Normcore: The Oral History No One Asked For


When “normcore” went viral 10 years ago, it announced a microtrend that had been circulating without a name. But for many people, the idea that dressing “normal” was suddenly cool seemed like a troll, and social media promoted hysterical rebuttals. The mainstream was caught off guard. Every news outlet published its own bewildering reply. People couldn’t agree on what normcore was: cool or stupid, fashion or anti-fashion, racist or revolutionary, an aesthetic or a philosophy. Many misconstrued the look as an ironic hipster pose: Jerry Seinfeld as the next trucker hat. Others thought the news was just clickbait. Ten years and a million cores later, the trend that launched them all has become an everyday term so simplistic that it’s impossible to define. But what is normcore, really? Where did it come from and what does it mean? Here to tell its secret history are its earliest adopters and those behind the making of the meme, including me, the author of the first viral article that doomed us all.


WHAT WAS NORMCORE? (Interpretations vary)

CHRISTOPHER GLAZEK, WRITER: Normcore was a concept that was advanced in a memo called “Youth Mode” that the trend-forecasting art collective K-Hole published in 2013.

GREG FONG, OF K-HOLE: Normcore is a sociocultural response to authenticity; it’s the desire to want to be yourself and not be pigeonholed.

DENA YAGO, OF K-HOLE: That’s what we were describing as normcore, but that isn’t the long-tail style interpretation of it.

HARI NEF, ACTOR: What I first think of when I hear “normcore” are blue jeans and a navy blue jacket. I think of APC, Carhartt, Uniqlo, Champion, Hanes, Calvin Klein. I think Dev Hynes.

FIONA DUNCAN, WRITER: Dev was a regular at the bookstore where I worked. So was Davie Bowie. Both wore normcore before the name. It was a celebrity off-duty look; paparazzi-evading in Bowie’s case.

TREMAINE EMORY, FOUNDER AND CREATIVE DIRECTOR OF DENIM TEARS: I first heard about normcore from Virgil [Abloh] around 2014–15. We were talking about where things were going with kids and fashion, and he sent me a deck about it. I was like, “Oh, this is how people are signaling to separate themself from being super trendy or corny,” acting bland as a uniform that signals that you don’t care but that you also care the most. Normcore is a way to signal without seeming like you’re signaling.

JEREMY LEWIS, CRITIC: I think it was around 2011 when I splurged on a pair of stonewashed Patrik Ervell jeans at a sample sale that were, to me, pure sex. Then I got the same New Balances that Steve Jobs had.

YAGO: I remember going to GHE20G0TH1K and Berghain and everyone was wearing Nike Frees, Adidas Three-Stripes pants and Uniqlo. Seeing this, we asked ourselves, “What community does this signal that we are a part of?” One where you can seamlessly go from a corporate day job to doing lines at Berghain.

VENUS X, DJ AND FOUNDER OF GHE20G0TH1K: Normcore was actually just queer people reclaiming normie culture.

QUENTIN BELT, PHOTOGRAPHER: When I wake up in the morning, I want to dress as chill and chic as possible, which usually means I try to dress as a substitute teacher.

FONG: I definitely fully embraced waterproof IT guy in that era.

JOHANNA LEE OWEN, CRITIC: If you’re wondering when the “popular girls” in middle school started dying their hair purple and the misfits started dressing like undercover cops, normcore is the missing link.

CYNTHIA LEUNG, PUBLICIST AT NATIVE AGENTS, FORMERLY BALENCIAGA: But you know some of those normcore guys weren’t wearing ball caps just because they thought they looked cool, right? They were trying to hide their receding hairlines.

ERIC N. MACK, ARTIST: Normcore reminded me of a retooling of conservative or anti-aesthetic and the everyday. It’s kind of taking possession of the image of your parents or reverting back to childhood. What were we wearing in 1993 as our parents dressed us for school? Big-ass engineer-stripe OshKosh B’Gosh pants and run-of-the-mill Reeboks—but render that for an adult.

LEWIS: I think the ideas around normcore were slightly overintellectualized. A lot of it was just ’90s nostalgia.


WHERE DID THE LOOK COME FROM? (Normcore as art and subculture)

LEUNG: At the beginning, I just thought of normcore as a nostalgic dip into ’90s radical aesthetics: Martin Margiela, Bernadette Corporation, Corinne Day, Marc Jacobs, and later, Miguel Adrover.

MIGUEL ADROVER, DESIGNER: I didn’t know the word “normcore” before you contacted me! It really flipped me out and ticked me off that they erased me out of this history when my work was all based on that!

LEUNG: Juergen Teller. No makeup, a white wall. If it’s Mark Borthwick, there’s a plastic bag as a handbag.

DUNCAN: [The artist] Brad Troemel was carrying a plastic deli bag as a purse in 2013 when he first told me about normcore.

VENUS X: Before the dad sneaker and the Salomon craze, DIS Magazine was leading normcore in New York.

DUNCAN: DIS is an art collective that ran a magazine which was like a playbook on how to survive rapacious global consumerism and still have meaning and fun.

