Let me set the scene: you are deep in the last of Melbourne’s 2021 lockdowns, sitting on the couch scrolling through TikTok when you see someone wearing a fresh, cool, unique piece of clothing. Envisioning how trendy you would look if you wore it too, you rush to Google, locate and secure the item on an impulse. However, in the time you spend waiting for Australia Post to deliver it to your door, you have seen the item worn by 56 different people, on 4 different social media platforms.
Let me set the scene: you are deep in the last of Melbourne’s 2021 lockdowns, sitting on the couch scrolling through TikTok when you see someone wearing a fresh, cool, unique piece of clothing. Envisioning how trendy you would look if you wore it too, you rush to Google, locate and secure the item on an impulse. However, in the time you spend waiting for Australia Post to deliver it to your door, you have seen the item worn by 56 different people, on 4 different social media platforms, a myriad of dupes in Glassons, and re-sellers on Depop selling the item for triple its worth. Your fresh, cool, and unique new piece is no longer fresh, cool and it is definitely not unique – so you wear it once and put it to the back of the closet, sceptical to ever wear it again in fear of being deemed ‘cheugy’.
Cue Mr Winston puff print hoodies, Poppy Lissiman nylon crossbody bags, House of Sunny ‘hockney’ dresses. While these pieces of clothing may not ring a bell on paper, you will have certainly seen them around Melbourne at some point, or on your TikTok ‘For You’ pages, donned by one of TikTok’s ‘cool girls’ or fashion influencers.
On par with the seemingly inescapable Y2K resurgence, these micro-trendy items often are characterised by bright colours and identifiable patterns, and they all share the same journey; beginning with a rapid rise and ending with their relegation to ‘mainstream’. Of course, this is all subjective, and the owning of these pieces do not make you ‘uncool’ (I own many myself), but the issue lies more with our facilitation of fast-moving trends, and our perception towards pieces that are no longer ‘in style’.
What are trend cycles and micro-trend cycles?
Trends have been an integral aspect of the fashion zeitgeist for decades. However, with the rise of short-form social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and more influentially TikTok, the length of these trends has significantly shortened.
Traditionally, trend cycles have operated in five stages; the introduction, rise, peak, decline, and obsolescence. The length of this process is said to be up to 20 years long for a regular trend and three to five years for a micro trend. We have seen in Melbourne, however, that TikTok-fuelled micro-trends sometimes survive only a mere matter of months before items get relegated to their own brand of ‘basic’ and people who still wear them are deemed ‘unfashionable’. Although the length of trend cycles is significantly shorter, the stages of the life cycle remain the same.
The emergence of a ‘trendy’ item when is when it is first let loose in the fashion sphere. This can be done during fashion week on runways, or with smaller brands, promotion on Instagram and other social media platforms.
In this generation of micro-trends, an item’s rise in popularity is most often facilitated through influencer or celebrity marketing. You see someone cool, wearing a new piece, so that piece must be cool too – right? Heuritech’s trend forecasters noticed a reflection of this – when Ariana Grande and Olivia Rodrigo began wearing platform heels, there was a 26 per cent rise in popularity between 2020 and 2021.
The peak of a trendy item is usually when it reaches the height of its popularity. Most fast-fashion retailers stock replicas of it, the item is pretty much always sold out online, and it is listed on resale sites, such as Depop… for three times the original price. This stage of the trend cycle is unpredictable, as you never know when it is going to pass this peak of popularity.
Right after the peak of a trendy item, comes its inevitable decline. A decline in trendiness often becomes visible when the discourse surrounding the item shifts from desirable, to embarrassing and mainstream. People are still wearing the item, but they are often viewed as ‘basic’ or ‘unoriginal’ (not inherently a bad thing).
The last stage of the trend cycle is obsolescence. This is the final phase of the trend cycle, whereby items have become so mainstream that they no longer show themselves on the street or on your feeds. However, obsolescence does not mean that the trendy item is gone and forgotten. It is very possible that it will make an appearance again in the future, much after everyone has moved on and forgotten its existence in the first place. After all, look at low-rise jeans.
What does this mean for sustainability?
In terms of sustainability, micro-trends – especially those that have been popularised in Melbourne – are a complicated topic. Although many of these micro-trendy items are made by ethical, slow fashion brands – even sometimes small, family-owned businesses - trendy items are fuel for ultra-fast-fashion brands who more than often produce replicas of the item at the top of the trend hierarchy. So, while it is important to support small, ethical brands over ultra-fast fashion brands, this support becomes somewhat futile when we are consistently buying trendy pieces to only wear a couple of times before buying the next ‘on trend’ item – especially when the trend cycle is moving at such an accelerated pace.
Moreover, with the creation of replicas by ultra-fast-fashion brands like SHEIN and AliExpress, those who cannot afford the original, sustainable, micro-trendy item, feel the need to resort to these unethical brands to stay on trend.
At the crux of this issue lies our inherent desire to overconsume. The act of constantly updating one’s wardrobe to stay on trend, especially while the life cycles of these trends are so short, ultimately leads to a closet laden with micro-trendy items that are no longer on trend, followed by the infamous ‘I have nothing to wear’ issue.
This is why many argue that a capsule wardrobe is the key to consuming sustainably. Coined in the 1970s, a capsule wardrobe consists of 30 to 40 pieces of interchangeable clothing each season. These pieces are true to your style, timeless, and, most importantly, the capsule wardrobe discourages impulse or trendy purchases that will not last. In terms of sustainability, capsule wardrobe advocates argue that an item of clothing is sustainable, not just because of its production line, but because of how much its owner wears it. Therefore, if someone owns a long-term capsule wardrobe, with some items being from fast-fashion brands, they arguably are purchasing more sustainably than someone who shops only from sustainable, slow fashion brands, but buys something new and trendy every week.
Gen Z has perpetuated a culture where ‘coolness’ is constructed on a fine line between being basic or being ‘cheugy’ – with a certain combination of uniqueness, palatable style and conventional attractiveness lying in the safe zone. The micro-trend cycle has posed a barrier to the development of personal style, with TikTok creating an echo-chamber of trends, pushing people to only consume clothes that are ‘in’ and, in turn, limiting their freedom to express their own sense of personal style.
The consequence of this, is that ‘coolness’ (in terms of the subjective definition we have given it), is increasingly harder to attain with clothes, and thus ‘coolness’ often is endowed to those with other desirable traits, like conventional attractiveness – something which has long been known as an unfair and unattainable standard.
Ultimately, not many have the financial capability to buy so many trendy items in such a short amount of time, and nor should they. We need to re-evaluate our relationship with trends, authenticity, and social media-influenced consumption to ensure we buy items with care and purpose, with the intent of consuming for longevity over impulse.