x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Is normcore the new luxury?

While this unassuming trend has been written off as both bland and ugly, it is starting to strike a chord with UAE consumers

Street style in New York. Timur Emek / Getty Images
Street style in New York. Timur Emek / Getty Images

Normcore explained

Something of a fashion anomaly, normcore is essentially a celebration of the unremarkable. The term was first popularised by an article in New York magazine in 2014 and has been dubbed “ugly”, “bland’ and "anti-style" by fashion writers. It’s hallmarks are comfort, a lack of pretentiousness and neutrality – it is a trend for those who would rather not stand out from the crowd. For the most part, the style is unisex, favouring loose silhouettes, thrift-shop threads, baseball caps and boyish trainers. It is important to note that normcore is not synonymous with cheapness or low quality; there are high-fashion brands, including Parisian label Vetements, that specialise in this style. Embraced by fashion-forward street-style stars around the globe, it’s uptake in the UAE has been relatively slow.

Bland anti-style.” That’s how Vogue defined the term “normcore” when it first surfaced in 2014. But, what began as a niche fashion rebellion has turned into a mainstream style movement that has even reached the shores of the UAE, where decadence has typically reigned. Suffice to say, the Middle East’s acceptance of the trend took some time – while the region’s fashion-conscious consumers usually rival street-style stars internationally, uptake of normcore has been comparatively slow.

So what does normcore actually mean, you may ask? It’s often described as “ugly fashion” but, fundamentally, it consists of unadorned, unapologetically basic garments that can be construed as genderless.

A normcore outfit could be as simple as a T-shirt and twill-trousers pairing. But this shouldn’t be mistaken for minimalism – an ensemble that pairs a white blouse with distressed jeans and sporty trainers, for example, is still chic. Normcore is the opposite; it celebrates clothing that’s entirely unremarkable, and goes against every style rule in the book, particularly in today’s Instagram culture, which propagates high fashion, showcased through model-esque poses and envy-inspiring backdrops.

If you’re looking to hook the buzzword to something familiar, conjure up the cast of Seinfeld – or any other 1990s sitcom. Strip away some of the colour, take away any bright patterns, and there you have it – low-key style that’s far from fashion-forward. The trend endorses loose silhouettes, thrift-shop threads, baseball caps and boyish trainers.

Garth Allan, buying director at UAE-headquartered e-commerce platform, Namshi.com, has noticed a recent increase in sales of normcore staples, like athletic trousers, plain T-shirts and clunky trainers, across the GCC. He notes that within the site’s Fast Fashion and Premium departments, many international labels are now presenting normcore-inspired pieces. “With many of our brands showing gender-neutral collections, we see this trend continuing to grow, and I am sure we will see more of it in the coming year,” he says.

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Even in the high-end sector, fashion brands with normcore fundamentally ingrained in their DNA are growing in popularity. Take Parisian label Vetements, for example. The brand’s spring 2018 ready-to-wear shoot is set in Zurich and resembles a traditional look book in no shape or form. Images were captured in public car parks and streets, and oversized rain macs and other seemingly ordinary garments were modelled by Zurich locals emulating runway poses – which, according to the brand’s co-founder Demna Gvasalia, just about anybody can carry off. The result is almost comical, and a slap in the face to those who would prefer that high-tier fashion retain a sense of exclusivity.

It’s this “fashion for everyone” mentality that’s at the heart of normcore. You don’t really need a sense of style, and you don’t need a lot of money. However, don’t let the simplicity fool you – normcore certainly isn’t synonymous with cheap. A generic cotton shirt by Vetements, for instance, costs Dh3,230.

Lina Mustafa, founder of Abu Dhabi-based concept store, The Luxury Arcade, believes that the trend has long-lasting potential, even in the UAE. “I see a lot of the younger generation adopting this more and more,” she says.

At times, Dubai-based “influencer” Parvané Barret epitomises luxury normcore, but with a decidedly Dubai-girl edge. The teenage French-Persian started her blog, State of Style, three years ago, and is now a brand ambassador for Puma Middle East. She has also worked with local brands such as Bedouin Studios, and features in a recent Bloomingdale’s Dubai beauty campaign.

“I’m inspired by 1990s styles and hip-hop communities,” says Barret, who names baggy trousers, oversized jumpers and chunky trainers as her wardrobe essentials. One of her recent outfit posts shows a sporty green vest over loose black trousers, with this season’s Gucci belt-bag slung over one shoulder. Relaxed shirts, velcro trainers, bucket hats and gold hoop earrings also feature in her wardrobe.

Normcore can be enhanced with the addition of this season’s It-bag or shoes; an upmarket accent that can make an outfit more appealing to fashion-conscious consumers, while still appearing entirely effortless. “The beauty of normcore is that you can easily accessorise with shoes, bags and jewellery, which gives you a unique look that still presents glamour,” says Allan.

Barret notes that the normcore movement is often a reaction against mainstream trends, but she wouldn’t go so far as to call it “ugly”. She also points out that normcore doesn’t wholly define her own aesthetic. “My style isn’t normcore all the time,” she says, adding that a woman’s outfit should be empowering. “I try to stay away from [looking like] everybody else,” she says.

Parvané Barret sometimes channels normcore fashion. Courtesy Parvané Barret
Parvané Barret sometimes channels normcore fashion. Courtesy Parvané Barret

Presentation is key, of course. For instance, parody brands Vetememes and Boolenciaga, inspired by high-fashion labels Vetements and Balenciaga, shot their latest joint look book in Ikea. Simple, unromantic backgrounds, exaggerated angles, unconventional close-ups and crouched poses are all characteristically normcore, and feature aplenty in the social media posts of Barret, who also works part-time handling social media platforms for an interior design company.

While normcore may be gaining momentum in the Middle East, it’s unlikely that UAE consumers will ever eschew glitz and glamour altogether. They may dabble in the trend for a season or two, toying with trimmed-back, simplistic outfits, but it’s doubtful that many will convert to normcore fashion full-time. “Women in the UAE do have the tendency to dress over the top,” says Barret. “I think they heavily play by the statements ‘the more, the merrier’ and ‘go big or go home’.

As someone who can’t resist flouncy tulle layers, pearl embellishments and floral prints myself, the appeal of normcore is lost on me – although I can understand the reasoning behind it. Pressure to look your best, follow current trends and incorporate designer pieces into your daily ensembles can become tiresome when all you really want is to feel comfortable. And, while those wrapped up in the world of fashion may feel the need to always stand out, for others, blending in, with apparel that’s low-key but also on-trend, will always be preferable.