Towards a Manifesto for a World After Newness

Where the trendapocalypse eternally returns

I

The I Don’t Know Her rationale, Mariah Carey’s defining maxim apropos of Jeniffer Lopez, is the archetypal setup of the fashion world. It’s simple and apparent. A brand cannot openly acknowledge its peers. In order for Dior to stay Dior, it has to pretend that there’s no Yves Saint Laurent in the world. In order for The Brand to fulfil its mission - sell - it cannot stand to admit that within its realm, other commodities exist.

This natural law was broken for the first time with great aplomb at Gucci’s 100th anniversary show. The show took place this April and by now should be considered as the birthplace of a new cognition.

Alessandro Michele, the Italian house’s creative director, was appointed to the job a few years back. During his Gucci reign he has functioned not as a fashion designer but more of a social media manager. Gucci’s official Instagram account bio line literally features Michele’s personal account handle. He isn’t designing per se, he is posting on the runway. Shitposting, to be exact.

Since his first show in 2015, Michele’s maximalist take on Gucci proved a major financial triumph. Yet, on the eve of the brand’s 100th birthday, after 2020’s not-as-impressive financial results, the Italian was in need of some effective PED. The search led him to excavate his objet trouvé: Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga.

Now, this sort of find - a designer openly declaring his intention to make another designer’s pieces - calls for a preparatory glossary. It is not a collaboration, the brand explained, it is a “hacking-lab”. These are not copies, they are “metamorphoses”

As the show began, several looks were presented before we got to see the hacking lab’s test results. The general guidelines were manifested from the beginning. Everything, down to the last inch, was compulsively sequinned and shimmering. As if under a constant sparkle filter, the models became Kira-Kira ambassadors à la 2017. When the 2018 jingle Green Gucci Suit by Rick Ross started playing, Michele was unable to hold himself back. He actually sent down the runway a green Gucci suit. Like an uncontrollable sneeze, it made you hate life.

Mid-show, they began stomping: the Balenciaga-made-by-Gucci creatures with a cadaverous streak. They were not Guccified Balenciaga pieces, they were mummified: the shapes were mimicking the original pieces’ lines in an external hardened manner. Their essence, now glued up, adorned and imprisoned, was lost in the hollowed looking shells. For a hacking lab, these were no ghosts in the machine, but system malfunctions.

What was this mind melting moment made of?

As a content creator first and foremost, Michele proved that he is highly attuned to the current industry commandment: create a content universe. This practice was recently reaffirmed by Marvel’s record-breaking blockbuster Godzilla vs. Kong. Michele hopes that his Guzilla Frankensteined monsters would blast in the same way, allowing him to position himself as fashion’s ultimate showrunner.

In this universe, the Kering corporation takes Marvel’s place. Kering is the parent company of these two Persona Ficta, which makes the operation possible from a legal standpoint. The licence is an authorised one, not a pirated copy. 

Jurisdiction aside, the unison is based on an emotional impetus as well. It might remind us of silly twitter moments where brands are pseudo-communicating among themselves. Yet this correspondence is on a different level. Here, one persona ficta writes fan fiction zealously dedicated to another, challenging the confines of the fictitious tale - i.e. fashion - as a whole.

The exchange was spelled out on Gucci’s Instagram stories. We were presented with a so-called dialogue between the two designers in the form of simulated DM’s, a modern-day courtship procedure. The penned pursuit, like everything on Instagram, had a vile aftertaste. If these are today’s love letters we might be better off with algorithmic monsterverses. Amid the replicas going back and forth, Gvasalia‘s - the king of doom - coerced “:-)” particularly stung.

Things between the two weren’t always this awkward. In fact, their first date, which occurred five years ago, was documented in a constitutive story in the NYT’s T Magazine. In it, critic Alexander Fury was able to lay out the foundations to the odd coupling. The title, These Two Guys Are Changing How We Think About Fashion, remains accurate to this day.

That conversation - sincere and interesting, as opposed to those fabricated DM’s - took place shortly after the duo of then-unknowns began their ascendance. Fury shows how the two radically different styles of design derive from a similar - that’s not to say, close to identical - descent.

In their discussion, the two guys who were - are - changing the way we think about fashion, echoed one another in their pragmatic outlook. They are both cited as interested in clothes, not fashion. The word itself makes them itch. “‘The word is very…” begins Michele, and Gvasalia completes him: “It’s tricky. It needs to change!”.

Their woes stem from the inherent nature of fashion as pure change. As Fury puts it, “It’s interesting that in your work you’ve both collapsed the idea of trends. That’s been dying for a long time, but fashion has been clinging onto it”. This assertion, true then and truer today, is welcomed by both creative directors. They’re both equally horrified - Gvasalia: “It’s terrible”; Michele: “It’s horrible” - by the fact that an item which is perceived attractive one season is deemed throwable in the next. “Nobody cares”, says Michele. “We’ve seen every length of skirt”. Gvasalia recounts how at Margiela, “Every six months, it had to be a new concept. It’s not relevant anymore.”

