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The Internet Helped Turn Fashion Into One Big, Self-Aware Meme

Exploring the origins of the industry's absurdist moment.
Rough Simmons Spring 2020. Photo: Rough Simmons

Rough Simmons Spring 2020. Photo: Rough Simmons

Our collective obsession with all things archival was born, ostensibly, from a reverence for fashion's great designers, which is what makes the current state of archive-referential fashion so curious. The appreciation for the clothing of yore was largely fostered in online communities where interested parties could discuss early-2000s Raf Simons, reminisce about John Galliano's years at Dior or share their Japan-based proxies for rare Comme des Garçons. But, the internet — the very thing that helped democratize fashion and spread the gospel of revered designers in the first place — is also what's at the root of the very odd moment we're witnessing across the industry.

What, exactly, is this "moment"? It's the one when fashion incepts itself; when the snake becomes the ouroboros. Where there was once a line of demarcation between reverential references to fashion's past and flat-out parody, there is now a grey zone where they're one and the same — where new ideas are old.

In short, like all things that have existed and thrived online, fashion has been consumed by memes and by a degree of meta-preferential design that is both poignant and funny. It's fashion's absurdist moment.

Like any moment, there's been momentum building for quite some time; the past decade has slowly seen fashion become increasingly cynical and referential. One of the first to truly thrive in that niche was Wil Fry, an Australian-born, New York-based designer whose humor GQ once likened to Stephen Colbert's. Fry's early designs were tongue-in-cheek — remarkably simple but clever. He printed photos of T-shirts on T-shirts (like the infamous Marc Jacobs "Art" tee) and sold them without the eye-watering prices; he used photos of designer tags to create his "Expensive" T-shirt with a $30 price tag. But he also printed hundreds of small Nike Air Yeezy IIs on a blank T-shirt and sold it for $90,300 on eBay.

They were "just parody projects," Fry tells Fashionista. But they were parodies that tapped into that aforementioned cynicism; even if Fry was just "having a laugh [or looking] to make a quick buck to pay a vendor to released product," there was something more profound at play. His work poked fun at the more curious and nonsensical aspects of the fashion industry. So while Fry's designs were based on others' work, the commentary they added gave them a degree of original thought that resonated with people. As he explained to Fashionista, referential design becomes original and worthwhile "when it's transformative."

That's a central theme within fashion's meme-centric absurdist movement. There have always been "Ain't Laurent Without Yves" graphics, logos that read "Homies" instead of Hermès, or colored stripes that are awfully similar to Gucci's, but those don't offer anything new. "If you're not making commentary on what's happening [within the community], where's the value," asks Brian Bollin.

Bollin is the owner and creative director of Rough Simmons, a brand that emerged from an online community dedicated to Belgian designer Raf Simons. "Rough was founded in a Discord chat that was Raf-centric," explains Bollin, before adding that it's still "a group effort, between a somewhat large collective over the internet."

But the internet has also played a somewhat more nefarious role in the emergence of the absurdist movement. It hasn't just allowed people to come together to revel in their shared love for fashion, it's also made information — and the garments themselves — more accessible than ever before, in theory at least. As the online archive communities have grown, so, too, has the thirst for increasingly scarce product. Prices have gone up, and more people have been drawn to archive fashion with an eye towards turning a profit. "Seeing the price increase in the past few years [helped] start Rough. The brand makes things a little more accessible, but in a cheeky way," notes Bollin.

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Photo: Rough Simmons

Photo: Rough Simmons

As the name implies, Rough Simmons is founded on parodying and commenting on Raf Simons archive culture. "The name is based off the mistranslation of Raf Simons on Japanese auction sites," Bollin says. It's small nods like those that have endeared Rough with the Raf crowd. The references have predominantly revolved around the Japanese culture surrounding Raf Simons archives: There are Yahoo! Japan and Rakuten patches on bomber jackets, anime used to recreate iconic Raf graphics and comments from Grailed are used to mimic Simons's frequent use of text on garments.

These hyper-specific references have also served as a rallying point for those with an established interest in archival Raf. "A lot of the people who are entering into the archive market right now don't have the same perspective as a few years ago," says Bollin. "The people who understand the references that we make are probably serious collectors."

Both Rough Simmons and Wil Fry have managed to capitalize on the cynicism of well-versed collectors and insiders. After a brief hiatus, Fry is set to release new pieces in the coming weeks. For his part, Bollin says that Simmons isn't a flash in the pan — the goal is to offer a wider range of archive-centric cultural commentary. Both brands may exist on the more subversive end of the spectrum, but even within the capital-F establishment, there's an increasingly large movement towards using meta-referential memes to move product — albeit with mixed results.

On the one hand, there's Vêtements, whose referential designs took the industry by storm when the brand first launched — from collegiate-style Antwerp hoodies to those infamous DHL shirts. But, as time wore on, the brand has become increasingly polarizing and Vêtements has supposedly struggled to sustain the initial financial success.

That being said, you'd be hard-pressed to deny that Vêtements consistently succeeds in sparking a conversation. (It also spawned its own meme-centric tribute brand, aptly called Vetememes, with the slogan "a parody of a parody.") From commenting on the important role that shipping providers play in contemporary luxury fashion to making subtle references to other labels like Chrome Hearts, to having us ask ourselves if we're ready for UGG and Juicy to make comebacks, Vêtements has trolled the industry time and again. “Everything is an appropriation, we live in a world that is full of references," Demna Gvasalia explained, when defending Vêtements's take on the Tabi boot.

On the other hand, there's Helmut Lang, a once-revered label trying its hand at referencing its own catalogue of archive designs. "Helmut Lang reissue didn't add any value to the conversation," says Rough Simmons's Brian Bollin, "if you're just going to make replicas, why do it?"

It offers a good illustration of the point we're at. Vêtements and Rough Simmons and Wil Fry have a lot in common. "It's such a high effort joke that it's absurd in and of itself, but that's what endears it to people," says Bollin. We're so far down the rabbit hole and so jaded that even if Helmut Lang is revisiting old designs, it's no longer of interest. The catalogue of existing design is so rich that there's essentially nothing that hasn't already been done.

So what do people want? They want self-awareness that pokes fun at the ridiculousness of it all. "It's important to sometimes not take things in this space so seriously," says Fry. And that, more than anything, encapsulates the absurdist moment we're witnessing. 

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