First it was Nikes replacing ballet flats. Then it was Birkenstocks replacing Nikes. Then Patagonia and Tevas became a thing. Then George Clooney’s fiancé was wearing mom jeans. Baseball caps, sports jerseys, mall chic, Jerry Seinfeld. What can we make of the anti-fashion trend that has bypassed hipsters and has translated into real market value (as we saw with this winter’s L.L. Bean boot selling out nationwide)?
More than any style trend, “Normcore” is a pervasive movement among Millennials to appear as bland — and as normal — as possible. It first surfaced in late 2013 in New York-based brand consultants K-Hole’s report “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom.” In the report, K-Hole described an evolution of Millennials’ legacy in defining themselves as individuals, moving towards “liberation in being nothing special.” This is a very new concept for the second Generation Me — to find freedom in the commonality of underachievement, and lowest net worth. And while this sentiment may come from the Occupy’s I-am-the-99%, it is a decidedly non-political statement, but rather one that is a bellwether ofthe predilections of the Millennial consumer.
What is Normcore? The tip of a style trend that has profound and fiscal implications for retailers, both on the high end and midmarket. It’s a mashup of “normal” and “hardcore.” Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness. In simpler terms, it’s a reaction again fast fashion and the relentless speed of cooler, chicer looks of the moment. It’s an intentional shift towards being cool by looking normal.
This is a setback for the luxury industry. Given all of the investment in grooming the Millennials as the next aspirational luxury consumer, it may be misguided since the trendsetting vanguard of Millennials is now casting itself into a decidedly unluxurious state of mind. To put it another way, Millennials would rather look really broke, because looking really broke is much more interesting than looking really affluent.
However, luxury brands that have embraced Normcore have further cemented themselves with the small group that Millennials that will continue to covet luxury, despite themselves. Celine and Marni, for example, produced versions of the Birkenstock. Because of this they made it into nearly every fashion editorial, from Man Repeller to Vogue, all of whom hailed the Birkenstock as the It shoe of the summer of 2013. By June of 2014, these accolades contributed to a 30 percent growth in U.S. sales for Birkenstock.
The crux of Normcore is adaptability, or being able to fit in with any group of people. K-Hole’s report and the subsequent coverage in New York magazine and The New York Times of the Normcore phenom cited sports fan paraphernalia as a way to communicate that they being are a part of the group. Mainstream sports? Basketball jerseys? Silicon Valley hoodies? Normcore is the antidote. This is the next wave, opposed to hipsters that pride themselves on being alternative and wholeheartedly uncommon.
This is a missed opportunity for midmarket retailers who are not capitalizing on Normcore. Many retailers haven’t risen to meet Millennials’ renewed passion for midmarket brands. COS-ified Gap, led by Rebekka Bay, missed the point. Lacking that blandness in its 2014 Dress Normal ad campaign, it was roundly criticized. Gap had a disappointing fourth quarter, and Normcore might have been a reason. Old Navy, on the other hand, seemed to get it. Its satiric ad campaign with Amy Poehler mocked an overly self-serious, Edith Head-like art critic and instead fawned over a gallery visitor wearing mainstream jeans. Old Navy’s sales picked up by 11 percent in 2014’s fourth quarter. Normcore? Could be.
Watch this trend. Smart marketers need to appeal this Millennial desire not to be so individualistic, but rather to be as stylistically inclusive as possible.