TAYLORE SCARABELLI, SENIOR EDITOR, INTERVIEW: DIS celebrated capitalism in an accelerationist way. By taking corporate aesthetics to the extreme, they lost meaning, and normcore was the fallout of that.

LAUREN BOYLE, COFOUNDER OF DIS: When we were first doing editorials circa 2010, the word “normcore” didn’t exist, but the liberal buy-and-return policies of big box stores like Ikea, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Old Navy greatly influenced what we made.

SOLOMON CHASE, COFOUNDER OF DIS: What we were into was distinctly abnormal, yet we were using obscenely generic materials as material. I guess that’s kind of what normcore is?

ADROVER: In 2000, I used sweatshirts and McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and the New York Yankees logos, not because it was cool, but because it was this image that already exists. I was coming from working with [Alexander] McQueen for years and all the shows were so extravagant; it was not related to everyday life.

EMORY: Another thing I thought normcore was saying was, “I wear this ’cause everything is tacky.”

BELT: I think a lot of it was a rejection of the hypebeast era, the logomania, all of that.

BOYLE: We always talk about this trifecta of Obama being elected, the financial crisis, and the boom of social media—those were the ingredients that set the stage for the era.

VENUS X: We thought the world was going to end.

AMALIA ULMAN, ARTIST AND FILM DIRECTOR: The first time I started seeing guys dress normcore was at places like DLD [Digital Life Design], a tech conference that had an art section curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist. A lot of the art/tech guys I knew were more keen on doing business with Silicon Valley than making art. There was a lot of Ayn Rand going around. Nike, dad jeans, an ’80s sweater, or: “These are the clothes that my dad used to sail in.” Normcore had this meaning of, “I’m too rich to care about brands.”

IAN BRADLEY, STYLIST: Rich people always wear hiking clothes.

DUNCAN: Normcore wasn’t new but I was new to it because I was new to New York and the backstage worlds of fashion and art.

BRADLEY: Normcore’s always been the artist’s or the creative’s way. Look at Isaac Mizrahi in 1994: He’s wearing a bandana and denim shirt.

DUNCAN: It was 2012–13 and I was meeting all of these behind-the-scenes fashion workers and artists like Jeremy Lewis, Telfar [Clemens], the DIS people, Ryan Trecartin, Dan Graham, and my coworker at McNally Jackson who kind of dressed like Colin de Land—

NEF: I don’t think we’ve mentioned any women as examples or ambassadors of normcore?

MATI HAYS, DESIGNER, HOUSE OF ICONICA: Internalized misogyny as fuck.

EMORY: Andy Warhol had great fucking style. Levi’s, a black turtleneck, a blazer. Under those turtlenecks, he’d have crazy fucking jewelry on.

BRADLEY: Marc Jacobs, formerly the king of normcore, is now the most glamorous creature in the world.

DUNCAN: On these insiders, normcore was like the twinkle in the eye of a monk who has taken a vow of silence.

ADROVER: The biggest compliment someone ever gave to me was, “You can bring the common into a divine.”

SIMON WU, ART CRITIC: In some ways, artists are always in working class drag.


HOW WAS NORMCORE BORN? (A confusion of terms)

EMILY SEGAL, FOUNDING MEMBER OF K-HOLE: K-Hole was our place to put the toxic runoff of our day jobs.

DUNCAN: K-Hole made art in the guise of a marketing deck, which itself is a normcore gesture. It’s literally a PDF.

YAGO: The politic of K-Hole was around information parody: taking information, strategies, and pattern recognition that had been gatekept and paywalled and putting it in the hands of our community. The idea was, “Okay, these massive corporations are aping what you’re doing in your art studio. Now you can kind of bidirectionally do that to your own ends.”

SEGAL: At the time, I was leading the trend forecasting practice at Wolff Olins [a global brand consultancy agency that specializes in corporate identity]. I was looking into the idea of the mainstream and hosted a brainstorming session with friends as research. We had a meme format where we were writing down what different people think is cool: your boss, your parents, society. At one point, Nick Lalla—he’s now Yoko Ono’s archivist—said “normcore.” We were like, “Good word, write that down.” Later, we googled it and saw that it had one entry on Urban Dictionary associated with this comic strip—that’s the Ryan Estrada thing.

RYAN ESTRADA: In 2008, I made a comic about all these different fashion trends and groups with specific fashion, and the punchline—the stupidest fashion trend I could imagine—was one where people just wore ordinary clothes. I named it “normcore.”

DUNCAN: A musician I know insists he heard “normcore” used as a put-down in the hardcore scene years before it went mainstream.

YAGO: Then we were part of this 89plus thing.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST, CURATOR AND CRITIC: 89plus was a long-term international multi-platform project which I started with Simon Castets with the idea of investigating and mapping the first generation of artists born with the internet.

SEGAL: K-Hole was commissioned to make a report—our fourth—to present at the 89plus marathon at the Serpentine Gallery during Frieze [art fair] in 2013.

YAGO: It got stuck in our brain that generational branding is a farce.

SEGAL: There’s a common trope that “young generations always think they’re special.” We started thinking about how specialness might be a point of anxiety and how our individual specialness may be at risk because of the way the internet is working.

