Post Luxury:

Normcore as Node and Prism

Introduction

This article attempts to frame and unpack ‘normcore’ in order to speculate[1] about the future of luxury. At a time where seemingly everyone is searching for the ‘new luxury’, this article instead proposes finding the ‘new normal’. It investigates a phenomenon that challenges the very nature of luxury in terms of exclusivity in the actual sense of the word; being exclusive, i.e. for the few or of restricted accessibility[2], in line with Simmel’s classic insight: “we call those objects valuable that resist our desire to possess them” (Simmel 67).

Normcore is not the answer, though. And it was never intended to be. Normcore is rather about speculation[3], along the lines of the field of ‘speculative design’ (see Malpass for an overview)—that is, more about an idea of a possible future, a proposal without consideration for probability rather than a problem-solving, hands-on approach.

Normcore was not only the most Googled fashion trend of 2014 but also the runner-up for neologism of the year by Oxford University Press. The phrase generated numerous headlines, such as “Normcore Is (or Is It?) a Fashion Trend (or Non-Trend or Anti-Trend)” in the Los Angeles Times in 2015, “How a fake trend forecasting agency got us all dressing like Jerry Seinfeld” in The Sydney Herald in 2016, or “Everyone’s Getting Normcore Wrong, Says Its Inventors” in Dazed in 2014, indicating a multi-faceted and intriguing phenomenon.

Aiming to successfully tackle such a complex empirical phenomenon like normcore requires analytical tools beyond the scope of any singular discipline, thus making an interdisciplinary approach imperative. The theoretical perspectives combined this article lie at the intersection of anthropology, consumption theory, and critical fashion theory.

This article covers both the normcore consumer trend and its conceptual origin in the art world—as well as the dialectics between the two—and proposes appropriating the term ‘post luxury’ as a suitable term for capturing the totality of the phenomenon. The article also points to a few possible directions for further investigation.

Normcore as consumer trend

Anthropology was an influential contributor to the development of postmodern consumption theory, represented by, for example, Appadurai (1986) and Miller (1987), introducing ‘material culture’ perspectives and an interest in universal dimensions of how people relate to things cross culturally, complementing sociological dominance in the field (see, for example, Warde, 2002), and informing perceptions of fashion mechanisms.

Normcore is a cultural response to imploding fashion mechanisms.[4] The problem of upholding distinction value has been met with different responses over the past two decades as the conditions shifted. The answer was semiotic excess or ‘stylistic eclecticism’ in the 2000s (Warde, 2008), and what is best characterized as the heritage paradigm or a ‘reorientation to materiality’[5] in the 2010s. Much of the interest in so-called new luxury is concerned with this latter approach. This development, of course, has its theoretical equivalent reflected in the post-semiotic material turn. But as we head for the 2020s, what is next?

Normcore is an anticipation. As a consumer trend, normcore came to be associated with a kind of minimalistic attire based loosely around how comedian Jerry Seinfeld looked throughout his TV show—or rather, if Jerry Seinfeld and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had a baby: light blue, loose, high-wasted jeans (also known as Mom-jeans), black or white turtle necks, practical wind breakers, and sneakers with heavy soles, often in primary colours, with a hint of synthetic futurism—a sort of post-heritage aesthetic merged with a neo-90s swing of the pendulum.

(c) Nicolas Coulomb

Like most trends, it reaches critical mass at a point where there is nothing but surface left, without much trace of any ideological origin. Described as “a unisex fashion trend characterized by unpretentious, normal-looking clothing” by Wikipedia, normcore was in fact not meant to be a trend at all, nor to be used to refer to a particular code of dress. ‘Post peak normcore’,[6] this article aims to investigate a phenomenon that surely entailed more than first meets the eye:

It enlightens a theoretical issue, namely the missing link between habitus (Bourdieu, 1984) and the world of goods (Douglas and Isherwood, 1979) as problematized by Miller in saying that Bourdieu’s theory does not actually treat this gap between the two satisfactory—that is, between dispositions and material culture. Miller, therefore, encourages further research in mediating structures such as marketing. Contemporary art as influencer in the form of trend forecasting at the intersection of fake manipulation and critical cultural commentary is thus an intriguing empirical landscape to enter to explore these dynamics.

