The New Normal
By disregarding fashion, Normcore creates a sartorial statement that bland is the new black.
Meet the Normcore person. He or she is likely a Millennial and dressed in clothes their parents probably wore in the late ’80s and early ’90s. These anti-fashion fashion types are easy to spot. The male Normcorer pairs logo T-shirts—be it Nautica or a souvenir tee from a vacation destination that he may or may have not visited—with pleated khaki trousers or saggy athletic pants. The female Normcorer jazzes up her off-brand jeans with a generic sweater, a button-down shirt or sweatshirt. Both have an affinity for windbreakers and Patagonia fleece zipper jackets and—the final statement-making touch—back-to-basics footwear styles like Birkenstock and Teva sandals or plain sneakers by the likes of New Balance, K•Swiss, Keds and Nike, to cite a few.
The broader definition of the Normcore movement involves the idea that individuals adapt to situations and embrace the normalcy around them. Coined by New York-based trend forecasting group, K-Hole, the collective likens Normcore to someone who might not understand soccer, but will enjoy the thrill of watching a World Cup game. Or, tap their toes at a Taylor Swift concert one night and happily attend a Kanye West performance the next. Normcore offers the freedom to associate with any group at any time, even if one choice conflicts with another. The term became de rigueur following a recent New York magazine article on the subject. A legion of editors, bloggers, marketers and retailers have since jumped in with their takes on how it’s being interpreted in fashion. Basically, to achieve that type of freedom, many Normcorers revert to bland apparel and sensible shoes more commonly associated with dowdy moms and dads. Examples include actress Kristen Stewart walking the red carpet in Nike sneakers (paired with a lace Marchesa gown), college grads rocking New Balance low-tech joggers at their high-tech jobs and models putting the chic in comfort by sporting Birkenstock-esque sandals on and off the runway.
“People don’t want to feel boxed in,” says Barney Waters, chief marketing officer for K•Swiss. “They’ll wear jeans one day, a bowtie the next and a special designer piece with something bought at a fast fashion chain another day.” That hodgepodge of brands and styles is making it more difficult than ever to put a label on someone, which Waters says is what this generation wants. Sportie LA Co-Owner Isack Fadlon agrees, adding it reflects a movement away from being ostentatious. “People like the quasi-anonymity this look offers,” he says.
Some say Normcore marks the death of hipster-ism, while others argue it’s the ultimate hipster anti-fashion statement. After seasons of plaid shirts, bespoke denim and work boots carefully disheveled in a shoe factory—not on the job—ModCloth.com Editorial Manager Rebecca Brown says Millennials are breaking out of that look. “They are being drawn towards styles from the ’90s,” she says of the growing appeal of logo tees and sweats. “There’s a lot of nostalgia and comfort from that time period because they grew up then,” she adds. That demand has even led Sportie LA to bring back British Knights basketball sneakers, old-school Pony styles and heritage joggers from Diadora and Brooks. “Nostalgia is playing a big part in fashion these days, and not just in the want for heritage brands. Consumers want specific styles,” Fadlon states.
Brown believes consumers have been waiting for the next iteration of hipster. The days when HBO’s Girls shocked, Ivy League men grew old-time mustaches and the epicenter of hipster culture known as Williamsburg, Brooklyn, are waning. An anti-hipster feeling has been taking hold. “The word hipster has a negative connotation now,” says Katie Smith, senior fashion and retail market analyst at Editd. “But all hipster fashion is retrospective, and Normcore certainly is too,” she adds. “It’s just a little more tongue-in-cheek and, in a way, a laugh at the fashion world.”
One cannot underestimate the comfort factor with relation to Normcore followers’ affinity for roomy clothes and comfortable shoes. David Kahan, CEO of Birkenstock U.S.A., says it should come as no surprise that young people want to feel good on their feet, especially for those who have suffered wearing laborious wedges, stilettos and flatforms. “The experience is life changing,” he says of wearing Birkenstocks. “That customer might have not known that level of comfort existed but, when they do, they don’t want to compromise.” Kahan adds, “It’s not going to be easy to get them back in a pair of high heels.”
Waters attributes the need for simple, comfortable footwear to the fact that the attitude of many Millennials has changed. “Their aspirations have evolved,” he says. “They don’t just want to be an ‘athlete’ or be considered ‘cool.’ In fact, that seems out of fashion. They want to be successful entrepreneurs.”
“Business casual has become business comfort,” Kahan states, noting that the younger generations entering the workforce are going into creative and tech spaces rather than traditional jobs like banking. “There was a time when you got out of college and you had to put on a suit. Now people want to be true to themselves,” he says. After all, Kahan notes, Steve Jobs’ choice of Birkenstock sandals and New Balance sneakers didn’t stop him from changing the world.
For a trend intended to be effortless and not about designer labels, ModCloth’s Brown says there is a large amount of time and money being poured into achieving the Normcore aesthetic. She recently took the topic to its blog, asking readers, “Are you #Normcore or are you out?” Twenty percent love the trend and the rest hate it, she reports. One commenter wrote: “Why not just roll out of bed in your pajamas and call it a day… I’m loving the irony, though. Make a statement by not making one. I bet they paid a pretty penny for those track pants.”
Despite the decidedly anti-Normcore sentiment among ModCloth’s blog followers Brown believes “intentional dressing down” is something to be on the lookout for, especially with Adidas churning out hoodies with sophisticated floral prints and fashion labels like Chanel introducing casual sneakers. Even ModCloth is selling classic white Keds sneakers and Birkenstock sandals alongside its selection of kitsch T-straps and loafers. “Birkenstock is getting a second wind,” Brown affirms.
