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The ‘Ugly-Cool’ Renaissance

By Lara Levetan

The saying goes that nothing sells like nostalgia. This certainly speaks to a yearning for the illusory innocence of a bygone time, but also a nuanced revolt against the age of the day. As the pendulum of the fashion cycle swings more rapidly than ever before, we now see the resurgence of ‘ugly-cool’ designs emerge from the zeitgeist. Mullets, crocs, beaded accessories and platform ballet flats, all with purposefully tacky, camp or childlike aesthetics, represent the cutting-edge of the Gen-Z fashion sensibility. But where does the appeal and fascination lie in ‘ugly-cool’ and can it be framed as a challenge to the status-quo? That is, will the burgeoning generation of trailblazers disrupt the landscape of fashion, which until recently, has been mostly austere and unattainable?

The past year has seen a resurrection of possibly the most polarizing and divisive haircut in modern history: the mullet. While the dominant attitude may still deem the mullet as hideous, passé, and tasteless, it seems that it’s ironic value and so-called ‘ugliness’ forms part of its undeniable charm. The irony of the mullet is its intentional subversion of tastefulness and the way that it pokes fun at the banality of taste itself. We know that adversity often breeds creativity, and under the thumb of Covid-19 lockdown we have witnessed the emergence of the mullet in a plethora of forms – punk, elegant, Middle Earth inspired, and the feathery tousled ‘shullet’ (a hybrid between a mullet and a shag). Subcultures embracing the modernised mullet relish in the way that the chop offsets mainstream respectability, and perhaps more importantly, find solace in its gender neutral roots and popularisation by LGBTQI+ icons, such as David Bowie and Joan Jett. It’s recent rebirth can be partially credited to the likes of Ru Paul’s Drag Race finalist Crystal Method, whose long, curly mullet earned her the nickname of 80s singer El Debarge. Certainly, the haircut’s reimagining has metamorphosed to represent a marker of gender fluidity and queerness, rather than flagrant masculinity. The appeal of the mullet lies in its ability to facilitate the visibility of gender fluidity, embody both the masculine and the feminine, while simultaneously turning conventional aestheticism on its head. The chop’s gender-fluidity and unapologetic effortlessness make it in equal parts accessible, unconventional and novel simultaneously.

"The irony of the mullet is its intentional subversion of tastefulness and the way that it pokes fun at the banality of taste itself."

Despite previously being the punchline of jeers and taunts, and being named among the 50 worst inventions by Time magazine in 2010, Crocs are soaring in popularity and success more than ever before. The divisiveness of Crocs’ foam clogs has carried since their inception in 2002, and has come to be emblematic of the ultimate ‘love-it-or-hate-it’ fashion item. Ever since Crocs’ collaboration with renowned high fashion brands including Christopher Kane, who debuted earth-hued embellished clogs in his SS17 runway show, as well as Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga, which showcased outlandish platform renditions of the shoe in the SS18 collection, the brand has been creating a contentious sartorial stir. And yet, Crocs’ apparent eccentricity and lack of consensus is precisely their modus-operandi. As the hamster wheel of micro-trends accelerates, brands such as Crocs have hitched their wagon to the whimsy and humour that attracts current consumers. Crocs offer a sense of freedom in which fashion can be embraced as a personal and playful endeavour without the constraints of aesthetic conventions. It seems that they hold an accessible and casual allure, especially for those who may feel shut out from the esoteric fashion milieu. While it is certain that the comfort of Crocs during a homebound lockdown period and the element of self-craft fulfilled by the Jibbitz (personalized charms that you can adorn them with) have contributed to their skyrocketing popularity, it seems that they encapsulate the allure of the ‘ugly-cool’ aesthetic, in which ‘tasteful’ attributes are entirely inverted for a fresh kind of consumption and expression.

Alongside the proliferation of the ‘ugly-cool’ Gen-Z sensibility is the recent explosion of ‘Kidult’ designs and creations, imbued with an air of youthful optimism on the one hand, and absurd childlike escapism on the other. Simone Rocha’s platform ballet flats, Miu Miu’s resurrection of the low-rise mini skirt, and the Balenciaga X The Simpsons collaboration all represent a desire to pay homage to the bygone aestheticism of the 90s and 2000s, an eagerness to revel in the delight of youth and a trajectory towards subversion and absurdity. The rising popularity of childlike iconography and motifs, such as stars, animals, fruit and hearts – as well as use of unconventional materials like acrylic or resin - are a portal back to childhood sleepovers, toys, and playing dress-up. Marking her label’s 10-year anniversary, Simone Rocha’s SS22 collection showcased an array of childlike proportions, from extra-large frilly bibs to soft-punk platform ballet flats. Her collection evoked the naivety and 90s goth-girl sensibilities of a former time, with Simone claiming she created the collection by delving into the ways that children interpret and wear clothing. This ode to 90s and early 2000s kindergarten-chic appears to represent what would be conjured up in the imagination of a child without any preconceived notions of societal aestheticism. It seems fitting that this antidote to the world’s current state of affairs is both a reminder of a greener time in one’s life, as well as a functional reference to a phase of naivety devoid of conventional aesthetics, where playful or even garish garbs were the norm. What’s more, Balenciaga’s recent collaboration (SS22) with The Simpsons, in which Gvasalia debuted a 10-minute Balenciaga-fied rendition of the animated show, speaks to the industry’s departure from conventional fashion shows, and an embrace of a more charming, self-deprecating and referential direction, all tied up with the familiarity and nostalgia associated with with The Simpsons’ town of Springfield. Within this reimagining, ‘Kidult’ designs and creations offer an experience of innocent escapism with a subtle wink; they are also laden with irony and a sense of humour. The ultimate appeal of this sensibility is the way it refuses to take itself seriously and brazenly offsets the glitz and composure of the fashion industry’s most traditional facets.

"Within this reimagining, ‘Kidult’ designs and creations offer an experience of innocent escapism with a subtle wink; they are also laden with irony and a sense of humour. "

The resurgence of ‘ugly-cool’ and ‘Kidult’ designs speak to a pervasive desire to escape and disrupt the status-quo, whether it be through divisive fashion and beauty choices that invert the understanding of aesthetics, or turning to childlike wardrobe accents that stir glimpses of a former innocence. The coupled effect of snowballing micro-trends, as well as a resistance towards the once unattainable and glamorous veneer of the fashion industry has inadvertently cultivated a refreshing celebration of anti-aestheticism. The ways in which our current youth culture engages with fashion and beauty are ultimately more humorous, referential, tongue-in-cheek and liberating than ever before.

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