Out with the old and in with the grunge.
The generation-defining musical genre that made flannel shirts, cardigans, ripped and shredded jeans, and more all the rage in the ’90s is taking fashion by storm once again.
From “Angel Baby” Australian singer, actor and recent Calvin Klein campaign star Troye Sivan styling a distressed pinstripe suit and a silk tie top to model Bella Hadid, who paired loose-fitting jeans with Dr. Martens boots, grunge’s return to fashion, in large part, is the result of pop culture milestones. The popularity of thrift and secondhand shopping is also making it easier than ever to find the perfect worn-in pieces.
Brands have also played a part in grunge’s revival. Edited, a retail intelligence company, said retailers can get in on the trend action by positioning grunge wash jeans as a must-have denim update and leather outerwear as a “timeless, transeasonal buy.”
Here are five essential items every retailer needs to capture the grunge aesthetic.
Denim is the core of the grunge aesthetic.
In the ’90s, teenagers were infusing themselves in the local punk and hardcore scenes, and doing it while wearing denim. In fact, for most, their uniform was “a pair of classic ’80s Levi’s 501 jeans mixed with strong graphic elements and DIY attitude,” Levi’s wrote on its website.
Today, brands are taking inspiration from the past and giving the grunge look an update. Recently, distressed denim took center stage at premium jeanswear label R13, Korean designer Juun.J and luxury icon Rick Owens, while Acne Studios and Diesel experimented with bleached effects and acid washing.
1017 ALYX 9SM also got in on the action by infusing “bikercore” with oil-stained denim for a more unconventional approach.
These treatments pay homage to the grunge aesthetic, according to Kayla Marci, Edited’s women’s wear analyst.
“The popular oversized and slouchy cargo jeans can help refocus consumer attention to the ’90s away from the Y2K saturation,” Marci added. “Denim is quintessential to grunge fashion and dominated the fall runways as designers heavily incorporated cuts and finishes reminiscent of the ’90s movement, solidifying the trend’s status for 2023.”
Lee Jeans is another brand seeing an uptick in the grunge trend.
“Grunge is emerging as an element of the current collision of decades,” said Betty Madden, Lee’s global vice president of design. “As Gen Z continues exploring vintage jeans, ’90s music and cool cultural moments, we’ll continue to see grunge show up in a bigger way, especially with denim. Expect looser fits with a slouchier attitude, lower rises and more proportion play this fall.”
A staple in musicians’ wardrobes, worn-out leather is another gritty element that complements grunge’s revival. English alternative rock band Catherine Wheel, for example, rocked distressed leather on multiple occasions, including group portraits, shows and more.
The craze for worn-out leather is still going strong.
Leather handbags, boots and dresses were at the forefront of luxury fashion company Chloé’s women’s wear Fall/Winter 23-24 collection. Fast-fashion e-tailer Romwe also hopped on the trend by creating a “Grunge Punk” collection which features an array of leather goods, accessories and clothing.
Tank tops and flannels
Grunge embraces basics. The look can also be achieved with a simple tank top and flannel shirt.
In the ’90s, Marc Jacobs took a risk with Perry Ellis’ Spring 1993 collection by sending models down the runway in tank tops, combat boots and plaid shirts which captured the grunge attitude.
However, critics did not take well to his artistic decision. The backlash ultimately got Jacobs fired as the label’s vice president of women’s design. Decades later he launched “Redux Grunge Collection 1993/2018 Marc Jacobs,” a 2018 capsule collection replicating his designs from that infamous Perry Ellis collection.
Now, fashion brands are reinventing the look and pairing the basics with over-the-top accessories. Dsquared2 sent models down the runway wearing worn-out flannel shirts layered on top of silk, lace and plain white tank tops. To complete the look, it paired outfits with chains, belts and hats bearing ironic phrases like “recycled teenager.”
Mara Hoffman, founder of namesake brand Mara Hoffman, incorporated organic cotton flannel tops in her pre-spring 2023 collection. “Everything is circular in fashion,” Hoffman said about the grunge trend. “I don’t think this is the first revival, but it’s definitely something that will be repeated over the next few decades.”
To fully embrace the grunge aesthetic, Edited noted that retailers should also focus on their knitwear offerings, investing in longline styles with intentional rips, similar to those seen at Off-White and Walter Van Beirendonck.
One of the first celebrities to bring grunge knitwear into the limelight was Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. The acrylic, mohair and Lycra blend cardigan that Cobain famously wore during Nirvana’s watershed “MTV Unplugged” performance became an iconic piece in fashion history. It was sold at auction in 2019 for $334,000.
Namacheko is one brand that hopped on the knitwear grunge aesthetic for its Fall/Winter 2023 collection. Titled “Middle Age Grunge,” the collection takes inspiration from Arthurian knights, and features knitwear tops in coral and gray that were drawn together at the chest and a brick red knitwear maxi dress.
From running errands to attending or performing at a concert to a night out on the town, no grunge look was complete without a pair of sturdy boots.
In the ’90s, Dr. Martens classic black 1460 boots, for example, were the go-to for people completing their grunge look.
“Dr. Martens has been adopted in the punk, shoegaze and heavy metal scenes which has heavily influenced [the] grunge sound for decades—so it makes sense that we have been, and remain the footwear of choice for grunge as a style and music subculture,” said Darren McKoy, global creative director at Dr. Martens. “This omnipresence in heavy rock style—combined with durability, aesthetic and functionality of the product—have seen our boots and shoes become central to the powerful sounds and chaotic live shows that defined grunge in Seattle in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.”
Today, more brands, including Windsor Smith, Dolls Kill and Steve Madden are reimagining the combat boot by giving them a thicker sole with edgier colors. Dr. Martens is still a main player today in completing the grunge look—now with a wider option, including platform boots, shoes and sandals with a several design options and styles.
“We’re proud of our heritage and, to this day, a pair of 1460 boots—our first and most iconic product, road-tested through do it yourself (DIY) tours and countless mosh pits—has become the symbolic shoe of grunge,” said McKoy.