K-Hole: art and/or trend analysis

Normcore was initially a spoof marketing term, coined by the New York-based art collective/trend-forecasting group K-Hole, who have launched a total of five trend reports on their website k-hole.net since their inception[7]—seemingly a paradoxical task if contemporary art’s main agenda is (supposedly) cultural critique.

However, K-Hole belong to a long lineage of artist collectives piggybacking commercial channels,[8] with 90s phenomenon Bernadette Corporation and their imploding strategy for criticism mimicking the world of advertising (Simpson, 2003; Becker, 2014) as a precursor, following the appropriation art of the 1970s and 1980s that, inspired by the historical avant-garde, blurred the lines in visual culture, and between art and life (Gibbons, 2005).

This tradition refers to rather opaque phenomena, things best described as having double ontologies, so to speak. K-Hole is best understood as being both and, rather than either or, flickering between two modes so that is difficult to identify which aspects define the separation, and their hybrid practices are blurring the distinctions between criticality and accelerationism;[9] practising what is critiqued.

Anthropology has proved to be particularly suitable for enabling identification of phenomena that defy our established ways of categorizing because its methodology of cross-cultural comparison generates reflexivity towards our own cultural configurations, and anthropology is currently gaining popularity across disciplines (after its last peak in the 90s) because of that.

K-Hole themselves have described their trend reports as ‘fan fiction’ rather than satire —a much fuzzier approach at the intersection of mockery and celebration. But it is also about the dissemination of critical thinking. The field of trend analysis is characterized by extremely lightweight cultural analysis in fiercely sexy packaging—with astonishing impact. K-Hole’s project was to employ this superficial format as a Trojan horse. Their reports are almost indistinguishable from the real thing, and it takes some concentration to actually capture the astonishing accuracy of their descriptions of cultural tendencies in the unfolding.

Normcore as critique

Normcore was originally a rather subversive concept, anticipating an alternative way forward, proposing anti-distinction as the radical new. The K-Hole trend report that introduced the term, “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom”, was originally commissioned for the 89Plus Marathon at London’s Serpentine Gallery in October 2013. Co-founded by Simon Castets and curator superstar Hans Ulrich Obrist, 89Plus is a platform for selected creative talents born in or after 1989, thus unmistakably situating the origins of normcore in the art sphere.

The report in question starts out by analysing the contemporary context of challenges facing the possibility of distinction:

It used to be possible to be special—to sustain unique differences through time, relative to a certain sense of audience. As long as you were different from the people around you, you were safe. But the Internet and globalization fu$%#d that up for everyone. In the same way that a video goes viral, so does potentially anything. (K-Hole, 2013, p. 4)

The report introduces several concepts, three of which are most important in this context:

‘Mass Indie’, ‘Acting Basic’, and ‘Normcore’.

The term ‘Mass Indie’, in itself an oxymoron, refers to the social construction of value related to the alternative as imagined vs. the mainstream as imagined (Gregson and Crewe 2003) that characterized the main trait of “alternative” consumption from around the 90s (Frank, 1997; Heath and Potter, 2005). K-Hole declares “we live in Mass-Indie times”:

But just because Mass Indie is pro-diversity, doesn’t mean it’s post-scarcity. There’s a limited amount of difference in the world, and the mainstreaming of its pursuit has only made difference all the scarcer. The anxiety that there is no new terrain is always a catalyst for change. (K-Hole, 2013, p. 16; emphasis added)

The possibility of difference is now what is scarce. (Crewe et al, 2003). already predicted problems concerning upholding the distinction value as ‘alternative’ 15 years ago. Appadurai (1986) described a solution strategy to this dilemma in the mid-80s related to complicating the criteria of authenticity. However, as K-Hole points out, there is a limit to how complicated the criteria of authenticity can be, and is thus seeking out the solution elsewhere.

