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Pre-TikTok and pandemic, trend cycles tended to shape themselves around texture and colour. The fashion world’s runways showcased the latest seasonal trends, which eventually filtered through to the high street, with a little nudge from pop culture along the way. But what happens when the trend cycle finds new roots in a new and chronically online generation?
Low rise denim for August, beige Birkenstock Bostons for September, Adidas sambas for October and sporty sunnies for November. The trend cycle is now shorter than ever. Maybe you tried your best to forget the days when marble-print polyester was everywhere and owning the green House of Sunny dress meant something, because Kendall Jenner wore it once. The acceleration of aesthetics in and out of style doesn’t just mean your wardrobe feels dated within a year – or less – of buying into a trend. It also translates to thousands of discarded clothes ending up in landfill.
Tom Crisp, the leader of the sustainable fashion course at the University of Falmouth, argues that there is an emotional element encompassing the acceleration of the trend cycle over the past few years. “The trends prey on our insecurities about the way we look and feel,” he says, “encouraging us to consume more in order to stay on trend.”
The psychological pressure encouraging an excessive rate of consumerism – all to appear on-trend – can be spotted more widely in an online culture obsessed with the creation and destruction of physical aesthetics. The pandemic saw the birth of the clean girl, with her gua shua-moulded face, slicked-back bun, gratitude diary and… blazer? By spring 2022, the clean girl died in anticipation of feral girl summer: a rejection of anything girlboss-adjacent and the toxic freedom to embrace the most insufferable version of yourself. While this coincided with the rejection of the microtrends associated with the clean girl (think smart-casual from H&M, claw clips, Molly Mae post-Love Island), the subsequent aesthetics of chaos come with their own on-trend items that will inevitably suffer the same fate.
You can describe these sartorial subcultures as ketamine chic or indie sleaze. While these looks might evolve from a desire for anarchic style, fast fashion outlets like Shein and H&M cheaply imitate the trendiest elements of the look, further accelerating the trend cycle, regimenting their most tell-tale items and sealing their fate to be just another microtrend.
“These clothes are often designed to be worn once or twice before being thrown away,” says Crisp. “So this consumption adds to fashion’s huge waste clothing problem, especially for the Global South, where most of this waste ends up, destroying local environments and local fashion and textile industries.” He is particularly concerned by the role that large fast fashion corporations play in the spiralling environmental damage: “These clothes are overproduced and generally made from fossil fuel-derived plastics, further adding to the environmental and climate emergency through oil extraction, chemical pollution and causing microplastics to leach into soils and seas degrading the ecosystem.”
Thrifting has often been viewed as a more ethical alternative to engaging with the most destructive and consumerist excesses of fast fashion. But due to the rapid rate in which trends can be considered dated, Franny Collingham, a fashion sustainability expert and owner of sustainable clothing brand Wild Clouds, warns against engaging with microtrends altogether. “Microtrends encourage overconsumption when we should be future-proofing our wardrobes and not buying for the short term,” she explains. “Whilst shopping second hand is better than buying new, we should be discouraging such behaviour and looking for durable, versatile and trans-seasonal clothing which can be with us for years.”
Instead of immediately buying into a microtrend, Collingham suggests that you ask yourself: ‘What will I wear this with? Will I wear this in five [months]? Is it made in a natural fabric? Is it comfy?’ If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, save your cash and the planet instead of chasing a superficial adrenaline rush.
Making the decision to avoid microtrends is one thing, but spotting them as they gain popularity and desirability is another. Laura Jones, a celebrity stylist, sustainability advocate and founder of sustainable fashion magazine The Frontlash, turned her attention to the harmful impacts of the industry following the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. Jones argues that engaging with fashion as an art form does not require overconsumption, or in fact any consumption at all.
“If it is indeed true that fashion is not just for consumption, but for art, we should make use of fashion's potential to inspire and galvanise around the problems of excessive consumption and the tremendous burden it imposes on the planet and people,” explains Jones. “‘Fashion’ is not one thing, one brand or one company. Therefore it can be true both that, when it is driven entirely by greed, fashion is a source of destruction, and, when values-driven, a vehicle for highlighting this injustice and demonstrating alternative ways of doing business.”
LA-based sustainable stylist Cassandra Dittmer also urges consumers to recognise that while personal style can evolve, this does not require a wardrobe refresh every month. “If you invest in one or two pieces every so often that can amplify existing pieces you already own and love, then that's the sweet spot,” she says.
But if there’s a trend you really, really want to incorporate into your personal style, she advises taking the time to consider the cost-per-wear and finding the most sustainable and timeless version of the trend instead.
“If you find an item and can immediately think of at least three ways to wear it with existing items you own, then that's a good sign. If you are feeling the urge to buy additional items just to make the one new one work, that's not as good of a sign.”
Laura Jones’s own career as a stylist revealed to her the absurdity of investing emotionally and financially in fleeting trends. “I believe that clothing can be a critical tool for exploring one’s own creativity, identity, and joy,” she says. “But none of these things can be accessed through the incessant pursuit of trends designed specifically to become obsolete. Style often evolves and is cultivated over time – it should not be disposable.”