How Gen Z Made Vivienne Westwood Cool Again

The Global Lockdowns of last year saw a resurgence of romantic fashion on the internet. From Dark Academia to Cottagecore, our increasingly digital everyday lives have become increasingly more fantastical. Suddenly finding beauty in the everyday isn’t just a luxury, but a survival skill. This return to earnest maximalism and camp has brought about an interesting side effect, Vivienne Westwood is officially cool again.

To be fair, Vivienne Westwood has never not been cool. Occasionally her work slips out of the public eye, but the designer has always had a place as one of fashion’s most unique voices. She got her start in the 1970s running a boutique with her then-boyfriend, Malcolm McLaren. McClaren was an advertiser for the New York Dolls and later managed the Sex Pistols. Thanks to the deconstructed and DIY fashion offered at their shop, McLaren and Westwood are often credited with helping to create and popularize the punk style.

Westwood first achieved success in the fashion world with her collection “Pirates” in 1981. The collection blended her punk and streetwear sensibility with traditional styles of the British upper-middle class. “Pirates” introduced some of the key tenants of her brand such as asymmetric hems, historical inspirations, and political motive.

Her work blended high fashion with a youthful sensibility and dark whimsy. She was a favorite collaborator with many musicians of the New Romantics movement. It was during this time that she introduced corsets as outerwear, but it’s her corsets from her 1990 “Portrait” collection that have made a recent comeback.

In 2019, GenZ celebrities and social media “it” girls like Bella Hadid, FKA Twigs, and Rowan Blanchard were all spotted in corsets from that collection. Each one sports a recreation of a famous Renaissance painting on its center stay. Suddenly there was interest — not only in Westwood’s corsets — but in corsets in general.

Pieces from the original “Portrait” collection are rare and can go for thousands of dollars. It makes sense that the interest in Westwood rolled into a more affordable product as lockdowns swept the globe last year. 2020 saw a rise in popularity in the orb and pearl choker. The necklace fits into a larger trend for gold and pearl accessories while offering an identifiable piece of Westwood merchandise. The logo made from the Sovereign’s Orb surrounded by the rings of Saturn stands as the centerpiece of the choker, making it unmistakably a piece of Westwood iconography. The necklace was so popular it was put back into production and quickly sold out on the Westwood site.

What’s most interesting about this trend is that it wasn’t started by the fashion industry or any one specific celebrity. It’s impossible who was the first to sport the necklace on TikTok and Instagram. All we know is that those were the platforms where the trend became popular, bolstered by a wave of average users. This kind of trending power has never been seen before. Gen Z’s comfort in the digital sphere and their sheer numbers on these platforms give them the power to dictate fashion trends in a way that no previous generation has ever managed to wield. This is just one of the many ways that these “digital natives” are disrupting traditional ideas of fashion.

Gen Z style is ruled by aesthetics. Online aesthetics are like traditional styles — think preppy or goth — but more niche and more all-encompassing while also being less restricting. And aesthetic dictates personal style, music preferences, and how you edit your Instagram photos, but it also dictates your hobbies, values, and goals. These aesthetics are built around fantasies of an idealized world.

For example, Dark Academia is based on the imaginary life of a British boarding school or American ivy league and small liberal arts colleges in Vermont. It involves dark neutrals, plaid, wool, blazers, and thick sweaters. Dark Academia kids like classic literature, Donna Tartt, and strong coffee drinks. They tend to idealize and strive for intelligence, worldliness, and ambition.

This romanticization has birthed countless internet subcultures like cottagecore, regencycore, romantic academia, Euphoria (based on HBO’s hit series), VSCO girl, and countless more. While these hyper-niche styles may seem constricting, they tend to be more accepting than traditional subcultures. Previously, goth kids only had friends who were goths or some adjacent style. Preppy kids hung out with other preppy kids. Now it’s perfectly normal to see friend groups made up of multiple, unrelated aesthetics.

This is because Gen Z is very focused on the personal, even when following a prescribed style. When “dressing for the ‘gram,” the goal is to find a stand-out piece of clothing that will make you the envy of the other people in your style, but will also afford you crossover success. This interest in finding one-of-a-kind pieces as well as the generation’s interest in sustainability has seen a rise in thrifting and high-end vintage resale. The resale industry is expected to grow by 500% in the next five years alone. Gen Z’s interest in sustainable fashion perfectly mirror’s Westwood’s own interest. The designer has donated thousands of pounds to Britain’s Green Party. The brand’s motto is “buy less, choose well.”

Westwood has managed to keep her finger to the pulse of youth culture for the past 50 years. With two viral pieces in the past two years, it seems that she’s poised to make another comeback. Her fall/winter 2021 collection has tapped into some of the styles currently trending on TikTok and Instagram such as the use of Renaissance artwork, regency-inspired necklines, and corsets. Granted, these have always been staples in her brand so it seems the trends have just found their way back to her rather than the other way around.

Vivienne Westwood has helped shape some of the most iconic fashion movements in the past century. Her commitment to authenticity has allowed her designs to remain in the lexicon of youth culture despite the designer turning 80 this year. I, for one, am excited to see how Westwood is going to help shape fashion in the 2020s.

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