Another important term stemming from the report is ‘Acting Basic’. This is indeed an interesting word play, and conceptually very clever. ‘Basic’ was already a well-established expression with its own trail of explanations in the online Urban Dictionary, such as “only interested in things mainstream, popular, and trending”. Acting basic, however, is described by K-Hole as the natural sociological response to the current Mass Indie situation:

If the rule is Think Different, being seen as normal is the scariest thing. (…) Which paradoxically makes normalcy ripe for the Mass Indie überelites to adopt as their own, confirming their status by showing how disposable the trappings of uniqueness are. The most different thing to do is to reject being different all together. When the fringes get more and more crowded, Mass Indie turns toward the middle. Having mastered difference, the truly cool attempt to master sameness. (K-Hole, 2013, p. 23; emphasis added)

K-Hole proposes non-distinction as the ultimate form of distinction here. Blending in as the new standing out. Acting basic is thus acting as if being basic, without really being basic. Acting basic is actually the ultimate demonstration of symbolic power—by abstaining from it.

Normcore, on the other hand, is introduced as an approach almost indistinguishable from this, save from the fact that the intention or the motivation or aim lies elsewhere:

Normcore doesn’t want the freedom to become someone. Normcore wants the freedom to be with anyone. (…) Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness. But instead of appropriating an aestheticized version of the mainstream, it just cops to the situation at hand. (K-Hole,2013, p. 28; emphasis added)

The term ‘post-authenticity’ is also worth noting here. As part of the 2010s heritage paradigm, authenticity became the doxic, unquestionable value to seek out. K-Hole speculates about what might be the next move—and identifies it as the exact opposite.

Normcore was thus not meant to be a strategy of “appropriating an aestheticized version of the mainstream”. On the contrary, normcore is ultimately a nomadic social strategy of blending in, of accentuating sameness—a bit similar to the Norwegian cultural trait of under-communicating difference as a framework for social interaction, often referred to as “egalitarian individualism” (Gullestad, 1992). Normcore implies the end of distinction as we know it.

Normcore as Post Luxury

Luxury has obviously been a central issue in consumer research, and a rare overview of different scholarly definitions is provided by Csaba (2008), with the intent to translate discourses of luxury between disciplinary boundaries that are seldom crossed, such as those of economics and anthropology—merging business school approaches and cultural critique.[10]

One of the definitions gaining territory cross-scholarly is Appadurai’s (1986), which proposed defining luxury based on the characteristics of the consumption, rather than classifying the material objects in question (in order for it to be universally comparable).

Normcore seeks the freedom that comes with non-exclusivity. It finds liberation in being nothing special, and realizes that adaptability leads to belonging. (K-Hole, 2013, p. 36)

 In seeking “non-exclusivity”—the antithesis of luxury in most definitions (Csaba, 2008)—normcore is, therefore, often associated with anti-luxury, but it is substantially different from the ad-busting of the 90s, or the brand protesting ‘potlatch strategies’ of approximately ten years ago, popularized by journalist and brand consultant Neil Boorman’s book Bonfire of the Brands: How I Learnt to Live Without Labels,[11] in which the self-declared recovering brand addict sought to free himself of the allure of all labelled items.

People have been searching for the ‘new luxury’ outside the realm of alluring labelled items for a long time now, fetishizing local production and materials. But this is not new at all; it is rather a historical re-enactment of former forms of luxury, reflecting economic rather than cultural capital and a societal order of more static social stratification.[12] Within luxury management, ‘post luxury’ refers to “the decline of the income-upgrade phenomenon”, according to a Winston Chesterfield at luxurysociety.com, a term reflecting late capitalist consumer trends that respond to the democratization and hence devaluation of traditional luxury products along the descriptive lines of Dana Thomas (2007).

