” she says of tailoring. Hers is dramatically proportioned and able to leap out of an iPhone screen. “I’ve felt brave enough to tackle it and mature enough to handle it.” Tellingly, the key to her success, however, is that her two-piece suits are coupled with a playful sense of branding — the familiar MTV logo for example becomes ‘Martine TV’. As far as statements of personal brands go, there’s one that’s understandably confident.

This article appears in BoF's latest special print edition: “Generation Next”. The issue is available for purchase at and at select retailers around the world.

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