In Kitson’s California locations, black-and-white patent Birkenstocks share coveted shelf space with studded sandals by designer Rebecca Minkoff and Puma X Solange sneakers. “It boils down to how you market and complete the look,” says Founder Fraser Ross, noting that he intends to reorder the hot-ticket items. “People are dressing differently in general,” he observes, adding that casual footwear is needed to complement the leggings from the likes of Lululemon his customers live in. “That’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can actually look a little outdated in high heels these days,” he quips.
To wit: Style icons Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were recently snapped wearing Birkenstock-inspired sandals by Givenchy with white socks, sending fashion bloggers into a tizzy. Birkenstock will go a step further by introducing Socks and ’Stocks combo packs this fall. Socks might make quite the anti-fashion statement, but Ross believes the best way to pull off this comfort sandal look is with a good pedicure. “It helps make the shoe look sexy,” he says, joking that Birkenstock should package its sandals with matching nail polish. Ross adds that this year’s cold winter has fueled added interest in Birkenstock—or any sandal brand, for that matter. “Half the country is already wearing them and then the other half has been anxiously waiting for that day to come,” he says.
Danny Wasserman, owner of New York-based Tip Top Shoes, has planned his spring assortment with the Normcore movement in mind. “When there isn’t one hot item in the market that people know they should buy, they revert to what they remember,” he offers. In the case of Tip Top Shoes, that means Birkenstock, Sanuk and Teva are go-to brands this spring. They don’t necessarily have the most fashionable reputation, but Wasserman says they are familiar to customers. And unlike most fashion trends that only tap into women’s, Wasserman says there’s a lot of interest from men (particularly Birkenstock). “It used to be only women or hippies,” he says. “Now stylish men are coming in for the sandals and closed-toe styles. Birkenstock has become a year-round item.”
The renewed interest in Teva’s iconic Original sport sandal began a few seasons prior when product similar to the ankle strap design started popping up on runways. Jason Bertoli, product line manager for the Originals division, notes it coincided nicely with this year’s 30th anniversary of that silhouette, which the brand marked with a sold-out collaboration with Normcore-mecca Urban Outfitters. Bertoli reports that it is helping open new doors. “We can really open our distribution because we’re not focused on one type of customer,” he says. “It’s really a reflection of culture as a whole because we haven’t changed what we’re doing or what we stand for.”
Sportie LA has jumped on the Teva renaissance, bringing in a broad selection of men’s and women’s styles this spring. Fadlon says the store also hosted an in-store event that led up to the Coachella music festival this month. Part of Teva’s allure, Fadlon believes, is the shoe’s connection to childhood memories. “The shoes are tied to summer vacations, travel, family hikes… everyone from the late ’80 and early ’90s has a Teva story,” he says.
The same could be said for the resurgence in popularity of all-white court sneakers—first popularized by Normcore inspirations, Steve Jobs and Jerry Seinfeld. Michael Kors has gotten into the tennis trend with a basic white lace-up that made the pages of Vogue’s April issue—not once, but three times. Adidas has also re-launched its legendary Stan Smith court shoe this spring and K•Swiss is redirecting its focus onto heritage court styles. Waters reports that retailers reacted strongly when they saw K•Swiss’ revamped range of clean white kicks. “They see a need for casual sophisticated footwear,” he says, noting the pendulum in athletic footwear is swinging from neon to white. “The running shoe market has been bright and overly technical, but that reached its peak once moms started wearing the look.”
Fadlon agrees that there’s a mega-fashion shift in sneakers underway. “It’s as if someone pressed a reset button,” he says. “Sneakers are becoming increasingly minimalistic in color and flair.” But it’s nothing to fret about as he believes it helps bring people who never considered wearing sneakers to cross that line. “It’s becoming more acceptable to wear sneakers to a wider breadth of functions and occasions,” Fadlon adds.
More Normcore or No More?
Does the Normcore movement have legs? Can basics even get more basic? Kahan believes Millennials’ “throwback sensibilities” will ultimately be what edges this trend beyond being a blip. “It’s a little different than some trends that become flavor of the months because this generation holds onto trusted brands,” he says.
Helping matters in this regard is the fact that risk-taking, from both design and merchandising perspectives, continues to be scarce as the weak economy forces the industry to hedge its bets. It’s simply too costly to introduce something new. Hence, the popularity of heritage brands.
However, some say Millennials are a fickle bunch. “This generation has a short attention span and is always seeking newness,” Smith of Editd states. In fact, she warns that it’s dangerous for retailers to hold completely back on introducing new concepts. “Newness is still what brings people into the store,” she says, adding that both retailers and brands run the risk of alienating their customer bases if they keep going back to the archives each season. “Normcore is best in small amounts,” she offers.
Along those lines, Waters says K•Swiss plans to pepper in new, yet simple styles amid its heritage offerings. “We’re not trying to be a museum by offering only throwback styles,” he says. Similarly, Kahan says Birkenstock will update its core roster of sandals based on materials and colors (like rose gold this fall) that are trending in fashion in addition to introducing fresh styles.
By definition, Normcore may never completely disappear. The trend, after all, is made up of basics. And there’s a reason why these styles have stood the test of time, because they are grounded in comfort and millions of consumers—young and old—loved them. But the fact that some of these brands have been given a second wind doesn’t prevent the need for filling in around their core styles to remain relevant going forward. No doubt feedback from new retail partners will provide support and feedback. Sportie LA, for example, is adding Birkenstock’s suede Arizona sandals and closed toe styles for the first time this spring. “A store like us provides a new channel—and a new set of eyes on their product,” Fadlon says.