This article proposes to appropriate the term ‘post luxury’ to capture the essence of the normcore phenomenon, first and foremost because it seems much more fit for capturing normcore’s paradigmatic implications than it is for its conventional use. Thomas Frank, author of the seminal book on advertisements’ appropriation of counterculture and the rise of hip consumerism in the 1990s (Frank, 1997) and co-founder of the cultural-criticism journal The Baffler, wrote this compelling comment on the normcore phenomenon:

When I first heard about ‘normcore,’ the trend among the privileged toward anti-fashion clothes of the kind available at Wal-Mart, I thought immediately of a passage in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, ‘The Last Tycoon,’ describing the plans that various wealthy Hollywood types made back in 1932 to survive the revolution they believed was coming. (Frank, 2014)

Despite mixing up the concepts ‘acting basic’ and ‘normcore’ (like most people did), Franks thought-provoking essay in Salon from 2014 nevertheless sees normcore as indicative of a paradigm shift. This must be understood in relation to his previous analysis of the paradox in that the relentless quest for the new is in fact imperative both to the avant-garde and to capitalism—and that the two are interrelated without the former necessarily being neither aware nor willing to acknowledge this fact[13] (Frank, 1993).

Appropriating the term post luxury is also related to its parallel to the term ‘post art’; a term aiming to capture attempts in contemporary art to (re-)integrate art and life, after more than 200 years of separation. As the dialectics played out, normcore—both its ideological intention and its mass misconception (or success depending on one’s outlook)—are symptomatic of such an integration of art and life. This further relates to seeing fashion as an aesthetic metapolitics, in line with so-called critical fashion theory (Gaugele, 2014: 11).

The purpose of proposing post luxury in relation to normcore is, however, not merely essentialist, but also discursive. K-Hole stated that after the era of the hipster, there was a neologism vacuum, and normcore was just what we all needed in order to talk about what was happening. Similarly, post luxury opens up the conversation about the future of luxury, and of what may lie beyond it.

Another plausible term would be ‘new new luxury’, referring to the genre in journalism following new journalism. ‘New new journalism’ was characterized by adding fiction, thus blurring the journalistic genre even more than new journalism’s autobiographical turn. Seeing normcore as new new luxury takes on relevant connotations related to its fictional or speculative strategies.

Further investigations

The topic invites further investigations. One aspect worth covering would be the effect normcore has had on high fashion and fashion campaigns, not only as consumer trend or as conceptual art. Vetements’ AW17 collection was a reflection of the normcore ideology in that it featured a collection based on stylistic stereotypes, inspired by Exactitudes®, a photo project documenting subcultures meticulously like type specimen since 1994. Helmut Lang’s AW17 campaign mimicked the 3×4 grid of Exactitudes®[14], and for the AW2017 campaign for streetwear brand Palace Skateboards, Exactitudes® cooperated creatively themselves.

It is also worth considering analysing the term post luxury in relation to other contemporary empirical examples where luxury is not necessarily about the goods anymore, but rather their discursive qualities (see, for example, Skjulstad 2018; Crewe et al 2003), as we are moving on from the post-semiotic material turn into a more immaterial landscape of consumption as discourse.

Post luxury is also a term with potential in relation to a broader theoretical discussion on value. In line with Appadurai’s cross-cultural approach to luxury more than 30 years ago,[15]

the editor of Texte zur Kunst has argued that a new approach is needed, as the animistic, ritual, indigenous perspectives must be integrated in order to fully understand the value of contemporary art (Graw, 2012).

Summarizing Remarks

This article has attempted to frame and unpack normcore in order to speculate about the future of luxury. At a time where seemingly everyone is searching for the new luxury, this article instead proposed finding the new normal. The study of normcore invites reaching for new analytical tools, such as an appropriated version of post luxury or the term new new luxury, and functions as both node of the contemporary conditions and prism into the future—in line with du jour ambitions for speculative sartorialism.[16]

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[1]Specular (adj.) 1570s, “reflective” (like a mirror), from Latin specularis, from speculum “a mirror” (see speculum). Meaning “assisting in vision; affording a view”.