Yet, it’s not only that this twin-like mindset mutated into two contrasting aesthetics. An infinitely more important distinction was to emerge in the years following the article.

II

“It was glorious”, a gleaming-eyed Sisqo recently narrated the first time he ever encountered a thong. The sheer power of newness is intoxicating, and this power defines Demna Gvasalia’s work. A puffer coat. A ball gown. A cape. After the ex-refugee Georgian designer carved his iterations of these pieces, they would never go back to what they were before. They changed. Gvasalia might have hated the idea of change as a design exercise, to be rinsed and repeated every few months, but nevertheless, he was committed to Sisqo-style revelations. He dug up The New.

Michele, on the other hand, has proved to be a full-on fashion hater. “Resist the illusion of something new at any cost”, he dared to assert in his spring 2018 collection text. This insane line should have alerted every fashion and/or art plebe, not to mention the big publications and so-called connoisseurs. Yet it was accepted sans opposition. As long as people are paying full price, excuses will be found. Some were ready to misinterpret his hostility towards newness - “The act of creation as an act of resistance”, as he put it - as a sustainability issue. Ridiculous. Cancellation police are at hand at any given moment, but what happens when an elemental outcry is vital?

This vigilant resistance to newness defines Michele’s anti-mode. The latest show with the Balenciaga hoax may have stretched this logic to its limit, but it has dominated his entire Gucci career. While replacing fashion’s inventive duty with an abstract claim for “freedom”, Michele called in broad references to history, philosophy, art, just in order to rehash the same looking debris, over and over again. Over time his wardrobe offering took the shape of Peter Strickland’s nightmarish red dress in In Fabric. Surviving in sameness at every twist and turn, it is eternally torturing its wearers. 

To his minor defence, it should be noted that Michele is constantly being pressured to fiddle with the big L word, legacy. This was especially true on the brand’s 100th anniversary show. Unlike Gvasalia, who got the maison that changed the course of fashion history, Michele’s heritage at Gucci amounts to well-made suitcases and not much else. For how long can you drum up suitcases as impassioned inspiration when it’s clearly, poor pun ahead, emotional baggage? The designer Nicolas Ghesquière, a virtuoso, has also been burdened by the same question at the house of Louis Vuitton, as his creative stagnation might attest. But with Michele, one look at the scanty ‘about’ section on Gucci’s official site reveals the degree to which he would like to get rid of all that overweight. Luggage jokes are now over.

This sentiment was, surprisingly, something Michele openly talked about in the past. “Gucci for me was, in a way, flat. Without soul”, he confessed to Fury in that T Magazine article. “We don’t have a ready-to-wear story, so you can invent what you want. It’s just about travel, suitcases, leather goods. But I was obsessed with this idea of the jet set”.

Indeed, if there’s a secret sauce which Michele managed to cook up, it relates not to the clothes but to the people wearing them. As a boss-level influencer towering above the world’s biggest influencers - whether it’s Hollywood elite, musical chart toppers, online celebrities - he achieved enormous success in getting famous folks to wear his designs. Barring all Kardashians while canonizing Harry Styles, he went on to immaculately curate his very own jet set, a polished posse.

It makes sense, then, that one of Gucci’s latest campaigns emulates a talk show — the classic people-curation mechanism. You can feel how truly great Michele is in this game based on how these big personalities, whether it’s a campaign, red carpet situation or a PR event, look genuinely happy to wear Gucci. Do they also look good, in the sense of looking like themselves? No. They are clad in foolish outfits, cloned 70’s clutter. But they’re there, present, presenting. They wouldn’t do it, not with that visible zest, had Michele not been able to forge a strong connection.

Michele insists that it’s pop. Peut-être, but it’s Taylor Swift pop: bad pop. No matter how many wind tunnels of cash it will propel and blow through in its close to identical iterations, it remains insipid.

The question of Gucci as a pop phenomenon has been put to the test this year in a new, insulting way. Ridley Scott was shooting The House of Gucci for the past few months, and the stream of snaps from the set carries a memetic quality which is simply undeniable. So while Michele’s glitzy Aria show begs for #engagement, organic brand content - which the Italian family abhors - is being produced elsewhere. It’s common knowledge at this point: when you’re not in control of the memes, something’s wrong.

At Balenciaga, meanwhile, meme-control is the savoir-faire. This too is common knowledge. Excellent memes are rare gems, which is just one more reason why Gvasalia’s tenure at the French fashion house has been revolutionary.

However, if there was ever a time for a Balenciaga uber-meme, surely Gucci’s replication moment was the ultimate occasion, non?

