Why Are We So Obsessed With The 90s?

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robin Givhan explains the decade's dominance

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From Calvin Klein to Chloé, the decade dominated the SS16 catwalks like no era has ever done before. But why is the look and attitude resonating so strongly now?

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robin Givhan explores how the 1990s managed to stomp its DMs right back into fashion.

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From the beginning of designer Hedi Slimane’s tenure at Saint Laurent, he’s been enraptured by youth culture. In his first collection for the storied French brand, he dabbled in retro California cool and Stevie Nicks-inspired style. But in his second, which was for autumn/winter 2013, he shunned gypsy dresses and hippy hats in favour of brooding cynicism and banality. The collection celebrated baby doll dresses, knobbly grandad cardigans and a studied slouchiness that was so extreme it made one’s own spine throb with a scoliotic ache.

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And just like that, grunge was back.

By autumn 2015, it was clear that grunge was not a passing fancy and neither were the Nineties.

That was when the model Lida Fox – platinum-haired, sullen and eyes lined in thick kohl – stomped into the Saint Laurent spotlight wearing a pink tutu, combat boots and an oversized menswear jacket. You could practically hear the moans of Smells Like Teen Spirit off in the distance.

Slimane wasn’t alone in his infatuation. Along came Gucci’s Alessandro Michele – and even Belgian designer Dries Van Noten offered his take on the Nineties style. And, of course, all along we’d had Anna Sui.

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Fox reminded me of a girl from a classic Anna Sui show. Sui had once been the empress of cool, the New York designer who dressed all the girls who wished they were the lead singer in an indie band. In the Nineties, Sui’s shows throbbed with energy and anticipation. Fashion fluttered on but Sui stuck to her guns. She retained her star power in places like Japan, where her grunge style was co-opted into anime. But when Slimane gave us that tutu, he gave us Sui.

He reminded us of how great she was – and how right her clothes look now.

Slimane’s ode to grunge didn’t exactly sneak up on the fashion world. There had been hints, references and a certain something in the air. We’d become a less formal and fussy culture, padding through airports in our athleisure wear and listening to trend-trackers expound on the rise
of normcore.

Grunge – for the young or the forgetful – was the aesthetic sensibility born of the grinding guitars of Seattle garage bands. It was Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. In November 2015, Cobain’s olive-green cardigan sold for $137,500 (£93,000) at an auction in Los Angeles. Grunge became ‘fashion’ when it was sent down the Perry Ellis runway by Marc Jacobs in 1993. It was the collection that got Jacobs fired but also the one that established his reputation as frightfully cool, independent and prescient.

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Grunge was comfortably imperfect. It looked worn and beaten, but it felt luxurious. The simple Henleys were made of fine cashmere, after all. But the style wasn’t precious. And that was what made it both unnerving and wonderful. The clothes felt of the moment and free of all the assumptions that had always been attached to luxury fashion. It wasn’t grown up. It was a paean to disaffected youth.

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It returns to us at a time when we are obsessed with the lives of the young,  except today we call them ‘millennials’. What do they want? What do they need? How are they transforming our world? We are told that millennials want authenticity and they don’t want to own lots of stuff – or at least the kind of stuff that’s flashy and showy. But millennials are selfish, too. Right? They were over-indulged by their helicopter parents, after all. So they want luxury.

Grunge is the perfect middle ground. It also speaks to all those young tech billionaires who grew up on jeans and hoodies, and have no interest in suddenly suiting up just because they’re now the boss. 

Other aspects of the Nineties are back. Bumbags have returned and so have chokers, high-waisted trousers and destroyed jeans. We’re back into Dr. Martens and flannel. Courtney Love has voiced her amusement at the notion of fancy ladies paying thousands of dollars to wear the sort of wrecked clothes that she’d piece together from a few trips to the second-hand store. And make no mistake, the clothes are expensive. Those Saint Laurent baby doll dresses retail for between £1,000-£3,000.

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How deep into the Nineties have we gone? Well, we don’t have Kate Moss and Mark Wahlberg in their Calvin Klein underwear but we’ve got Kendall Jenner and Justin Bieber (and Lara Stone) recreating those iconic ads. The difference is that Jenner wasn’t discovered serendipitously the way photographer Corinne Day launched Moss. Jenner was assembled with the help of reality television, Instagram, the right parties and a famous last name. And while she’s staked her territory in fashion, she’s not so much a reflection of the moment but an exploiter of it.

