This month, the curious concept of normcore is celebrating its second birthday. That’s two years of North Face and Chaps, of wanging on about Larry David and your dad’s fleece, and of the many shades of navy, beige and blah now writ large in your wardrobe. We say celebrating, but in truth, the portmanteau of “normal” and “hardcore” that describes a certain unspecial, brandless, 1990s-referencing look has become a bit of a hate word. Partly because it’s seen an anti-trend, but partly because people have been dressing like this for years and it’s only since it was “adopted” by a new generation that it became a talking point.
The mixed reaction isn’t the fault of the US “trend forecasting” agency/art collective K-Hole, who started discussing the normcore concept (note: it was a concept, they say, not a fashion trend) at the Serpentine gallery two Octobers ago. After delivering their “report”, the word was gobbled up by the world’s media who duly turned it from a concept into a trend, particularly once New York magazine’s fashion blog, The Cut, applied it to fashion, defining normcore as “embracing sameness deliberately as a new way of being cool”. It inspired shoots, collections and multiple trend pieces by Vogue and us. No one really knew what it was, but they liked it. Even Gap attempted to reclaim the term months later, arguing they had been peddling plain stuff since the 1960s; it has since entered the dictionary and a Google search now throws up more than 700,000 results for the word.
All of which K-Hole found rather amusing, says Greg Fong, one of its five founders, “because the fashion bit was a joke about our own style in 2012/13. There are different aspects to it but the style part, as in hashtag normcore, was based on what we wore – Nike Frees and Uniqlo. Someone asked us, if we had to meet Commes Des Garcons, what would we wear? And we said: Nikes and Uniqlo.” They maintain the trend “came out of nowhere – it wasn’t linked to any data research”, but that it probably did contribute to the rise of fashion journalists “copying and pasting” trends they see on the internet.
K-Hole are five under-30 creative types with backgrounds in art and literature, originally based in New York. Having first met at college, they formed K-Hole in 2009/10, and now meet regularly in their old studio in Chinatown in New York, or at one of their houses on Tuesday nights to discuss ideas. The name K-Hole means what you think. When they came up with the name, they hadn’t tried ketamine but liked referencing the idea of “framing a dissociative state”.
Although they call themselves trend forecasters on their site, in person they refer to themselves an ‘art collective’. Their aim is not to predict trends, though. Rather, it’s to investigate the relationship between art and commerce, based on things happening in their lives right now, and turn their thoughts into reports. Of course this is all catnip to corporations who are trying to figure out what the cool kids are doing and, yes, they do some consultancy on the side.
Mary Katrantzou’s ‘chaos magic’ spring/summer 2016 catwalk show. Photograph: Guillaume Roujas / NOWFASHION/Guillaume Roujas / NOWFASHION
Like all their ideas, normcore came from what they were thinking and doing at the time: “Our point of view comes from the five of us. We’re all different, we’re all under 30, at the time we all lived in New York – we weren’t, and aren’t, celebrating ourselves but you can never escape your own subjectivity.” They talk about “acting basic … which is about preserving your anonymity, wearing something expensive that didn’t look expensive” and the idea of fitting in: “There was a time when you were born into a community and you were trying to find individuality. Then it became the reverse.”
And now, two years later, the group are discussing another concept, chaos magic, via one of their reports, A Report on Doubt. Chaos magic is not a reaction against normcore per se. But, on some level, it is a reaction to the way the media spins arbitrary observations into trends: “Since the normcore phenomenon, K-Hole’s relationship with ‘branding’ has changed,” says Fong, suggesting they’ve stepped away from trends in general. In their report, they talk about normcore’s genericide, a portmanteau of generic and suicide – when something successful goes viral and self-destructs – which is arguably what happened with normcore.
So what is chaos magic? Fong explains: “It is the idea that magic could exist if you could hack your own brain and believe in an alternative,” he says. Think “positive thinking”, free will and “experimentation”. The report mentions Harry Potter and the idea of ‘mixing your own Kool-Aid, deciding how strong to make it, knowing when to drink it and when to stop’. Fong adds: “It’s actually a cultural laden philosophy that has been around for 30/40 years”, adds Fong, “not a new trend.” Either way, it couldn’t be more different to normcore.
Models on the Maison Margiela catwalk. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
It’s tricky to get your head round it, and naturally the internet is already mocking both the trend and K-Hole. But perhaps there’s something to it? In style parlance, there seems to be, and Eva Wiseman’s article in the Observer is a good starting point – she mentions slogans with meaning, stars-on-stuff and “magical” BB creams. It’s also on the spring summer 2016 catwalks, on Mary Katrantzou, Jacquemus and JW Anderson, suggesting some forecasting was at play. “But we are still very cynical about what a trend is,” adds Fong. “We try to look at what interests us so it feels real.”
If that sounds a bit loopy, it’s worth looking at their defence of normcore. Fong says they came up with the idea when society was “in a cultural state where power and status came from being ‘different’ but because of the internet, your ability to hold on to individuality, well, that gap was always closing. Being extreme didn’t mean as much, and you could easily be usurped by something newer, something more individual.” In hindsight, looking at the way fashion routinely attempts to promote individuality, it does ring true. To actively blend in was the next frontier of fashion; looking like Seinfeld was merely a byproduct.
As to whether chaos magic will take on the normcore baton, who knows. Quoting another K-Hole colleague, Fong says: “We don’t care what brands do with it and luckily so far, no one has asked us to do anything. Thank God.”