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Stony Faced Style: How Gen Z Lift the Veil with ‘Meme Fashion’

Meme. A concept borne out of the sheer delight in making the banal details of life slightly more amusing. Usually funny. Very often trivial. They offer a splash of colour to an otherwise slightly bleak canvas. So why is this characteristically whimsical strand of absurdity suddenly sneaking in through the back door of fashion? Is humble humour softening the ivory tower of high-fashion? Or are we skimming the sharpened cheekbones of self-awareness, teetering on the edge of capitalised comedy?

The power of humour

To dare to be seen being funny. Or worse, attempting to demonstrate a sense of humour which in fact reveals a distinct lack of one. Either way, monetising humour is certainly no new thing. Take a look at court jesters.

Humour is as profitable as it is engaging. It is profitable for that very reason. A laugh engages us, but it also disengages us. We are invited to share in the joke and momentarily forget the world outside. This is exactly the kind of power offered by the humble meme. Whether its Rihanna’s 2015 Met Gala ‘omelette dress‘ or the £600 Balenciaga Crocs, memes, it seems, make money.

These examples are striking reminders of the power yielded by Gen Z in propelling concepts, items and events into an instant viral hit. For example, Rihanna’s look sent the internet into a frenzy of cracking omelette jokes and supercharged Chinese designer Guo Pei into the international limelight overnight. Likewise, Balenciaga took their shot with the controversial Croc and the 2018 trend saw the shoes sell out before they were even released.

Reactionary culture

The new generation of shoppers seem curiously drawn to this style of marketing pervading the ever-serious vogue of haute couture. But crucially, this kind of marketing provokes a reaction. They spark conversation. And conversation speaks volumes. We live in a reactionary culture, swinging between bursts of outrage and phlegmatic indifference. We walk the tightrope between catastrophe and celebration. Our lives are lived on the brink of… what? Drama?

One argument for the popularity of meme culture, particularly in fashion, is the appeal for a little less seriousness. A playful change which invites us all to share in a collective reaction to a vaguely amusing or relatable experience. So many modern marketing strategies adopted for the consumer market are pointedly targeted at making us ‘think.’ What is the ‘message’ they convey? What is the ‘meaning?’ This can, and often does, get exhausting. Sometimes we just want to laugh.

In a recent article from Harper’s Bazaar, the injection of humour into an industry renowned for taking itself seriously is a breath of fresh air. Jessica Davis suggests that:

Fashion memes are the antidote to fashion’s poe-faced stereotype. They make the most mundane topics relatable; celebrate – or ridicule – extravagant style moments both on and off the catwalk; and poke fun at some of life’s most serious topics.’ Jessica Davis, Harpers Bazaar, 2019

New-generation escapism

Clearly, the younger generation of fashion followers provide an alternative perspective on what we find engaging and appealing in big brands and celebrity culture. Michael Dimmock looks at the impact of technology on Gen Z in a recent report for the Pew Research Centre. He suggests that:

Technology, in particular the rapid evolution of how people communicate and interact, is another generation-shaping consideration. […] Social media, constant connectivity and on-demand entertainment and communication are innovations Millennials adapted to as they came of age. For those born after 1996, these are largely assumed.’ Michael Dimmock, Pew Research Centre, 2019

This ‘rapid evolution’ in communication and digital technology has allowed fashion brands to refresh the ways in which we consume their brands. No longer a blinding shop window of stony-faced mannequins. But relatable, positively human. Humour puts the people back into business. But does this supposed return to the power-of-the-people in trend-setting actually have any material impacts? Or is this game of provocateur more complex?

Clickbait or memebait?

One example of this shift is the kind of content we consume now produced by the big businesses themselves. Crucially, using memes as the basis for popularised marketing campaigns taps into the tendencies of Gen Z who drive the culture of instant sharing. Likes, shares and retweets. As much as they can be given freely, these little clicks lead to big money.

For instance, Freddie Smithson (@freddiemade) is an Instagrammer with 147k followers at time of publishing. He is one of the most popular accounts on the site for fashion memes. Interestingly, he is also senior creative lead for Burberry. In an interview for Harpers Bazaar, he explains that:

[The fashion meme] reflects people seeking escapism from what feels like rocky times. It’s a time of uneasiness – not being sure what’s going on with some major issues, including climate change, global politics as well as Brexit and issues with mental health.’ Freddie Smithson, Harpers Bazaar, 2019

Add the overwhelming wave of coronavirus and we have the perfect climate. A whole new generation seeking a bit of light-hearted escapism is borne. During challenging times, it is no wonder memes are pervading our cultural conscience. More than ever before, people want a laugh. But crucially, we also want relatability.

Smithson’s position in one of the UK’s most recognisable fashion houses is an indicator of the success of the humble meme in an increasing number of marketing strategies. The fashion world is slowly catching on to the remarkable power yielded by this kind of content. No publicity is bad publicity. But funny publicity is even better.

So what’s the deal?

Gen Z are often characterised with a sense of whimsical apathy towards the serious and sterile. Their interaction with meme fashion is an interesting example of this. It could catalyse a shift in the ways we interact with the industry. It also poses the question of just how seriously we’re prepared to take a pair of £1000 trainers that look as though you may have vomited on them.

So who gets the last laugh? The money-spinning meme makers, or us, buying into it? If we’re all laughing, does it matter? After all, ‘meme fashion’ is simply another way for us to consume. We simply change the ways in which we go about doing it.

So will ‘meme fashion’ spark a revolution in the way we shop and see the world? Probably not. But might it lift the stony-faced veil of fashion to reveal a slightly normal world beneath? Quite possibly.


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