Normcore: when being ordinary becomes a fashion statement

Chanel Autumn/Winter 2014 glorifies the everyday. Christopher Karaba/EPA

Putting together words like normal and fashion feels like a contradiction, but that’s exactly what Gap is doing with its autumn/winter 2014 advertising campaign, called Dress Normal. It makes a virtue out of the normality of its clothes, and proposes that individualism comes from authenticity, not flashiness.

Gap is following the flurry of media discussion about “normcore”, a term coined by a New York-based trend forecaster K-Hole that has been present since last spring and early summer. Normcore elevates ordinary clothing – basic jeans, T-shirts and trainers, for example – to high fashion. It is fashion that is not fashionable.

Model Hanne Gaby Odiele looking normal at New York fashion week. Lauren Beck/flickr, CC BY

The idea of normcore was propelled into the fashion arena by an article on nymag.com by Fiona Duncan that described the concept as “self-aware, stylised blandness”. It’s what your Mum or Dad might wear at the weekend. When in March, Chanel used the backdrop of a supermarket for its A/W 2014 collection, normcore hit the runway. Models wore trainers and sweat pants and sported clothes with holes in them.

What could be more normal? Lagerfeld’s collection certainly played ironically with normal life, but irony is a characteristic constantly rehashed in the fashion world.

While K-Hole later clarified that its normcore trend is about personalities and adaptability, not about fashion, the idea swiftly moved into the fashion lexicon, sporting a Wikipedia entry and hundreds of traditional and social media comments. Interestingly, the notion seemed to need much explaining.

But the theme continues. Recent New York Fashion Week street-style shots focused on this look – and reports on the hair and beauty on the runways frequently discussed how normal the grooming was: simple hair and toned down make-up.

London Fashion Week evidenced more than a sprinkling of denim jackets, flat shoes and trainers. Some initial analysis of LFW discusses the modesty of the catwalks.

So with Gap now in on the normcore game – though the moniker has now been virtually dropped – is it over or is there something else going on? Gap often gets its “fashion” wrong, but with a focus on its basics may have got it right about the desire for authenticity. There is already a long-standing offer from niche and upscale brands, and with a strong fan base, that delivers subtle basics that do not seek attention.

Look at how premium-level menswear worked out that Japanese selvedge denim, for example, is a detail that is largely unseen and likely to be unnoticed except by fellow aficionados. What kudos for the man who chooses this style. And on the womenswear runways, the likes of Céline and Jil Sander have also won plaudits for their excess of subtlety.

These collections imply an integrity that flashier runway collections with shouty branding and their high street equivalents do not achieve. And this may be what Gap is aiming for in its A/W campaign. For, without scrutiny of the label, who but a fashion insider would be able to spot an APC denim or a Ted Baker lining.

Androgynous model Andreja (previously Andrej) Pejić. nielleborges/flickr

Androgyny is a parallel trend that segues neatly with normcore. From transgender models to “boyfriend” cuts, and from men in skirts to boys using face cream, fashion has been playing with crossover dressing for a number of seasons. Because of the issues of shape and fit in unisex collections, they tend to focus on basic items – and hence the fit with normcore.

UK-based department store Harvey Nichols has just launched a section called His or Hers that offers unisex dressing. Items in the range – from a variety of designer brands – include bomber jackets, polo necks, leather tops, high top trainers and brogues.

Harvey Nichols says that research backs its plan – more than three-quarters of 18-to-25 year olds admit to wearing clothes meant for the opposite sex. It also name checks Pharrell Williams, Marc Jacobs, Rihanna and Rita Ora, among other celebrities, as wearing clothes designed for the other gender.

So is normcore simply a new name for an existing style meme that can express irony or integrity? Or is it a style statement that looks beyond fashion into the wider consumer drive for authenticity? Fashion being fashion, the trend is sure to morph into new forms – and it may even pick up a new name along the way.