I once had a moody, broody boyfriend who wore his philosophy degree like a battle medal and spoke often about Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return: the concept that we are bound to repeat life — its joys and heartbreaks — over and over, forever. I’ d nod generously at this, take another sip of the wheat beer I ordered at whatever dark dive we were in, and try to steer the discussion elsewhere. I was 20, and so much had yet to happen to me, let alone happen again.
More than a decade later, I can begrudgingly admit he had a point — at least, if the current fashion runways are anything to go by. A quick recap of what’s on deck for fall 2022: neutral browns, schoolgirl plaids and all things ’90s minimalism. If none of that sounds groundbreaking or new, that’s because it isn’t. Neutral brown has been having a moment since at least 2019, ’90s minimalism popped up even earlier and plaid is to the fall runways what florals are to the spring ones: expected. Meanwhile at the mall, the prairie-girl milkmaid thing (bodice necklines, puffed sleeves) has been going strong since before Hailey was a Bieber.
The presentation might change: the plaid skirts are minis instead of knee-length kilts and the ’90s have been rebranded, courtesy of TikTok, as the Clean Girl esthetic. Still, the ingredients are pretty much the same: claw clips in your undone hair , simple tanks and slips, mannish blazers, tiny bags and loose denim. It’s Rachel Green and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy reclaimed by today’s uber It girl, influencer Matilda Djerf.
At this moment, you might be thinking: “But fashion is cyclical!” It is. But the issue is not that things are coming back, it’s that they hardly have a chance to go “out.” Because in order for something to feel novel and fresh to our eyes, it must first go through a cycle of feeling oversaturated, then passé and then downright hideous (see: leg warmers). This cycle has typically taken 20 years, but thanks to our shortened attention spans, digital culture and sped-up production cycles, we no longer have the luxury of time.
That’s something stylist Loretta Chin, who’s also the assistant costume designer on “Glamorous,” a new show filming in Toronto, has noticed. “When I started as a commercial stylist, we would routinely do 60-second commercials. Then it became 30 seconds and now 15 and 10,” says Chin. Today, a minute-long commercial is unheard of with the exception of the Super Bowl. “There is a move toward immediacy; the concept of delayed gratification as we know it is over,” adds Chin.
We burn through new looks, trends and movements so quickly that, to borrow some Nietzsche, we eternally return to the same things again, with the sharpness of novelty dulled with each increasingly fast spin of the trend cycle.
The trend cycle is something Laurence Fortin-Côté knows a thing or two about — once upon a time it was her job. Now a full-time content creator, Fortin-Côté previously worked at the fashion office of Hudson’s Bay, travelling to runway shows in emerging markets to spot the next big thing to bring to the mass fashion consumer. “Working in that position made me a lot more analytical to the trends, but it never got old to me,” she says. “It’s not that there aren’t ‘t great things being made or great ideas out there, but more so that the world that we live in right now doesn’t allow for anything to last.”
Creativity, like any other kind of labour, is in high demand these days. The churn of new ideas is relentless. Designers helming high-end houses are under constant pressure to produce collections (fall, spring, cruise, accessory lines and seemingly endless special collaborations) that will resonate with buyers and result in fat payouts for their parent companies, Kering and LVMH. Some designers thrive in this kind of competitive space — the Jonathan Andersons and Miuccia Pradas of the fashion world come to mind. But you can hardly blame others for mostly playing the hits: body-con Kardashian land at Balenciaga, granny-chic meets disco at Gucci and regal warrior chic at Alexander McQueen.
And while these designers are still important — Virgil Abloh’s vision for Off-White and Louis Vuitton will reverberate for decades — they no longer have a singular hold on our collective fashion tastes. Now, esthetics can be born from a viral TikTok, an overnight hit TV show (a hot line cook and his immaculate white tee) or a well-photographed B-list celeb. When it gets harder to reach a consensus on what should be the next big trend, we default to what’s worked before: neutrals, universal patterns and the clean simplicity of the ’90s.
Can you really blame us for playing it safe? “We need some sense of stability and these repetitive trends offer a safe space for consumers to blend in while feeling confident that they are making the right choices,” says Fortin-Côté, citing the ‘ 90s trend, in particular, as a “safe space” among the chaos of our digital era. “It’s uncomplicated; it’s something we know and understand, unlike most things these days,”
So is fashion running out of ideas or are we just too tired, or risk-averse, to look for them? Fortin-Côté admits that she doesn’t spend as much time poring over the runway shows. Instead, she turns to YouTube and video formats that offer a more organic approach to covering street style and micro-trends. “There is something very real and humble about it,” she adds.
And even though it feels as though we’re constantly hitting the same esthetic notes, the point of reference changes. “Every generation says that there’s nothing new anymore,” argues Chin. “Fashion is fluid, refreshed with new technology and fabrications which didn’t ‘t exist before. In essence, it’s not what the originals were and there are a whole lot of kids out there who are happily embracing it.” Think of Avril Lavigne’s own self-referential look at the recent VMAs. The same oversized, tomboyish proportions and skater dude nods have been filtered through the luxury lens of Versace.
There is novelty out there, and rising niche esthetics that challenge Clean Girls and the cult of brown. Think: the exuberant tackiness of Y2K or the exaggerated, subversive femininity of the coquette esthetic. There are even early rumblings of the return of the “indie” sleaze” look of the early aughts as displayed by Mischa Barton or Kate Moss: think skinny scarves, lamé, bulky jewelry. Seeking out true newness requires some effort, if only because most of us have been caught in an algorithmic echo chamber that only serves us more of what we’ve liked before, and works to box us into a version of “Groundhog Day” costumed by Everlane.
Funnily enough, I like ’90s fashion and warm, sophisticated brown is my absolute favourite colour to wear. I don’t want to ask more of fashion — after all, that industry has given us so much, too much, to wear and discard as it is. Instead, I’m asking more of myself. I want to consume things with the deliberate slowness of a 20-year-old in a bar with nowhere else to be. I’ll try to undo the damage of 2.5- second clips that flash before my eyes when I lift my phone. Maybe the secret to conjuring novelty isn’t more ideas, but simply time to let existing ones sit in your mind.