A retribution came late, and subdued. Gucci delivered down the runway a new faculty, a brand deeply acknowledging another - as if a 2000’s Maraiah Carey were to fangirlingly cover a J-Lo hit - but up until this week, counting 50 days which is an eternity in internet terms, Balenciaga’s consciousness remained in its infantry state. 

This Sunday Gvasalia presented his reply, a stream-only show which was appropriately titled “Clones”. If you wanted, you could read the opening notes as a jab directed to the antithetical twin Michele: “We see our world through a filter (...) We no longer decipher between fake and deep fake”. The more forward response came in the form of Gucci-made-by-Balenciaga bags and belts. Graffiti sprayed over one of the oversized bags declared “this is not a Gucci bag”, a trite Magritte gag that can hardly be considered a meme.

The alleged novelty of the show was not to be found in the collection - which was a clear greatest-hits parade - but in the presentation. The same model wore all the pieces, and technology tricks - clones, deep fakes, hacks, whatever - alternated and masqueraded her looks. If it sounds uninteresting, that’s because it is.

In the current battle, alors, in his maladroit style, Michele achieved what no one ever believed him capable of, most likely himself included. He out-newed Gvasalia.

This unexpected role-reversing turn of events is a definite sign that, like money, the zeitgeist is out of control.

III

In search of a whiff of zeitgeist, the rationalist’s go-to in the past had been the newspaper. Reading the morning newspaper is the realist's morning prayer, stated Hegel, as we can either orient our attitude toward the world by God or by what the world is. The divine and the newspaper, then, are both equally effective in knowing what’s going on. 

Knowing What’s Going On - this is also another way of saying, La Mode. And this could explain why over the past few years the fashion industry can’t seem to stop messing around with the old-school newspaper format. It is a surprising choice, considering that the magazine setup is fashion’s more natural habitat.

Back in 2017 Christopher Kane chose to publish an ad in The Sun, and Dries Van Noten showed his menswear collection in the former offices of the French newspaper Libération. In 2018 Supreme noisily covered NY Post, and in Civilization, the independent newspaper doubling as an art experiment, appeared Telfar’s double spread. The same paper tied an even tighter knot between the two playing fields when in 2019, Japanese designer Junya Watanabe smeared the Civilization’s pages over his Spring 2020 collection. 

In 2021 the newspaperfest reached its peak. Hyper-literal examples of brand newspapers appeared at Kenzo and Loewe - both conceived by M&M Paris, and diluted versions popped up in trashy cosmetics brands. Last but not least, when Jean Paul Gaultier recently announced his return to ready-to-wear, it was again a made-up newspaper which was chosen to communicate the news. Speckled with spilled coffee in a freshly re-opened Paris café, it did indeed amount to a morning prayer.

Most of all, fashion’s obsession with the newspaper format reads as longing for an editor, a good old fashioned editor-in-chief who’ll be able to clearly reflect the zeitgeist. When everyone is a creator, the glut of output must be edited, deciphered, in order for us to see a clear reflection of the world as it is right now.

As there are only five editors left on earth - Dorsey, Zuck et al, none of them interested in clearing things up - the longing is deemed unattainable. The algorithm, the God/Editor substitute, is an infinitely poor one. And its default mechanism for zeitgeist clarification and classification is trends.

If Twitter is for trending topics and Tiktok is for trending rituals - same dance routines with the same sounds, same feta pasta, same y2k wardrobe bundles - it’s clear how deeply busted the system is. When everything is trending, nothing is trending. These platform failures show, and are, the complete collapse of trends.

This is, of course, another cycle of the same long-coming collapse Fury talked about in his 2015 threesome text. The breakdown of the trends system can also explain why Michele and Gvasalia then both expressed rejection of Fashion in capital F, why they related to the word as an exonym - a designated group name used only outside of that group, loathed by the group’s actual members.

If we are compelled to find over the past 10 years one big trend that dared to declare itself as such, we find, of course, Normcore. The 2013-14’s celebration of sameness was coined in a trend report written by the trend forecasting agency K-Hole. It was recently, in a publicly mocked manner, traded as NFT. The most interesting thing about it, though, might be the trend report which came just right after.

Normcore is trend report number 4, Mercury Retrograde is trend report number 4.5 - that’s right, not even 5. This is also the title of ex K-Hole Emily Segal’s first novel, published a few months ago. In it, we find Segal discussing with her lethargic Romeo the impossibility of true newness which, to her, defines fashion, and the eternal return to the same moodboards. The novel also cites the original report, introducing Mercury Retrograde as a concept of the End of Trends. Like Fukuyama’s End of History, it readies itself for ridicule and dismissing it would be taking the easy way out. Mercury Retrograde posits itself as the end of the zeitgeist. In contrast to fashion’s passion for novelty, it is a continuing crisis phase, a depressive state, which is categorically anti-new.

