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The Complicated World of Fashion Cores

When fashion historians look back at quarantine fashion, they will undoubtedly see a deluge of loungewear, a dizzying amount of tie-dye and moments of half-hearted effort by office workers dressing professionally from the waist up for Zoom meetings. They will also find copious amounts of thematic trends—or “cores”—built around escapist fashion.

“A ‘core’ is a niche fashion trend, often born from social media, that revolves around a very specific visual aesthetic,” said Brenda Otero, Lyst’s cultural insights manager.

Benjamin Ayer, founder of Benjamin Bellwether Consulting, likens cores to an essence, though to anyone older than Gen Z he said it’s probably just style. “Maybe Gen Z adopted the term because it goes one step beyond just the clothes you wear,” he said. “It’s the attitude you carry when you wear them. It’s the theme for your TikTok persona.”

“Now on a journey of self-exploration and discovery spurred by social media, Gen Z is introducing a wave of new, niche aesthetics to the market,” said Kristin Breakell, Trendalytics content strategist, adding that the visual nature of fashion cores means Instagram, Snapchat and their ilk have created an environment for them to thrive.

Cottagecore, an aesthetic built around a romanticized idea of the countryside, blew up in 2020 when cooped-up consumers picked up quaint hobbies like baking, gardening, needlepoint, and DIY crafts. It translated into old-timey fashion like milkmaid necklines, prairie or “nap” dresses and ditsy floral prints, and jumpstarted the unwavering puff-sleeve trend. Cabincore entered the picture as a winterized version of cottagecore, distinguished by flannel fabrics, rugged raw denim and shackets. Add more technical attributes to cabincore pieces—like weatherproof outerwear and cargo pockets—and you have gorpcore, a catchall phrase to describe outdoor-inspired fashion with street appeal that The Cut actually coined in 2017.

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And then there was the December 2020 release of “Bridgerton,” the Regency-era Netflix hit series that inspired women to swap out their sweats for corset tops, pearl and feather headbands, gloves and empire line dresses, all in the name of regencycore. Consumers continue to search for a range of accessories fit for royalty, Breakell said. Searches for bow heels are up 182 percent compared to last year, while searches for opera gloves are up 32 percent.

The recently released second season is already influencing consumers. Marketing research firm Uswitch reported Google searches for “regencycore” increased 354 percent from the day before the new season aired to the day after its premiere.

Regencycore is also linked to pearlcore, one of Pinterest’s trends to watch. “In 2022, people of all ages will embrace iridescent accents in their homes, in their jewelry boxes and even as nail art,” the social media platform stated in its annual trend report. “Pearl-themed parties will be on the rise, too, as people opt for pearly gowns and wedding décor.”

“The rise of these cores in mainstream media just shows how much the younger generations are embracing niche,” Ayer said. “You no longer must hide in the shadows of whatever subculture you belong to. You can display for everyone to see on social and be embraced by others with similar viewpoints.”

For the past couple of years, Otero said core trends have moved faster and overtaken the traditional cycle of catwalks and collections, with the pandemic being a big factor. “People have been looking for connection in these uncertain times and have been eager to connect with communities of like-minded and aesthetic-driven individuals,” she said.

Social media plays a big role in the community aspect of fashion cores, and the speed at which they spread. TikTok has especially changed the way fashion enthusiasts engage with trends, Otero said. “The platform’s algorithm segments users based on what they like and therefore, we’ve seen a resurgence of subcultures and micro trends,” she said.

“The cores came about in the time of social media when you have less than a second to catch someone’s attention, and clothing helps you do that,” Ayer added. “One could argue we are using cores to display who we are, or think we are.”

Normcore or core

The current state of fashion is arguably a duel between themed “cores” built around social media-driven fads and items that are core to a brand’s business. On one side, brands like Loveshackfancy and House of Sunny are fueling fashion cores with thematic collections that also inspire makeup, hair and home decor trends. On the other, retailers are working overtime to curate edits of core items to help consumers rebuild their wardrobes as they return to some semblance of normalcy.

However, the OG fashion core has laid the groundwork to today’s core items: normcore. The term was coined by New York-based art collective K-HOLE in 2013 to describe a mindset rooted in adaptability versus exclusivity—an approach that may resonate even more with consumers today.

“Normcore wants the freedom to be with anyone. You might not understand the rules of football, but you can still get a thrill from the roar of the crowd at the World Cup. In Normcore, one does not pretend to be above the indignity of belonging,” the group stated in its “Youth Mode” report.

