Forever young: why fashion is still obsessed with youth


Sharing is caring!

Bold, optimistic, bravely expressive: youth is an essential ingredient for fashion’s evolution. Alice Birrell looks at why we need the kids now more than ever.

Of the great anthropological battles that have been fought, few have raged as long and as rancourously as that between the old and the young. From the vast catalogue of mutual acrimony (see recently: avocado economics), comes one from a 1964 edition of the Sunday Times Magazine. In the ‘Changing Faces’ article that aimed to link Mods with gang violence, young members of the subculture took their right of reply. “We hope to be smart forever,” one was quoted. “Not shoddy like our parents.”

In a provocative sentence, the young modernist conveys a sentiment that, once felt, has propelled youth away from their forbearers and into exciting new realms of possibility. The desire to break away from the off-the-peg lifestyle of our parents has been percolating since the jazz halls of the 1920s, the rich post-war 1950s, and now a potent new wave of youth energy is breaking over fashion, sending our youth mania into an obsessive orbit.

We might be one of the few industries looking in the right direction. In fashion, youth is exalted, not overlooked; prized and pined after, not brushed aside in favour of experience; and while some scratched their heads at the Oxford Dictionaries’ choice of ‘Youthquake’ as word of the year 2017, fashion (though we winced a little at the dated word) got it.

Building since then, designers have relentlessly mined the communal aesthetics of the young – see the skate moment from autumn/winter ’18/’19, now the surf tees, tie-dye and loose slacks at Proenza Schouler, Calvin Klein, Prada, Etro and Michael Kors. Then there’s die-hard Hedi Slimane, now of Celine, who continues his long paean to nightclub girls and boys in his latest men’s/unisex collection filled with Ted-style creepers and butter-soft bikers. In extreme it is Virgil Abloh’s documentation of growing up in his newest campaign for Louis Vuitton men’s that spans childhood, boyhood and adulthood.

But why are we so into what the kids are? “Vitality. The urgency of youth,” says Greg Foley, co-author along with Andrew Luecke of Cool: Style, Sound and Subversion (Rizzoli, 2017). “[They] pioneer new looks, but also reflect contemporary culture back on itself,” says Luecke, who points out its value as a mind-set, rather than an age group. It’s the feeling of infinite possibility that Belgian photographer Willy Vanderperre makes his subject and describes youth as “an emotion, a breaking point”, as he once told the Business of Fashion. “An opening of eyes.”

The idea that original thought can be accessed in youth more easily before life’s prejudices and cynicism bear down on you is shared by many. “A youthful outlook is one that is unencumbered with what’s come before,” says Cat Hocking, founder of e-boutique Joan, which sells predominantly female labels with a view distinct from the mainstream, such as Priscavera, Ashley Williams and Valet. “Fashion is the business of what’s new and what’s next, and youth embodies those ideals perfectly.” Luecke calls it “beginners mind”, and says, if encouraged, originality, honesty and authenticity emerges.

Jesse Lizotte, an Australian-American art and fashion photographer, believes some of his best work was done as a skateboarder watching Larry Clark movies and listening to punk before he had real experience. “When I transitioned from shooting my friends candidly into shooting fashion, I didn’t know the rules,” he remembers. “I like those photos a lot, because they were pure and uninhibited, technically stripped back.”

Then there are new talents like Matty Bovan and Marine Serre, whose wry optimism is a response to their uncertain times. “I have a lot of conflicting thoughts, a lot of unrest about the political climate we live in,” Bovan wrote in the show’s notes. “The only thing I can do in response to that is bang a drum, hard, for the idea of being yourself.” Hocking sees 2018 especially conducive to young creativity. “I think the world is now so ruthlessly connected that these young designers need to push harder than ever for their originality to be noticed.”

But make no mistake, this shouldn’t marginalise other age groups. Though fashion has an age-inclusiveness problem (credit to Tome, Calvin Klein, Eckhaus Latta and The Row for casting women over 45 this season), the message should be: join in the mindset. “Original thought is anyone’s game,” says Roger Leong, senior curator at Sydney’s Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. “Christian Dior or Yves Saint Laurent were revolutionising fashion into middle age. Youthful energy certainly must play a role, but being in young, like-minded clusters also gives rise to collective creativity.”

As people hunt for communities of purpose, that’s where fashion comes in. “If the mainstream fails to provide meaning for young people, they create it themselves,” says Luecke. That self-obsession the youth are branded with? Stop with the critiques, let them be, and they could make magic. As that Mod’s friend piped in back in 1964: “This violence is stirred up by the papers. The Mods haven’t got time to hate – they’re too busy looking at themselves.”

This article originally appeared in Vogue Australia’s March 2019 issue.