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Birkenstocks are back. Can high fashion cope?

When uncool is cool

Luke Leitch fears that the fashion industry’s current penchant for the banal exposes an uncomfortable truth

Luke Leitch fears that the fashion industry’s current penchant for the banal exposes an uncomfortable truth

Luke Leitch | October/November 2017

“That is a great shirt,” observed an editor at American Vogue. “Where’s it from?” Her colleague, wafting across an ersatz English gastropub to join us, agreed. Two $100 haircuts tilted expectantly.

That the bar-room swam was thanks to neither jet lag nor gin. For I had bought said shirt – a blue short-sleeve button-down with a jaunty nautical print – that very day. Its provenance? The sale rail of the uncoolest shop in the USA: Old Navy.

This is a store I love. Where other Euro fashion editors head to painstakingly curated Red Hook boutiques and Dumbo vintage merchants on arriving in New York, I beetle straight to the closest branch of this Gap subsidiary to revel in the banal. White T-shirts! Blue T-shirts! Chinos with built-in “flex”! The occasional jazzy button-down! When the Guardian’s fashion director called me “the muse of Blue Harbour” as an insult I took it as a compliment. Swanky suits make me feel like a fraud. For comfort both physical and psychological I prefer a base of Uniqlo, Old Navy, and (oh yes) even Blue Harbour, judiciously sprinkled with pricier prizes.

My boring taste would normally be of no interest to anybody. Yet right now – as the reaction of my Vogue pals showed – fashion’s dog-whistle of cool is attuned to the banal. Like Halley’s Comet to Earth, my personal “style” is temporarily enjoying proximity to a far greater mass of consensus.

Banality is sweeping fashion in 2017 as powerfully as shoulder pads did in 1987. The French label Vetements is collaborating with powerful but prosaic brands including Champion, Levi’s and Reebok to reissue tweaked versions of their template items – and then sell them for up to ten times the original price to a grateful public. In Harajuku, heart of Tokyo’s aggressively eclectic and constantly colourful street fashion scene, neutral knits and Burberry trenches have replaced the usual cute-but-crazy future-punk. At the last Paris men’s fashion week, a new label was on the schedule: Germany’s 242-year-old cork-soled sensible shoe specialist, Birkenstock. Unsettlingly, they hosted the largest party of the season.

When the citadel of high fashion lifts its portcullis to embrace Birkenstocks, mom jeans and sweatshirts there must be something afoot. There is, of course: cork heels. “Go around and ask every top photographer and stylist, they are all wearing Birkenstock,” says Oliver Reichert, the company’s new CEO. Why wouldn’t they? The shoes are desirable because they’re comfortable and they last.

That’s catnip if you toil in fashion, a flashy, wasteful business in which precious private equity evaporates unless it generates steadily rising sales. Hence this season’s strategy: selling wearable items to an audience that might formerly have balked at their banality, but which is happily seduced by the facelift of fashion’s approval.

One of fashion’s chin-strokiest designers is Jonathan “JW” Anderson, a Northern Irishman with his own label who also heads up the Spanish leather house Loewe. His carpet tabards, men’s minidresses and conceptual handbags have won him a lot of fancy fashion fans. Launching his new capsule line with one of my holy trinity of go-to mainstream brands, Uniqlo, earlier this year, Anderson endearingly observed that this was the first collection he had ever designed that he imagined himself wearing. “What I want at the moment is a dose of reality.”

I’m with you, JW: it doesn’t get much realer than a $15 sale-rail shirt. Yet when fashion abandons craft, creativity and aesthetics in favour of banal, generic stuff like the dad-gear I favour, you begin to suspect that the business might be a confidence trick played on those who are short of it. The truly confident? Old Navy, baby, all the way.

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