What do you call an a la carte, mix-and-match, label-agnostic approach to style, an anti-fashion fashion trend and a conscious effort to look effortless? If you answered "normcore," then you've at least heard the fashion world's biggest buzzword yet of 2014 — even if you don't know it when you're seeing it. And if normcore isn't on your radar yet, that may be because it's an eel-slippery concept.
There are a few things about normcore that aren't up for debate. One is the origin of the term, which can be traced to an October 2013 report titled "Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom" by New York City-based youth trend forecasting agency K-Hole. It reads, in part: "Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness.
"But instead of appropriating an aestheticized version of the mainstream, it just cops to the situation at hand. To be truly Normcore, you need to understand that there's no such thing as normal."
But like an unruly child that parents can't control, once birthed into the petri dish of popular culture, K-Hole's hashtaggable nugget was being defined variously as "self-stylized blandness" (in New York magazine), signifying that "blending in is the new standing out" (according to the U.K. Guardian). Those cited as members of the norm corps include British media personality Alexa Chung (who apparently bristled at the sobriquet), comic Jerry Seinfeld, the late tech titan Steve Jobs and the former Kate Middleton, whose middle-of-the-road wardrobe choices earned her the title "the Duchess of Normcore" (from Vogue, no less).
While some publications (such as the New York Times) couldn't seem to decide whether normcore was the next big trend or simply a massive fashion in-joke, others doubled-down. GQ included it in a recent roundup of style tribes (normcore's about "dressing as inconspicuous as possible," according to the men's fashion bible). When PR pitches name-checking normcore started landing in our inbox, there seemed to be no denying the (bland) eagle had landed.
"Oh, I think it's very real," says author and Barneys creative ambassador Simon Doonan, who penned a column about the phenomenon earlier this year for slate.com. "I think there's a whole generation of younger hipster dudes, whether they're in Brooklyn or Silver Lake, who are very much against obvious designer prestige signifiers — sort of anti-designer in a way — and they like the look of super-anonymous clothing that sort of fetishizes the look of a guidance counselor from 1982."
To Doonan, who has been moving in fashion circles for decades, the message is clear: "What it's saying," says Doonan, "is: 'I'm so young and groovy I can wear these sort of super-anonymous made-in-Romania windbreakers' — that sort of thing."
What does normcore look like? Doonan points to items like the faun-colored golf knit, unlogoed sneaker and "gray sweat pants pretending to be trousers." But here's the rub: A pair of off-brand heather gray sweat pants from Big 5 Sporting Goods won't cut it. The key is to wear a super-luxe high-end designer version of the drawstring-waistband, elasticized-at-the-ankles sweat pant that only looks like you're slumming it — in cashmere, wool herringbones and chino-like cotton twills. Does that sound familiar? It should — that was the biggest fall 2014 menswear trend to come out of New York Fashion Week, with brands such as Band of Outsiders, Todd Snyder, Gant Rugger, Jack Spade and J. Crew offering takes on the stealth-luxe sweat pant.
Doonan isn't alone in pointing to the hipster set as patient zero of the normcore meme. Lizzie Garrett Mettler, L.A.-based cultural observer and author of the 2012 book "Tomboy Style," says, "Hipsters do things to be funny and ironic — like those T-shirts from 10 years ago that said 'Spelling Bee Champ' on them. But those shirts are dated, and the jokes are old. Now that the ironic T-shirt and the handlebar mustache have become stale, hipsters — if that's even a thing anymore — are being funny by going mainstream. It's a bit condescending to wear normal clothing as a joke, like it's a costume, but maybe that's the next natural iteration of the hipster."
For Mettler, that highlights the big hitch in the normcore giddyap: "You can't unwittingly be normcore," she said. "You need to know it to do it. [And] you really have to know the person and what their past is to know if they're dressing normcore and for it to be a statement."
In other words, like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, can you truly be normcore if no one knows you're dressing that way?
In Mettler's view, that inherent slipperiness makes the idea of normcore more popular than if it were a more easily defined concept.
"It's such a great topic [for everyone] to talk about," she says, "because it's confusing and it's weird, it's a non-trend, but it's a trend, and it's the new thing the chattering class can talk about."
Whether anyone truly understands it — or can tell if any particular person is "doing normcore" at any given moment — Doonan, for one, thinks it's around for the foreseeable future.
"It's one of those trends that's like smog in the L.A. Basin," he said, "it's not going to cycle through; it goes in [to the mix] but doesn't come out.... Normcore is very easy to wear, and you don't get beaten up on the street or have people laughing at you because, essentially, you're anonymous and you'll only be recognized by another normcorey kind of person."
That means there's probably one sure-fire way to stop the trend in its tracks: Emblazon "Got Normcore?" in bold letters across the chest of a good-old-fashioned hipster T-shirt.
Totally ironically, of course.