And Then It’s Cringe and It’s Everywhere

Xenon Straub, Immobility of the Meat Satellite Precursor, When Legs Are of No Benefit, 2001. Courtesy MoMA.

Fashion history writes itself through a state of permanent revolution. Dominant styles are constantly shifting and changing, being usurped and deposed and renegotiated. Who we are changes, the world changes, what we wear changes. Fashion-time is not linear. Momentum carries ideas both backwards and forwards: an old fashioned garment can become modern again. The modern can become ancient just as easily. A sincere gesture, repeated enough times, becomes a platitude, hollow and hypocritical. Coolness and good taste are little more than mirages in the desert.

It is the rare exception – whether designer, photographer, model – that escapes the natural cycles of innovation and revolution and degradation that periodically sweep through fashion ecosystems. Most get carried away; they were cool and then they weren’t. It happens slowly, and imperceptibly, and then all at once. Influence wanes and then it’s gone. Things that were cool become uncool, and some eventually become cool again.

What once was revolutionary becomes pastiche through familiarity, just as, over time, through unfamiliarity, what has been relegated to the footnotes of history can be rediscovered. It’s a simple process of reaction, boredom, of changing tastes and changing lifestyles, new technologies, and the fact that everyone is wearing that now or some designer piece gets knocked off by H&M or Boohoo and then it’s cringe and it’s everywhere.

A Vetements T-shirt used to stand for a certain insideryness; it implied the wearer possessed some knowledge of fashion’s systems of irony and value: to wear a Vetements T-shirt right now would imply a lack of familiarity with them. The kids who queued outside Supreme grew up and started wearing Lemaire. The kids who listened to grime got into techno and the kids who listened to techno got into experimental, underground folk music. The kids who collected rare Raf pieces are now wearing something utilitarian from Arc’teryx. You stop skateboarding after you broke your ankle and you stop clubbing because you can’t handle the comedown anxiety anymore and the clothes that made sense for that period of your life make no sense for the you who exists now. Clothes shape us and we shape them. If you own a ballgown you had better find a ball to go to. Don’t those now-fashionable Patagonia technical trousers make you want to head into the great outdoors?

Who we are changes, the world changes, what we wear changes.


‘In the culture, sometimes things change, and a once-dominant social wavelength starts to feel dated…’1 This was how The Cut introduced the idea of the Vibe Shift to us earlier this year. The phrase ‘vibe shift,’ in this context, was coined by Sean Monahan, onetime member of K-Hole, a group of trend forecasters who most famously gave us the concept of normcore (another fashion for another time).

Fashion is an intrinsically temporal art form — it is about who we are and what we desire at any given moment in time and how those desires change over time — and the pandemic had disrupted its circadian rhythms. There was no future to project that desire into. There was no world for that desire to exist in. Fashion is social and the social bonds had disappeared.

But often, in history, ruptures lead to rebirth. And so this idea of a Vibe Shift was exciting because it felt like, after two years of this pandemic enforced semi-solitude, we needed a new way of wearing clothes, going out, of being in and seeing the world, a new philosophy of fashion, music, film, art. For two years there had been no new club nights, no new scenes, no fashion revolutions, just an aspic-coated moment that seemed to go on forever.

Things change slowly, bit by bit, and then, all at once, they change very quickly. The vibes shift. I moved house and sold my old designer clothes and paid off a credit card bill. I sold my archive Raf Simons and bought Lemaire.

Our own personal vibes shift often, constantly, imperceptibly. But Sean’s Vibe Shift was a philosophy of a larger process. ‘[Sean] thinks the new vibe shift could be the return of early-aughts indie sleaze,’ The Cut suggested.2 In this moment of pained, fraught and jubilant reemergence I’d been hoping, wishing, for a vibe shift that could drive us into the future. Instead, in ‘Indie Sleaze’ we were offered more of the past (all wishes are double edged).


Fashion’s vibes shift continually and constantly in a quixotic quest for newness. New desires and new ways of being and new communities spring up and suddenly it feels like everyone is wearing a pitch black angular Balenciaga rubber boot and you need one. Or actually it’s all your friends starting to take magic mushrooms, and getting back to nature, and their T-shirts now sprouting inspirational, crypto-Ram Dass slogans. And maybe everyone else is feeling old and feeling nostalgic for the hedonistic days of their youths and they are talking in conspiratorial tones about the return of Indie Sleaze. Where you there the first time? Do you remember it? What, actually, is it? I think in this context it is an idealistic amalgamation of the various youth cultures of a period that spans the years 2004-2014, and their associated cultural magnum opuses. Meaning roughly: American Apparel and American Apparel advertisements, CSS, New Young Pony Club, Urban Outfitters, headbands worn across forehands, leggings, Steve Aoki, Alice Glass, The Klaxons, neon, Kate Moss at Glastonbury, early Hedi Slimane, the video for Fuck Forever by Babyshambles, complaining about people wearing band shirts when they don’t listen to the band, insincerity, The Teenagers’ Homecoming, ballet pumps, Cory Kennedy, Purple Magazine, bangs, The Strokes, Agyness Deyn, heroin, ecstasy, squatting, squat parties, looking like you live in a squat, lenseless glasses, plastic shuttered sunglasses, an absence of politics, deep V-necks, nostalgia, Topman militaria, high street romanticism, recession glamour, home counties Americana. That is to say it exists as some historic fiction of the hipster, or a hagiography of the era, shorn of its problematic edges, made neater, simpler, more digestible. But this is the reality of most histories.

