Ditching Trends For Style
Perhaps no other generation has been so identified by what it consumes as our own. Rather than events from our collective pasts being essential to our shared consciousness (let’s face it, no 28-year-old asks another if they were there for Woodstock ’99), we talk about snack food we ate (Gushers, anyone?) or toys we all played with (Moon Shoes!) or clothes we wore (let’s all forget the Juicy sweats phase, shall we?). But it isn’t just our generation, is it? This type of brand identification has transcended generational inclinations, and it’s now possible to categorize just about everyone by what phone or computer they use, the type of food they buy and the label stitched inside their jeans. And while specific trends cycle through at somewhat breakneck speeds (just think of the rise and fall of the trucker hat, or Uggs, or the aforementioned, much lamented Juicy sweats), one undeniable trend has been permeating the larger consumer hive mind in the last few years—one that will hopefully prove to less a trend and more a way of life. That trend, of course, has to do with mindful and responsible purchasing power; in a word, consciousness.
I know. Ugh. I know. I understand how sincere and unironic and humorless it is to talk about conscientious consumerism and using one’s moral compass before purchasing anything from a carton of milk to a pair of socks. It takes the fun right out of everything, doesn’t it? I mean, I get it. I grew up in a time when the biggest fashion trend was disposable, stick-on earrings. And, yes, that time was the ’90s. It was a time when political correctness was at an all-time high, and environmentally sound choices like recycling became something everybody—not just hippies in Vermont—started to make. It was a time when irony seemed to lose all meaning (even Winona Ryder had a hard time defining the word in seminal ’90s movie Reality Bites). And yet even though we were all supposed to be increasingly aware of the impact we made on the world with each of our decisions, we were also living in a time in which our consumer culture was inundated with cheap, attractive things we were encouraged to buy because they’d define who we were. And who were we? We didn’t know! We were too busy figuring out who we didn’t want to be (namely, our parents) to define ourselves as anything permanent. So we didn’t seek out permanence. We found cheap, disposable, fun things, and we wore them and then threw them out.
I’ll never forget when H&M opened up its first U.S. store and I braved the crowds of shoppers so I could buy something—anything. It was all so inexpensive! I remember showing a friend the sweater I’d purchased—an olive green mock-turtleneck crop-top sweater (yes, I’m ashamed, but I was also only 17)—and telling her that even if I never wore it, that’d be fine, because it was so cheap, I could throw it out without feeling too bad. I think back on that now and cringe. Partially I cringe because, well, under what circumstances did I think I would ever wear a crop-top sweater? But also, I cringe because now I would never buy anything as heedlessly as I did then. In the same way that I wouldn’t eat ramen noodles five nights a week anymore (I used to convince myself that all the sodium and additives were good for me, and ensured I’d never get food poisoning—no harmful bacteria could possibly thrive amid all those preservatives), I also can’t imagine buying cheaply constructed clothes destined to go out of style within days of being brought home from the store.
Part of this, naturally, is a function of growing up. Part of this is having a greater awareness that it’s important to buy things that will last, well-constructed things with timeless style that will guarantee that all the selfies we take will only look ridiculous in 10 years because of the expressions we make, not the clothes we’re wearing. But, most importantly, part of this is the larger trend that many consumers have lately embraced: namely that we want to do better in every aspect of our lives—and not just do better, we want to do things that make a difference. And so, just as people who were raised on Hot Pockets and Ecto Coolers have embraced local farmers’ markets and eating seasonally, those of us who once shopped only at Urban Outfitters have changed our habits and started to think about where our dollars go. Let’s face it: There might have been a time when we could think of buying clothes in an abstract way—after all, what does it mean to buy a $29 shirt? We just wanted something cheap to wear that day. But now, with the unignorable reality of horrors like the fire at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh and similar tragedies, it is impossible to deny that where we spend our money makes a difference. And so in the same way that it’s worth every extra penny to buy hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken, it’s worth it to buy a shirt made in a garment factory that has exemplary safety standards and pays workers a fair wage.
But so what does this have to do with us? Well, our generation has not only seen major trends come and go, but has also experienced the economic downturn that started in 2008 and come through that with a different perspective on what things are worth. Much like our grandparents’ generation—which went through the Great Depression and, if my grandmothers are any kind of anecdotal example, believe far more in quality than quantity—many young people today shun the disposable in favor of the everlasting (or close to it). But the new twist on all this, the difference between the conscientious businesses of today versus those of decades past, is that we aren’t ready to sacrifice style for substance. It’s not enough for a restaurant to serve local, seasonal food—that food had better be innovative and flat-out delicious for the place to succeed. And it’s not enough for a jeweler to source all its materials ethically and produce each item in house—those bracelets had better look good. Luckily for all of us—young or not—this seems to be what’s happening. The marketplace is becoming more and more saturated with options as aesthetically appealing as they are ethically sourced. And so we can all feel good and look good and do good without losing our sense of self or our sense of fun. Unless, of course, your sense of fun includes crop-top mock-turtleneck sweaters, because I don’t think even H&M makes those anymore.