The new wave of 1990s-inspired plaids, slip dresses and faded florals marks the return of grunge this spring. Part punk, part working class, grunge has been a recurring trend in fashion since the early 1990s. It first crawled out from the underground in the late 1980s in response to financial hardship, a backlash to capitalism and the emergence of regional rock music. The Seattle-born style was popularized by front men like Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (his tortured-by-fame look included moth-eaten sweaters, beat-up Chuck Taylor sneakers and shredded denim) and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (fond of oversized plaid shirts paired with baggy cut-offs and combat boots). Courtney Love, lead singer of Hole and Cobain’s wife, brought her version of burnout beauty into the spotlight with baby-doll dresses, smudged eyeliner and slashes of red lipstick. Anti-fashion went mainstream and Gen Xers everywhere started Goodwill hunting.
Designers began to take notice. Marc Jacobs based his Spring 1993 collection for Perry Ellis on this surprisingly influential slacker style but gave it a decadent twist. Sleeveless flannel shirts were produced in luxurious silk, thermal tops were woven in cashmere and Chuck Taylors debuted in Duchesse silk. Then there was the skillful layering: Full-length granny-floral dresses were worn over striped tops, flowy skirts were left open to reveal hot pants underneath and crop tops were worn over T-shirts and under button-ups. The media were smitten and Jacobs won the CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year Award but the collection didn’t sell well. The king and queen of grunge—Cobain and Love—were sent pieces from the collection, which they later burned. In a 2010 interview with Women’s Wear Daily, Love shed some light on this fiery situation: “We were punkers—we didn’t like that kind of thing.”
Three-figure price tags and thrift store-inspired threads weren’t a match made in retail heaven back then, but now luxury has been redefined. This season, designers including Phillip Lim, Dries Van Noten and Henry Holland are hoping to cash in on their tidier interpretations of the 1990s trend. Spring 2013’s look is about juxtaposing luxe with lowbrow, masculine with feminine and construction with deconstruction. It’s artfully messy with an underlying polish. Van Noten put a soft spin on it, showing plaids in taffeta, organza, mousseline and lamé. His other spring standouts included oversized sheer button-down shirts (perfect for layering) and white oblong sunnies similar to the ones Cobain wore. Rochas continued this glam grunge theme with vintage-inspired slip dresses (hello, Courtney), while Henry Holland churned out lace and sheer-edged dresses that referenced the 1990s in hues much deeper than his usual bright, bold mix. 3.1 Phillip Lim showed bare midriffs, distressed denim, tie-front skirts that gave the illusion of a flannel shirt around the waist, and tough sandals that channelled Doc Martens, while Acne designer Jonny Johansson paired sleeveless novelty tees with parachute skirts held together with utility belts.
Grunge, in all its haute hybrids, is showing no sign of social alienation this time around. The spring campaigns are high on hobo-meets-hipster chic: Jacobs, the original guru of grunge, set his latest Marc by Marc Jacobs ads in a gritty, graffiti-covered bathroom and small alleyway, proving that loud colour, chaos and clashing prints are the new must-haves. Somewhere, Kurt Cobain is flipping us the bird.
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