If the Vibe Shift is a process, Indie Sleaze is what we get at the other end of it. But the Vibe Shift doesn’t promise just Indie Sleaze, but an increased fragmentation of culture, fashion, and identity into thousands of new kinds of hyper specific subcultural identities, that bloom not in physical spaces but in the hyperspecific, fleeting, postmodern communities of Instagram and TikTok. These are subcultures without unifying centres. They don’t reach for authenticity, or depth, but rely on the virality of a name, the suggestion of newness and the powerful aesthetic magic of the well curated mood board. They offer a promise that maybe Goblin Mood or Clowncore will make sense of some feeling within ourselves, will provide a frame that can help us understand our delicate places within the strange madness of our lives. And so it’s maybe easiest to understand Indie Sleaze and these kind of subcultures as hyperreal, Baudrillardian, in the sense that it’s hard to parse whether they are real or fictions, or if the distinction between the two, between phoniness and authenticity matter in this way anymore. As if to question, too, what alchemy turns fiction into truth. If one very cool person starts describing themselves as Indie Sleaze does that make it real? Or a dozen? Or if Vogue writes breathlessly about it? How many influencers does it take to shape a moment in time?

We are who we present ourselves as online. We don’t have to own a pitch black angular Balenciaga rubber boot, we can just post an image of Ye wearing one and its values attach themselves to us. We become Indie Sleaze by posting an old photo of ourselves, from back when, when American Apparel still existed, and we had bangs and wore ballet pumps.

It is no longer possible to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s simulation because there isn’t a difference between the two.

Fashion, in general, needs a vibe shift. It needs rapture and replacement and newness. It needs new desires and new dreams. It needs new fashions to sell. There was, and still is, a physicality to all this. Once you could walk down the King’s Road or the Bowery and take the aesthetic temperature of the moment but those spaces have less hold on the imagination now. The spaces that do are digital. For all its exclusionary pretence – will you or won’t you be invited in and where will you be sat – the fashion show is primarily a broadcast medium now. You see the shows online. You buy the clothes online. You post a picture of yourself wearing the clothes online. There is negligible difference between the reality of the physical and the digital.

You wore skinny jeans for a decade and now you’ve got that loose fit. The pictures of you at the Klaxons rave stayed in a folder for years until it became OK to post them again. You’re wearing baggy jeans now but boot cut is coming back. I remember once, during Indie Sleaze the first time around, I bought a pair of very skinny bright red jeans. I thought I was a person who wore red skinny jeans. But I wore them maybe twice and realised I wasn’t. I couldn’t be.

At the heart of fashion is this failure. This jacket could change your life but it won’t. You could, by wearing a leather jacket adorned with studs and pins, transform yourself into a punk. You could go out tomorrow and buy some vintage American Apparel leggings, a headband, a Strokes T-shirt, and become Indie Sleaze. You can force your own personal vibe to shift purely through willpower. But it’s hard to maintain the illusion that you are someone you’re not, or to think that, if you maintain the illusion long enough, you can become someone else entirely.

Sean Monahan, in his theory of the vibe shift, suggested that it is a permanent process. That the vibe shift leaves some people behind. That it moves in one direction. Some get stuck in an older vision of authenticity as a new vision of authenticity takes hold. The world changes and we change. Or we don’t.

For a moment I became depressed by the idea that Indie Sleaze was returning. The vibes had shifted back to where they were when I’d begun and now I was a completely different person. Or I was depressed because I could still see, via the prism of this returning, the person I used to be. And how, with hindsight it was easy to see how, the first time around, Indie Sleaze was not particularly vital, how it lacked invention and vitality and that the only thing that made it of any interest, really, was that it was my thing to belong to. It was something I was part of.

Maybe it’s natural that in these uncertain and changing moments we desire to retreat to the familiarity of our own youths, or the youths of those just a fraction older than us, youths slightly out of reach and touched by the glamour of being just out of reach. But if you’re in your early to mid thirties (ish) in 2022 this return of Indie Sleaze is probably the first time the styles of your youth have been co-opted and revived and sanitised and repackaged. And that comes with plenty of complex emotions. You are getting older. You’re dying. You are not as cool, effortless, beautiful, as you once were.

Your past, its messiness, its mistakes, the life you once lived, is smoothed out and recontextualised and made into something else by someone who wasn’t there.

And so the vibes shift again and now Indie Sleaze is back apparently although it’s not quite clear where it’s going, revived for what, and for whom. But I’m not sure it matters because time isn’t relevant anymore because there isn’t a narrative, just an amorphous continuous vibe shift that is splintered and broken and smaller and atomised.

  1. Allison P. Davis, ‘A Vibe Shift Is Coming,’ NY Magazine, Feb.16, 2022. 

  2. Ibid.