We find ourselves at an interesting intersection in the world of denim, one that has become increasingly polarized in terms of design. As we’ve collectively grown accustomed to the attention economy, we’ve seen an influx of head-turning, avant-adjacent design in recent seasons. However this is the first time we’ve experienced extreme economic uncertainty in our post pandemic, social media saturated world, helping to usher in what the internet’s been calling ‘quiet luxury.’ An aesthetic defined by elevated, understated and timeless apparel acting as an anecdotal note in our feeds compared to the world of bonkers denim we’ve grown accustomed to. 

These dueling aesthetics highlight not only the increasing gap between everyday jeanswear and luxury-level denim design, but also the growing disparity in our social structures. Both avant-garde design and quiet luxury reveal polarized responses to the shifting cultural and economic landscape. When pulling back the curtain and examining how consumer psychology plays into both of the categories, it’s incredibly telling about our current state of being and how we interact with clothing as status.

Paris fashion week street style by Phil Oh.

On one hand, the attention economy, fueled by social media and digital platforms has propelled the avant-garde into the limelight. We’ve been pummeled with dopamine dressing, over the top marketing campaigns and epic fashion weeks since the end of lockdowns, reflecting our need for a dose of escapism. Designers who embrace bold, unconventional aesthetics and push creative boundaries are able to capture the fascination of global audiences seeking the unique. This increased visibility has fostered an environment where avant-garde design thrives, as it offers a departure from the mainstream and cultivates a sense of individuality while adding emotional and ethos based value to every purchase. Just take Glenn Martens’ revitalization of Diesel through his bespoke and subversive designs as an example.

The post pandemic boom of bonkers denim cemented its place very early on in this new era of denim design. In a world where the more extreme and out of the box your GRWM videos are, the better your engagement, the more PR packages or sponsored content they may generate, inadvertently prompting creators into sporting some of the most maximalist takes on denim we’ve ever seen. 

However, whilst the pandemic itself spawned an outpouring of bedroom makers, neo craftsman and experimental design, the more recent months of turbulence have created a parallel demand for the understated and enduring qualities of pared back design. 

Balenciaga FW23
Stella McCartney SS23

The concept of quiet luxury is not a new one, according to Martin Pedraza, CEO of The Luxury Institute: “It’s during good times when people want to show off, not when nerves are raw about financial futures. The rich try to imitate the masses as those in the middle and top of the mass mimic the minimalist rich.” However the latest conversation around this particular aesthetic and consumer shopping habits is paired with a growing awareness of the disparity between those who can actually afford to buy into the trend and those the trend aims to exclude. The most recent and poignant example being Gweneth Paltrow’s courtroom attire, in which three days exceeded an average middle class American salary.

Reminiscing back to the 2008 recession that quickly spawned the wax mustache and raw denim fueled heritage trend, quiet luxury is this generation’s response to economic instability. This shift away from flashing your status can be traced all the way back to the end of the 18th century with the fall of the French Monarchy, says Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Museum. As court life faded away, so did the powdered wigs and lavishly adorned attire, and industrialists moved in building wealth and power in a new uniform, the dark suit. So it’s no surprise that quiet luxury, or as we’d call it ‘recession-core’ has hard-launched itself back into our daily dressing routines. 

Paris fashion week street style by Phil Oh.

When looking at American fashion history, the concept of stealth wealth or quiet luxury has always existed in some form or another, from the industrial revolution tycoons or the waspy dress codes of the 80’s to Steve Jobs’ iconic turtleneck and jeans. The uber wealthy are often recognised for their underwhelming and lackluster approach towards dressing whilst in contrast, the rest of us boast overtly branded pieces to feel like we ‘belong’ in the same realm as the upper class. 

As ‘quiet luxury’ or ‘stealth wealth’ aesthetics are once again appealing to mass market consumers, the real money crowd can tell your cashmere sweater is from Banana Republic and not Nili Lotan and your selvedge jeans are Uniqlo not Loro Piana, so are us normies ever really in the club? The concept may inspire a shift towards mindful consumption as it did in the 2010’s—buying less, buying better, and wearing longer— but without decent health care, autonomy of time and the ability to pay rent without breaking the bank, the mass market version is not looking very luxurious at all. 

The meme corner of the internet was quick to give its 2 cents on the trend (@throwingfits)
@gstaadguy known for his satirical takes on the quiet luxury lifestyle

This push and pull in design mirrors our ever-increasing economic imbalances and cultural shifts, serving as both an insight into our collective psychology and a critique of our social structures. The celebration of quiet luxury also inadvertently discriminates against maximalist styles that are often associated with people of color, as  @fashioningtheself on instagram so eloquently explains. 

However, today’s consumer demonstrates a chameleon-like adaptability, indulging in maximalist aesthetics one day and seamlessly transitioning to the understated elegance of ‘quiet luxury’ the next, reflecting the diverse and multifaceted nature of modern dressing. So as the pendulum of fashion continues to swing amidst these turbulent times, it’s intriguing to anticipate which aesthetics will define the next epoch of design. 

Whether it be the avant garde denim of the attention economy or the resurgence of ‘recession-core,’ each encapsulates the unique narrative of our socio-economic landscape. 

As we move forward, it’s crucial that we remain mindful of the unintentional exclusivity these trends may perpetuate, and strive for a more inclusive and ethical fashion ecosystem.

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