Our dear old world feels like a very sad place these days, for reasons I have no need to recount. You know them. You’re probably grieving in your own way.
When people are distressed, angry, sad, scared, or feeling hopeless, our natural inclination is to escape to a place that feels safe and just. Since the future can be as scary as the present, we look to the past for comfort. We “wish we could turn back time to the good old days...but now we're stressed out”.
Many people are most nostalgic for a time they’ve never personally experienced. This is anemoia. Woody Allen celebrated it in his film, Midnight in Paris, where Gil, the main character, travels back in time to a place he considered history’s most golden period: Paris in the 1920s. Later in the film, he falls for a woman who, in turn, travels back to the time she’s most nostalgic for: La Belle Époque.
For CARLY, anemoia is real and urgent. She longs for a time when the things that define her generation and worldview were still pure and uncorrupted. CARLY enjoys doing what she can to recreate that past in her everyday life, even though she never lived in the time she celebrates.
The 1990s are becoming a period of fascination. The internet was young and booming, and innovation was rampant. Young people could get jobs at a dot-com, make a mint and retire by age 30 -- or so legend had it. The stock market was soaring and everyone felt flush. That optimism served as the backdrop of popular culture.
Shows like Friends and Sex in the City were about fun, successful people, not folks struggling to make ends meet due to a recession or contemplating the effects of climate change. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were still a thing. Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless established girl power and helped make Valley Girl talk the dominant tongue of every generation since 1995. Music trended towards fun with hits for likes of Third Eye Blind, NSYNC, and Backstreet Boys. Amazon was a cool emerging brand that mostly sold books, not a global behemoth that sells facial recognition software to law enforcement organizations.
It was a time when everyone got the blue pill.
“Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.”
- Agent Smith
The 1990s felt like a time when the world was changing for the better. Newly emerging gene therapy would soon eliminate disease, hybrid cars, and similar technologies would curb greenhouse gases, and the Hubble telescope gave us our first detailed photos of the universe, and an important step in unlocking its mysteries. Anyone who was there in the 1990s bore witness to these changes. More than that, simply buying a vintage watch on eBay or downloading a song from Napster made you feel you were an agent of all this futuristic technology hurtling humanity to a better place.
And then there were the clothes.
Oversize shirts paired with black leggings, slip dresses, velvet tops worn with denim, spangled everything, and of course, high waisted jeans.
Technology developments of the 1990s made fashion more accessible to everyone, and shows like Fashion Police inspired more people to buy brands once worn only by the elite. Then in 1999, Target rolled out its Design for All initiative, making designer labels in reach to average-income consumers. It was just another proof point that everything felt possible in the 1990s.
Reality for CARLYs and Gen Z is much harsher than it was for people who were their age in the 1990s. Many Gen Zers were convinced by high school guidance counselors and bank representatives that college debt is a small price to pay for the career that awaits them post-college, only to enter into a gig economy that seeks to pay as little as possible and offers no benefits. They move back home because it’s all they can afford. This year, many will enter an economy that is still largely shut down, after being ripped from high school or college life without even a chance to celebrate their graduations or say a proper goodbye to their friends.
There’s a feeling as if the world just isn’t working anymore (more than a feeling really). Society is so splintered we seem unable to come together to tackle urgent issues, and that collective failure to act puts their futures at risk. They need to find solace somewhere.
Our behavior changes when the world feels out of sorts; we’re instinctively drawn to familiar, safe things, not shiny new ones. This is especially true when it comes to making purchases for non-essential items. Shopping for throwback items is an easy way to bring happier and more hopeful times back into our lives. It’s comforting. Some brands do that exceptionally well - they sell a path to a rosier past.
Retail has always been about anticipating and meeting the consumer’s needs, and right now, consumers want the comfort of the past. Savvy brands realize this and are stepping up to offer inspiration from a period that makes us feel happy.
Now - let me be clear - I’m not saying the past is all sunshine and rainbows. We had massive problems in the 90s - we’ve always had massive problems. Nostalgia doesn’t mean adulating the past. Your brand needs diversity, hope, inclusiveness - a decent shot at a future for all.
Here are four brands we feel are doing it right, and are providing exactly what their customers need:
If you’re unfamiliar with this brand, it can be a little difficult to figure out quite what they do. Essentially, the brand is known for its “drops,” which can range from “pranks, to tongue-in-cheek luxury items,” like its Jesus Shoes (shoes made with water from the holy land).
MSCHF recently launched an initiative to recreate all 201 episodes of The Office in Slack, using improv actors. It’s the ultimate throwback event, celebrating a time when social distancing was unheard of and people could hang out in one another’s cubicles without wearing a mask and wielding disinfectant wipes.
Poolside.fm is an online radio station that plays music intended to bring back the feeling of clubbing the night away in the late 80s/early 90s. The site is a full experience, complete with a retro desktop, merch, videos, commercials, and other fun interactions. Interestingly, anyone who was old enough to go clubbing during this period will have a difficult time deciphering what this brand is about. Its audience is clearly those with anemoia.
What I like about MSCHF and Poolside is that both brands are inherently social. They tap into another deep-seated desire of people: unity. At times of stress, we seek unity, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic. We cheer for healthcare workers and sew masks for them. We take up donations for the unemployed and hungry. We embraced people from all walks of life, and feel better for it.
Some brands do a really good job of merging inclusiveness with nostalgia -- a winning combination for the post-Gen X generations. Take YourParade, a brand we’ve included in our Nine by Nine report dropping soon. The site -- a source for intimate apparel -- has a distinct 90s vibe in terms of color and style. At the same time, it celebrates all body types and sizes, which resonates with thoroughly modern consumers who have little interest or use for rigid standards of beauty. It’s as anti-body shaming as one can get.
#4: Man Repeller
Man Repeller is an apparel brand that “explores the expansive constellation of things women care about from a place of openness and humor, with the conviction that an interest in fashion doesn’t minimize one’s intellect.” Its design aesthetic is pure 1990’s, like this homage to Alicia Silverstone in Clueless we found on one of its product pages:
Like a lot of modern brands, the company has little interest in being pigeon-holed. Musings on the wisdom of hosting social-distancing parties and the like get as much website real estate as its actual products. CARLY is invited to come in and hang out in a comfortable, safe, and retro place.
Modern ideals and experiences presented through the lens of nostalgia are the warm fuzzies that we need right now. Brands that can take cues from these four experiences will find their customers super appreciative and engaged.