The Nineties superstars are back, too. Christy Turlington is modelling for Calvin Klein and Naomi Campbell – who has never really left the runway – now has a recurring role on the hip-hop soap opera Empire. Love made an appearance there, too. Winona Ryder, the ultimate ‘generation X’ actress, got a great reception in HBO’s soulful Show Me A Hero mini-series. Amber Valletta, who rode in on the Nineties waif wave, had a TV turn this year too.

When the waifs arrived in the Nineties, they weren’t related to the ghoulishness of heroin chic. Waifs represented the welcome freedom to not be a glamazon – a supermodel with big hair, legs up to your chin and perfectly pert boobs. Waifs were about reality.

Eventually, it all took a turn. But for a while things were good. For a while, the Nineties were good.

They were a profound relief from the extreme ostentation of the Eighties with its big-shouldered glamour, its social x-rays, masters of the universe and the culture’s obsession with designer everything.

The Nineties in the early part of the decade had a certain calm and purity. They were like a cultural cleanse. They began with a nod to something called monastic chic, when we briefly dressed like nuns. We did penance for our over-indulgence. And then we pulled on comfy clothes – unpretentious, vaguely juvenile – and we got on with things.

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Why are we going back there? Perhaps because we’ve exhausted ourselves with a tech bubble and real estate lust. Maybe it’s because we are just exhausted from trying so hard to stand out because we can’t all be street-style stars.

On the business side, the Nineties were filled with possibility. Fashion’s traditional pop brands got serious, got their house in order and became publicly traded companies or hooked their wagon on to a big corporation. A lot of struggling designers got a taste of the sweet life back then. Tom Ford began his reign at Gucci. Alexander McQueen was fashion’s favourite hooligan and was wooed by luxury goods giant LVMH to take over the creative direction at Givenchy. He replaced another dynamic young designer, John Galliano, who had been tapped for the even grander Christian Dior.

Oh, it was a great time to be a young, talented designer. The big corporations wanted to be touched by their magic. Even Marc Jacobs had been reborn. Opinions of his grunge collection had been revised and, in hindsight, it was declared a revelation. He was courted by LVMH, too, where he launched ready-to-wear for Louis Vuitton.

Back then, joining a big corporation was exciting and wonderful. It was a bit like claiming the brass ring. At least it seemed so. We’ve learned a lot since then. We now understand that corporate fashion isn’t all that designers thought it would be. It’s not the bountiful playground of stupendous fabrics, marvellous flights of fancy and a payday to make the parents proud. Well, actually, it was all that but it was a lot more. It was endless travel for store openings, VIP events and interviews. It was having to produce a new collection every six to 12 weeks. It was having to oversee the store design, and the advertising, and the social media. It was non-stop.

We watched designers struggle with their workload – and their personal demons. Ford left Gucci in a dispute over control of the brand and later struggled with alcoholism. Galliano was fired from Dior and went to rehab after a vitriolic, public flameout fuelled by addiction. McQueen, God bless him, committed suicide.

And most recently, Alber Elbaz was fired from Lanvin, the house that he stamped with his personal imprimatur.

These departures and tragedies occurred after the designers had been on the payroll of a large conglomerate for a decade or more. Those designers who followed in the wake of these Nineties stars didn’t last as long. Raf Simons left Dior and Alexander Wang departed Balenciaga in fewer than three years. Had things become exponentially worse? Or had these young designers just come to the realisation that the benefits did not outweigh the pressures? Both, I suspect.

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There was something pessimistic but still naive about the Nineties. The problems that seemed so big and burdensome then, now seem modest. We fretted over the Gulf War; we mourned the death of Princess Diana; we feared the arrival of Y2K. Now, we’d long for those worries and sorrows. Now, the world’s problems aren’t just dark, they’re pitch black.

It seems reasonable that in a search for normality and comfort, designers would go looking for grunge. It was like going home, but to a place that made room for anger, fear and confusion.

The Nineties were peppered with all sorts of downsides. Heroin chic glorified the devastation of drug abuse. The waifs ushered in an era of homogeneity on the runway – the world of modelling got a white-washing.

But the Nineties also gave us a chance to breathe. It was a period of catharsis. We didn’t have to put our best face forward. We could just walk into the light without pretence.

This time around, we’re recovering from a recession, an Ebola plague, the latest terrorism horror. Our fears are both real and existential. And so we move tentatively forward in our nouveau Nineties dress.

Images: Frederike Helwig, Getty Images, Roxanne Lowit, Leon: The Professional/YouTube, Lara Rossignol, Anthea Simms, Jeffrey Thurnher

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