What report, then, can follow the footsteps of this one? Segal’s latest dispatch is to be found in Buffalo zine’s Viral issue, which, like Gucci’s Balenciaga mummies, spawned in April 2021. The report treats the idea of virality, aptly illustrated by Pepe The Frog ancestor Matt Furie. Once again, it is interesting not just on its own, but also by considering its close counterparts.

The report is the first text in the issue, right after the editor’s letter. The letter features a known meme summarizing a known claim: we’ve literally seen all the memes. Though the meme relies on art history, which is the lowest form of meme production that should also be banned by law - only exception to the rule being the Mona Lisa and the Mona Lisa alone - it truly is a sublime one. 

A reverse image search reveals that the meme’s first apparition can be located back in March 2017 on Reddit’s Me IRL community. In it, we see the oil painting Paar im Gespräch, ‘A Couple in Conversation’, created at the end of the 19th century by an Austrian-German painter named Simon Glücklich. The meme alters the man’s palm: instead of the cigarette from the original painting, he is holding a small-sized iPhone. The grip is slightly - or atrociously - photoshopped, creating a minor change in movement so that the object isn’t clasped for the man’s own use, but instead being presented to his companion. Shared. Her weary arm gesture response is perfect, genius, modern, timeless. It is undoubtedly the painting’s focal point and the meme’s singularity source. Please, says the woman in A Couple in Conversation, please stop sharing.

We’ve had all the conversations. We’ve seen all the memes. We’ve worn all the trends. Can we stop?

Apparently not. This March, The Cut magazine boldly dared to hail a new trend - boldly, because now that trends are so over, it seems like a faux pas to earnestly try and report a new one. It was refreshing, then, watching Stella Bugbee, a senior NYMag editor, taking the plunge. Bugbee coined the Zizmorecore: the trend of New Yorkers wearing NY merch, and though she rebuked its relation to Normcore, the connection is unmistakable.

First, the text failed to identify New Yorkers walking in their city as tourists, and the Normcore look - as straightforwardly stated in the same magazine seven years beforehand - is explicitly the look of the tourist. Sure, since the merch in Bugbee’s report is hyper-local, mega specific and clique-y, the joke is supposedly told from the inside. But the facts are on the surface and clothes are worn on the outside.

The other oversight in the Zizmorecore text is the fact that it relates to the trend as purely street-driven, like a grounds-up sentiment which the people of New York City suddenly feel compelled to wear on their sleeve. Yet tourist merch has indisputable roots in high fashion. It was Demna Gvasalia, no other, who in Balenciaga Resort 2018 collection introduced the idea in utter coherence. The Gvasalian oversized postcard bags were explicit to the point where a souvenir merchandiser filed a justifiable copy infringement complaint. 

Unlike the archetype of The Woman Bored of her Conversation Companion, The Tourist archetype is a fairly recent one. Its classic apparitions in Duane Hanson’s 1970 work, or Chevy Chase’s 1983 interpretation of John Hughes’ screenplay, were joined by Gvasalia’s hit merch.

After fiddling with more touristic souvenirs in the Fall 2019 show, a full circle was reached in Balenciaga’s Pre Fall 2021 collection, which was also presented in the eventful April 2021. The collection was, as on Sunday’s show, filled with the silhouettes and personas we’ve come to expect from the brand. Yet again, the twist was the presentation: the models’ images were splashed on green screens of key tourist destinations, clichés like the Tower of Pisa or Times Square.

What does Gvasalia earn by repeatedly coming back to this protagonist?

The Tourist does not read the newspaper.

The tourist could care less about the zeitgeist. His expertise is ignoring time to focus purely on place. Dropping the zeit aspect to fully invest oneself in raum.

How apt it is, then, to see the Balenciaga collaboration in the new issue of The Drunken Canal, the New York newspaper which is based on hyper-locality in its pure state. The cover photograph depicts a character in a messy apartment, levitating above piles of Balenciaga shambles. Spaced-out, spaced-in. It makes perfect sense.

Looking up from the crumpled newspaper to the sky, two words are taking shape on the horizon: Haute Couture. After more than 50 years, this summer Balenciaga is anticipated to return to the couture game.

Going back to the source, a source, is a desire that a few critics currently entertain. A Return To Tradition, to Beauty, is what they’re waiting for. But these calls are easy to make. It’s a different matter to figure out what it actually means, and what it actually means right now.

The answer, that at least we know, cannot stay confined within the realms of the 0.01%. Hegelian fanboys Marx and Engels might have met at the Café de la Régence, but babbling only with their cool chessoholic buddies wouldn’t have made any difference. In couture, Gvasalia must come up with a truly shareable manifesto. ◇