Only in 2020 would “sourdough starters” be a status symbol and memes that question the relevance of time make sense to the everyperson, but that is exactly what months of quarantine does to pop culture. The pandemic and subsequent shutdown instigated the return of old-timey hobbies such as bread-baking and mending, and a wide-sweeping desire for comfort—be it from cozy apparel or products, films and television shows that bring a sense of calm and familiarity.
As a result, leading fashion brands and retailers are retreating to their archives, which serve as a safety net for design, so to speak, during an unpredictable time. This return to heritage styles is the latest extension of the ongoing nostalga trend, according to a new report by retail market intelligence company Edited.
“Retailers looking in on themselves is a way to create authenticity and strengthen brands,” Edited stated. “It’s common practice for retailers to look at what’s historically worked for them to inform future lines, framing that as a story in itself under heritage or archive is something that’ll drum up.”
This spotlight on nostalgic fashion, however, is far from new or from one source.
The mainstreaming of streetwear in 2018 helped spark the trend by rekindling millennials’ appreciation for designer hoodies, track suits and statement sneakers. It also introduced the fashion genre to Gen Z, a cohort that took to the look with aplomb and made it a generation-defining aesthetic for themselves—from logo mania to deconstructed denim.
Simultaneously, a wave of ’90s and early ’00s pop culture icons (and their style) stepped back into the spotlight, thanks in part to the fashion and entertainment world recycling old ideas. Marc Jacobs reissued his grunge collection from 1993. The internet broke last fall when Jennifer Lopez wore an updated take on her famous 2000 Versace dress—a stunt that even topped the fashion house’s S/S ’18 show, which featured a cast of ’90s supermodels like Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer.
Last year also saw rebooted versions of ’90s sitcoms, while streaming services has allowed Gen Z to binge on shows like “Friends” as if they’re brand new.
Nostalgic designs also tend to be the fashion industry’s knee-jerk reaction to an economic downturn.
Case in point: when 2008 Great Recession struck consumers, they retreated to classic and familiar designs like all-white sneakers and authentic denim, laying the back-to-basics groundwork for what would become Normcore. The economic fallout forced by the pandemic is proving that history does indeed repeat itself. Consumers are flocking to basic wardrobe staples—albeit versions with more comfort—and enduring investment pieces.
U.K. heritage brands are experiencing this firsthand. Edited reports that luxury label Burberry uses “archive beige” to describe 14 percent of the products it currently sells. “Data from Burberry illustrates how the brand have reintroduced this beige associated with the heritage of the brand as a core color,” Edited stated. “All products retailing that are described as heritage are outerwear, while the Spring 2021 presentation saw the shade used exclusively across outerwear.”
Signature colors linked to heritage brands have retail cache. “Archive olive” is associated with U.K. outerwear brand Barbour, but the term is used by third-party retailers rather than the brand itself, Edited reported. Barbour U.K. has four times more products described as “heritage” rather than archive.
Though Gap was recently criticized for its “too soon” tweet about the U.S. presidential election centered on a non-partisan red and blue logo hoodie, the all-American brand has relied on promoting heritage styles this year. Mentions of “archive” increased 42 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, and in a veiled attempt to remind consumers of Gap’s longevity in the business, the brand has produced at least three newsletters a month referencing its archives.
And what Gap describes as “archive” spans varsity jackets to denim overalls and workwear-inspired pieces.
This renewed interest in heritage bodes well for denim, Edited reported, describing it as a “stand-out category.” While the moniker “heritage” tends to mean simple and timeless silhouettes, Edited said denim has more creative freedom. For example, Miss Sixty has taken to promoting retro ’70s styles, while Replay has embraced a country aesthetic to showcase its heritage denim styles this fall.
Beyond marketing, brands are shaping their collections around the novelty of vintage. Wrangler recently launched six high-rise jeans for women based on modified heritage styles. Meanwhile, Levi’s is asking consumers to sell back their heritage items from the brand, and Guess just launched its own vintage program.
The demand for nostalgic is opening a door to reproducing or reworking prints. “Signature, historical prints help enhance a brand’s handwriting,” Edited said, noting that Marine Serre is evolving its hallmark crescent moon print and Versace and Balmain have done the same. Preppy brand Rowing Blazer also capitalized on this trend by working with the original creators of two eye-catching sweaters worn by Princess Diana in the ’80s. The iconic red design with a sheep print is on backorder until next year.
Brands, however, should approach archival collections with caution. Brands like Roberto Cavalli and Noah have recently promoted archive sales, but Edited warns that the term coupled with deep discounts may cheapen the so-called archive.
“Archive suggests quality and heritage, and should be preserved by steering clear of such high markdowns or graphics traditionally associated with sales,” Edited stated.