Along the way, normcore the attitude turned into normcore the style, serving as an alternative to the then-popular hipster aesthetic. Normcore centered around basic items like Dad jeans, T-shirts, plain white sneakers and Birkenstock sandals. Jerry Seinfeld and Homer Simpson became normcore style icons.

Lyst named normcore and its offshoot, dadcore, the biggest trends of 2018. Chunky sneakers, “slushy” cardigans, fleeces and “ugly” shorts combined saw a 439 percent increase in views that year. “That trend was a rejection of maximalism and was all about average-looking clothes, it actually took several years for it to spread, and some would argue it’s still popular today,” Otero said.

But normcore essentially was (and is) a return to back-to-basic items—or core items—that fashion brands have relied on for years as the foundation to their seasonal collections. It runs counter to the disposable aspect of today’s fashion cores.

According to Kayla Marci, a market analyst at Edited, “core” and “essential” are the glow-up version of “basic,” making the concept more palatable to millennial and Gen Z consumers. It is the “timeless, quality wardrobe staples that require minimal updates to silhouette, color or pattern and can transcend generations, seasons and genders,” she added.

Denim has always been a key part of core product ranges. “Cores are your commodity, they are the pieces in your range that are the base to your collection that you build around,” said Claire Ford, founder of Claire Ford Consultancy, whose clients include Outland Denim, Reiss, Strom and more. “Luckily, denim isn’t as fickle as some areas in fashion and moves a lot slower in [the] pace of trends.”

Once considered trendy, sexy and even aspirational, skinny jeans have settled into their role as a core. “The skinny jean has been a big part of core for the last decade,” Ford said. “As we have seen in the last three years, more relaxed styles have trended up for many reasons and have become new core pieces due to aspects like covid, work from home, more relaxed styling, the Gen Z rebellion against the skinny jean.”

The 5-pocket jeans normally associated with core are wearable, easy fits, and always selling from one season to the next, she added.

For a designer, core pieces are a starting ground. “When I work with a new client, I always want to start with their core range and make that the best it can possibly be before working on the trend pieces,” Ford said. “I find so much joy in working on the core range—dissecting it, relooking at fabrications, stitch detail…how it is being made.”

The core, she added, should represent the backbone of a brand’s collection.

From a retailer’s perspective, Marci said core fashion maintains a consistent price point and is never discounted or out of stock. In fact, she said core pieces are often repositioned as “best sellers” or “top performers.” Retailers tend to lean into “back in stock” messaging for when an item is replenished to help “drum up hype” and use customer reviews of core items from either online or social media to help back up their status.

Since 2019, Edited has seen a steady increase in the number of products using the words “essential” and “staple,” up 23 percent and 112 percent from 2019 to 2021, respectively.

The uncertainty that brands and retailers faced following the first months of the pandemic in 2020, coupled with consumers downsizing their belongings, tightening their spending, growing more aware about sustainability and prioritizing comfort, has led to an even greater focus on basics in recent seasons. For most of 2020, solid color polo shirts ruled the men’s category, while neutral colors filtered across women’s loungewear.

“The pandemic underscored the need for retailers to rely on their bread-and-butter styles, especially those with comfort features, to help mitigate risk around landing directional trends amid a global lockdown,” Mari said.

Against the backdrop of an economic crisis, she said this period helped solidify a “buy less, buy better” mentality, where core pieces with longevity were spotlighted alongside messages about sustainable shopping habits. It’s a message echoed in Levi’s “Buy Better, Wear Longer” campaign. Launched last April to raise awareness about overproduction and overconsumption, the motto continues to be the thread that connects the denim giant’s assortment of new sustainable products and its secondhand business.

Though designers entertained ideas about producing fewer collections during the bleakest days of the pandemic, the movement hasn’t quite taken shape. Rather, brands are repackaging core products as seasonless or evergreen concepts. Case in point: Diesel launched Diesel Library, a range of longer-lasting denim items on a “made-to-stay basis.” The brand aims for 50 percent of its overall denim collection to have a permanent shelf life.

Brands are also giving core items sustainable makeovers. Levi’s renewed its iconic 501 jean to include organic cotton, post-consumer recycled denim and other recyclable components last December. In comparison, traditional 501 jeans are currently made with 99 percent cotton and 1 percent elastane.

“I do not believe as a business you should be covering every trend coming through, but you should carve your own path on trend and seasonless style,” Ford said. Designers and brands, she added, are becoming more aware of the impact they have and driving more fashion cores can only reduce the number of garments that will be sent to landfill.

However, trend-driven fashion continues to outpace core, basics, seasonless, staples—whichever moniker you choose. In January, Edited reported that of the new products that arrived at U.S. and U.K. fast-fashion retailers over the prior six months, core styles equaled less than half of available women’s wear, with the more “flash-in-the-pan” trends making up 59 percent of stock. The proportion of core ranges for men’s wear was slightly higher at 45 percent, though trends still dominate at 54 percent.

