Designers are pushing prairie dresses and fanny packs — but didn't we ask for it?

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Fashion is trolling the masses. Of course it is.

In recent seasons, against all the rules of contemporary taste, fashion has asserted that once-derided styles such as fanny packs, Crocs, prairie dresses and chunky orthopedic sneakers are desirable.

This is an aesthetic provocation. A poke. The point is to agitate casual observers and leave them scratching their heads.

But it’s not exactly a joke. Designers are not making these products for their amusement. Not completely. The ultimate goal is to make a sale.

And here’s the thing: All this dowdy, arguably ugly fashion? Consumers are going to buy it — because it’s comfortable, familiar and, occasionally, practical. Aesthetics be damned. Discerning eyes will adjust to the aesthetics; they always do. It takes time and patience, but now shredded jeans look normal and so do oversize silhouettes. A high-necked, ruffled dress fit for Laura Ingalls Wilder? Just wait. Soon enough, soon enough.

Birks go bananas

The gateway to ugly — an adjective used here with affection — was the Birkenstock.

The Rick Owens-designed Arizona Birkenstocks in gray cow fur with elongated straps.
The Rick Owens-designed Arizona Birkenstocks in gray cow fur with elongated straps.

Known for its inelegantly molded footbed and its crunchy-granola history, the classic German sandal was reimagined in a hyper-luxurious way for spring 2013 by designer Phoebe Philo. For her Céline runway show, she lined her version of Arizona sandals in mink. She bedazzled them. They retailed for about $900.

It was not long before Birkenstock, whose original suede Arizona sandals sell for about $125, partnered with Barneys New York to create a $270 version lined with blue shearling. A Rick Owens collaboration followed in 2018, reimagined as furry, cow-hair slides selling for $420.

The fashionable Birkenstock is an exemplar of the rise of anti-fashion, says Sara Maggioni, the director of retail and buying for trend forecaster WGSN. In 2012, Birkenstock sold about 10 million pairs of shoes; in 2017, the company sold 25 million pairs.

“Yes, they’re ugly,” says Maggioni. “But it’s a familiar silhouette. It’s not scary or frightening.”

A new level of ugly

The same cannot necessarily be said for clunky Forrest Gump sneakers, rubber Crocs or long, flowing Dust Bowl dresses. The giant sneakers, which have been advocated by brands such as Balenciaga ($895) and Maison Margiela ($1,645), are an assemblage of suede, leather and mesh, often in a collage of clashing colors. The soles — platforms stacked atop platforms — are like a parfait of molded rubber.

The prairie dress, equally jarring to the eye, was interpreted in multiple variations by Raf Simons for Calvin Klein 205W39NYC for fall 2018. One version retails for $3,900.

The brand Batsheva is fully committed to the prairie. Its $420 floral cotton dresses have puffed shoulders and a ruffled Peter Pan collar. Vogue delights in them. MatchesFashion.com sells them right alongside Prada and Saint Laurent.

Wearing these styles with aplomb is like executing the triple axel of fashion: high level of difficulty, significant risk of failure, tremendous bragging rights if accomplished.

But why? 

Fashion has cozied up to the ugly aesthetic in the past, most notable in the late 1990s when Prada rose to prominence with its eyesore prints and murky colors.

But this go-round may best be traced back to normcore, that short-lived anti-fashion uprising from 2013 that promoted unremarkable clothing as hip. Throw in a bit of Dad Style. Mix in a rising revulsion with Instagram faux-perfection. Add a dash of fashion-hate from the masses.

“It’s almost a revolt against luxury as we know it,” says Susie Sheffman, a Toronto-based fashion consultant and stylist. “Instead of attention-seeking with extraordinary luxury, they went for the mundane.”

All of this is a reminder that the fashion industry has stopped dictating fashion. The Seventh Avenue elites have ceded control to the hoi polloi. And this is what your next-door neighbors have come up with.

“The consumer is dictating lifestyle fashion,” says Shelley E. Kohan, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology specializing in retail. Brands are “taking the feedback and adapting the information and putting it back into the supply chain.”

In other words, consumers are responsible for these waves of ugly. We the People are trolling ourselves. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the great unwashed have somehow sapped fashion of its power to hypnotize and woo.

“Designers look around and say, ‘If people want to wear Birkenstocks, I’m going to get my market share.’ And they design velvet Birkenstocks or jeweled Birkenstocks,” Sheffman says.