Retailing in Dystopia: What to Expect in 2023

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It’s hard to talk about fashion going into 2023 without using words like “surreal” and “otherworldly.” The reason? Dystopian fashion reached new heights this year. From the “eyebrowless” makeup trend to Balenciaga’s beat-up leather wallet fashion show invites, helping customers look the way they want has never been such a strange journey.

Speaking of strange journeys… cosplay hit the runways this year. Models looked more like characters from the Rocky Horror Picture Show or breakout club kids from the 90s than anything from catalogs we grew up perusing. My Instagram has been particularly accosted by the Moonster XXL boots by Avavav X Beate Karlsson.

I wish I were more upset about the Moonster XXL boots –– an unrealistic luxury purchase –– taking over my Instagram feed. However, every time I watch the YouTube promo video for the boots, I become more obsessed. I have a theory as to why this is and why next gens are dressing for a strange alien world.

The fashion industry has always had a fixation with people who live on the fringe of society. While fashion was once the ultimate vehicle for conformity, it is now where designers explore their obsession with society’s subgroups–– particularly performers and the unhoused.

The Psychology Behind Monster Dressing

Gen Z has no desire to look “normal” in the traditional sense of the word. In psychology, the paradigm is shifting from “love and light” to one of “shadow work,” i.e., acknowledging the parts of oneself we usually repress. The fashion industry has come to reflect the concept of shadow work, as well. I like to call this phenomenon “monster dressing.”

Dystopian, alien looks reflect a pandemic-ridden world that’s become increasingly surreal for its denizens. The fashion industry is recalibrating to match this frequency. Monster dressing is a way of playfully embodying the forces of darkness that can otherwise make us feel powerless. When the world feels like an Alfred Hitchcock film, consumers may feel empowered by dressing like a Hitchcock character. Or something from Mad Max, at the very least.

Case in point? Up-and-coming fashion brand Avavav has been churning out “Monster boots” in various forms for a few years now, but the brand has outdone itself with its latest release. The “Moonster XXL” boots from Avavav and Beate Karlsson are thigh high, fuzzy, supersized, and they make the wearer look like something straight out of a science fiction Yeti double feature. Mark my words, these monstrous silhouettes will only become more exaggerated in the years to come.

The most interesting element of 2023 fashion shows was viewing the ways that designers put this surreal, powerful vibe into form. However, as Balenciaga –– a monster dressing pioneer –– recently learned, next gen’s desire for subversive style does have limits. There’s a fine line between being subversive and being downright detrimental to society. The recent Balenciaga Bears Scandal proved that even a Gen Z favorite luxury brand can get kicked to the curb in the flash of an iPhone for taking things too far.

Who Remembers “Derelicte” from Zoolander?

The fashion industry has always had a fixation with people who live on the fringe of society. While fashion was once the ultimate vehicle for conformity, it is now where designers explore their obsession with society’s subgroups–– particularly performers and the unhoused. Of course, the way that the industry holds a mirror up to extreme poverty is rarely sensitive to the groups of people it draws inspiration from. Rarely do the lines inspired by subgroups, such as the unhoused, actually benefit said populations.

Designers can talk about “awareness” until they’re blue in the face. However, using oppression to sell a handbag without donating to the oppressed still rubs most of us the wrong way. In the early aughts The Zoolander film poked fun at this phenomenon when Mugatu unleashed his “Derelicte” line. But N. Hoolywood’s “2017 Fall/Winter” line did exactly the same thing, without the tongue in cheek. While N. Hoolywood’s insensitive aberration thankfully never caught on with the masses, other, less offensive monster dressing has become incredible mainstream.

Don’t believe me? Just meander on over to The Gap at your local mall. If you hurry, you may be in time to see the full circle journey of Ye’s infamous Gap trash bag displays being returned to the actual trash. Judging by consumers’ posts about Ye’s Gap displays on social media before all of the controversy, there’s little difference.

Balenciaga also got in on the trash bag game. The Gen Z favorite (that’s at risk of cancellation) has moved from ballgowns to streetwear. Dirty, androgynous styles and trash bags reminiscent of Derelicte graced Balenciaga’s Spring 2023 Show. Balenciaga’s invites for the show, entitled “Made it out the mud,” were beat-up leather wallets filled with a photo of a cat, money, a fake ID, credit cards, and crumpled receipts.

Bigger Is (Sometimes) Better

Remember in Ghostbusters when the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man got supersized? You can expect to see a lot of that in fashion this year. Spring runways at Loewe and Valentino looked like someone shone a ray gun on certain details and accessories. Just look at the giant zippers, buckles and clasps at Louis Vuitton’s spring show, or the pulsating “monster flower” at center of the room.

Loewe also made use of supersized flowers, with garments built to reflect the “erotic tension and precision of an anthurium flower.” Whether the whole garment was constructed to look like a flower, or the garment itself had a giant flower affixed upon it, supersized flowers and details are all of the rage going into 2023.

Monster dressing may not be for everyone, but it’s catching on like wildfire with both next gens and the fashion forward. This phenomenon will only continue to grow as the fashion industry continues to move away from dated conservative paradigms and towards extreme self-expression. So, buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, theys and thems… we’re in for a wild ride.

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