“With the trend cycle exploding and fast-fashion retailers dropping new products at hyper-speed juxtaposing with the climate crisis, seasonless products are more essential than ever,” Marci said. “Retailers need to navigate the balance between disposable trends and styles with evergreen appeal.”

Currently, retailers’ core ranges are dominated by relaxed light-wash denim, slouchy blazers, oversized tees, white button-down shirts, plain white sneakers and ribbed tops and dresses inspired by loungewear, Edited reported.

Though these pieces are widely considered to be closet staples, Swedish influencer Matilda Djerf is credited with making them trendy. Known for her simple but chic style, Djerf has been a source of style inspiration for years, recently gaining traction on TikTok where #matildadjerf has over 44 million views, Trendalytics said. As a result, the platform has seen searches for oversized blazers climbed 122 percent year-over-year and demand for button-down shirts increase 62 percent. Searches for knit tube tops are up 127 percent.

“Comfort will continue to dictate core collections with roomy silhouettes like wide-leg trousers [and] soft-touch fabrics like silks and fuzzy textures [which are] lending [themselves] to the elevated loungewear styling that is now a core look in itself,” Marci said.

Puffer jackets, ribbed sets, casual trench coats, denim and “pick-and-mix suiting” are core items to watch in the coming seasons, and while neutral color palettes are unsurprisingly favored for core items Marci named “dopamine dressing” as a way retailers can update core items with minimal risk.

Cores span basic blue jeans to romantic dresses and dominatrix designs.
Cores span basic blue jeans to romantic dresses and dominatrix designs. Mega/Everett Collection

Core patrol

“Normcore was definitely the start of all the mainstream hype around cores, but others are popping up every day,” Ayer said.

Breakell added that cores reflect the cultural moment, and their popularity varies depending on season and surrounding cultural events.

“While cottagecore is currently declining, there are more niche, related trends that should be on retailers’ radars,” she added. “Fairycore captures a similar romantic, whimsical aesthetic… Searches for gorpcore have been steadily increasing since the end of 2020 as covid-19 pushed people to explore new hobbies and embrace the outdoors as a means of escape from the stresses of pandemic living. The aesthetic will likely continue to grow as people search for products at the intersection of fashion and function.”

Then there’s magic gorpcore, a “hedonistic take on gorpcore” that combines the technical elements from survivalist fashion with styling from rave culture and psychedelia. Lyst reported that the core sparked a 72 percent increase in page views for colorful Arc’teryx jackets in January.

Pairing bespoke insights from 160 million online shoppers with cultural analysis and social media tracking, Otero said Lyst has identified “blogger-core,” an aesthetic based on 2010s fashion bloggers, as the hottest internet-born trend right now. Searches for then-bloggers’ favorite bag, Balenciaga’s City bag, spiked 37 percent in January while page views for peplum silhouettes increased 10 percent.

The reopening of nightclubs, the popularity of harness styling videos on TikTok, and subversive looks worn by celebrities like Julia Fox and Kourtney Kardashian have all contributed to the rise of fetishcore. Lyst has seen a 26 percent increase in searches for latex products since February, while sales of leather chokers have increased 100 percent since the start of the year.

Though blue-purple colors like WGSN’s Digital Lavender and Pantone’s Very Peri have touched everything from Levi’s denim to Birkenstock sandals, Lyst sees brown evolving into a core of its own. Otero said brown fashion-related hashtags are driving 140 million views on TikTok and that it “could well be the next Millennial pink.”

Though cores can “fizzle out as fast as they came,” Ayer said brands and retailers should subscribe to the ones that reinforce sustainable ideas and purchasing habits over ones that promote disposable fashion.

Denim’s versatility makes the wardrobe staple a key item for fashion cores. “Denim has become so ubiquitous these days it fits into so much of the fashion that’s happening today,” Ayer said. “Earthcore would call for vintage or eco-friendly denim. Cabincore calls for items like flannel-lined denims. Grungecore calls for beat-up and black denim.”

While many embrace the new wave of fashion cores, Breakell said others may see them as superficial and frivolous, especially given the sheer number of new, extremely niche aesthetics.

“What exactly is bloomcore? Or carnivalcore? While the number of emerging aesthetics can be overwhelming, they are ultimately harmless,” she said. “People are exploring their identities and searching for community. Following a certain fashion core may help in that journey, but people will quickly realize they are multidimensional and cannot be defined by any one aesthetic.”