[2] It is worth asking the question of whether the very idea of ‘sustainable luxury’ is not in fact a contradiction in terms, and that sustainability should be the new normal rather than the new luxury.

[3] Speculation is indeed hot stuff in theory at the moment, spreading from radical philosophy via contemporary art theory and into design theory and general discourse.

[4] Fashion’s sociological function as regulation of social differentiation is under threat.

[5] Fashion Colloquia in Paris in 2012 had materiality as one of two main themes in its call for papers: “The values linked to the fabrication of products (…) represent today a growing interest for international fashion and luxury companies. As real points of differentiation (…). Representations of the handmade, the workshop, the craftsman and his tools are flourishing in the products, on labels, on the catwalk, in advertising and even within stores (…).”

[6] Normcore is still very much happening, though, and a fresh Google search offered results, such as “How to Dress Normcore in 2018” and “How to Dress Normcore Over 40”.

[7] Their work has been shown or involved with contexts, brands, and people such as Moma PS1, LA Art Book Fair, 032c, MTV, RISD, Princeton, Stephen Colbert, Karl Lagerfeld and Pharell–to name but a few.

[8] A contemporary sibling would be DIS magazine (2011-2017 RIP), and their internet platform of critical commentary with stock photo aesthetics, later bringing this ambiguity into the contemporary art scene as curators of the ninth Berlin Biennale. Another recent example would be the Cuss Group, a South African collective, whose latest project is entitled ‘fully automated image influencer’, featured online at DIS’ new platform established in late 2017: http://www.dis.art./

[9] ‘Accelerationism’ is the idea that either the prevailing system of capitalism, or certain techno-social processes that have historically characterized it, should be expanded, repurposed, or accelerated in order to generate radical social change (Wikipedia).

[10] A pioneering publication at this very intersection combined the perspectives of anthropologist Douglas and economist Isherwood in 1979.

[11] It is worth mentioning that Boorman’s famous stunt of giving up all his branded belongings referencing The Bonfire of Vanities was in fact a sort of popularization of the art project entitled ‘Break Down’ conducted by Michael Landy in 2001, an artist associated with the Young British Artists (YBAs). Later, of course, Boorman’s book title became staple ingredient in consumer reports such as those of PwC.

[12] “Modern consumers are the victims of fashion as surely as primitive consumers are the victims of the stability of sumptuary law” (Appadurai 32).

[13] Those who are tend to claim affinity to the aforementioned idea of accelerationism: feeding the machine in order to generate an explosion.

[14] Also a nod to the 90s, the height of both Helmut Lang and the idea of ‘urban tribes’—both of which are back in fashion.

[15] A post luxury discussion of value would, of course, be with a post-distinction, post-scarcity approach this time.

[16] Call for contributions for the Artez Fashion Colloquia 2018 asked for examples of “fashion’s power to create desire and imaginary worlds in order to transition into a more regenerative future society”.


Charlotte Bik Bandlien 

Charlotte Bik Bandlien is an Oslo-based anthropologist specializing in visual and material culture. Via a triangulation between the roles of researcher, collaborative practitioner, and critic, her interdisciplinary research revolves around contemporary conditions for constructing criticality—currently focusing on dialectics between contemporary art, advertising, anthropology, fashion/value mechanisms, and speculative perspectives. Bandlien has presented work at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Parsons the New School for Design in NYC, Oxford University, Design History Society, College Art Association, Theaster Gates’ Arts Incubator in Chicago, the American Anthropological Association, the Material Culture hub at University College London, Tate Research and Learning/AAH ++. She has held positions as strategic brand planner at Bates Advertising and researcher at the Norwegian National Institute for Consumer Research, and was contributing editor to the Norwegian fashion journal Personae magazine. Bandlien has been assistant professor of theory and methodology at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts, Department of Design since 2011.