GLAZEK: Normcore for K-Hole was about coping to the norms of whatever situation you are in. This suggested a kind of promiscuous fandom, becoming a passionate fan of whatever subculture, activity, or thing you stumble upon.

OBRIST: It had a lot to do with this idea of freedom. Finding liberation in being nothing special.

ANONYMOUS: It came from this generation that was told everyone’s special and everyone’s seen. But that’s so fucking puke and also not true.

YAGO: We were responding to this crisis of what we called “mass indie” and the long-tail pressure from ’68 on to mark oneself as an individual in society, and seeing the Williamsburgification of the world and rejecting that.

ULMAN: For me, the normcore trend didn’t come so much from trying to rebel against the hipsters of Williamsburg. That’s an easy way out.

YAGO: “Acting basic” is what we called the style manifestation that’s now known as normcore. Whereas normcore, for us, was more about belonging.

OBRIST: It was about adaptability.

YAGO: Empathy.

GLAZEK: K-Hole’s concept of normcore wouldn’t have gone viral. It was too complicated and ahead of its time.


WHAT WAS THE REACTION? (The viral year)

DUNCAN: I first heard the word “normcore” from Brad Troemel, an artist and critic who dressed, like many post-Internet art bros back then, in Silicon Valley clothes: barefoot toe sneakers, white tees, jogging shorts. Six months later, I wrote about normcore style for New York mag and the story went viral overnight.

BOYLE: We were at VFILES when the article came out. I vividly remember standing over Jake Moore and being like, “That’s you! You’re wearing New Balances right now!”

LEWIS: Normcore was everywhere. Vogue, Fashionista, Buzzfeed—everyone did an article and every trend agency, firm, and forecaster had a normcore report. I remember this one writer, I think he was with the Wall Street Journal, tweeted that “everyone in the New York magazine article should die.”

DUNCAN: Complex called it a fake trend. Vanity Fair wondered if it was really a thing. The New York Times questioned if it wasn’t a “giant in-joke.”

NEF: If it was a joke, I was very much in on it.

LEWIS: I think people read about normcore and thought, “This is some cynical thing that a bunch of hipster kids are cooking up and trying to sell to the rest of the world,” when it really wasn’t that at all, it was something that we were seeing unfold and admired and were just trying to describe.

ZOE LATTA, DESIGNER, COFOUNDER, ECKHAUS LATTA: We were sharing a studio with K-Hole when it went viral.

MIKE ECKHAUS, DESIGNER, COFOUNDER, ECKHAUS LATTA: I remember watching them watch it go viral and that horny glee in someone’s eye of excitement and terror—

LATTA: And chaos.

ECKHAUS: They were shocked. I remember them being like, “Fucking Fiona!” Their whole freak-out was about how it got understood pop culturally as this banal fashion idea.

GLAZEK: I thought of K-Hole’s original concept as blank-core. The way it got interpreted was, like, normie-core: people affecting a normie style ironically or pretending to be normal people when they’re actually freaks?

LEWIS: Once something has entered into the fashion ether, it blows up and withers away. Fashion consumes it and moves on. That’s what happened to normcore and rock-n-roll. We’re seeing it happen with hip-hop now. Shayne [Oliver] is the first person who said it: Fashion killed rock-n-roll. And it killed normcore. Not that normcore was ever this precious thing that needed to live forever.

BOYLE: Normcore was the perfect expression of our hypercommodified world where even ideas are up for consumption.

DUNCAN: Everyone had an opinion, I guess because norms touch everyone. The Facebook comment threads ran deep.

OBRIST: Little did we know that normcore would become the word of the year and would take off to this extent. It was almost like a butterfly effect.

DUNCAN: “Normcore” was inducted into all the dictionaries.

OXFORD ADVANCED LEARNER’S DICTIONARY: ​noun a style of dressing in clothes such as jeans, white T-shirts and trainers, chosen deliberately for being plain and boring and not drawing people’s attention. Are you confused by the normcore trend?

SEGAL: What we were really interested in is what it meant to fetishize and aestheticize normalcy with the awareness that there was no such thing as normal.

NATASHA STAGG, AUTHOR: All the interpretations were a little off. Michael Kors had #NormKors.

DUNCAN: Normcore, to me, wasn’t Michael Kors—it was Eckhaus Latta’s Michael Kors fan-art dress styled with white socks and Crocs.

STAGG: Remember the [Gap] “Dress Normal” campaign? That was, like, deliberately dressing like someone who cares about looking normal and normative—

DUNCAN: That campaign haunted me. Celebrities in floppy fake leather and skinny jeans. Anjelica Huston is not normal. And no one likes the word normal! Gap sales dropped 4 percent.

LEE MARY MANNING, ARTIST, FORMER IN-HOUSE AT THE GAP: David Fincher directed the Gap’s 2014 “Dress Normal” campaign. “Normal” wasn’t part of the language in-house before normcore. I have no doubt someone in marketing heard about normcore and was trying to connect it to the Gap’s heritage. But the company had, by that point, literally lost the thread on the basic “core wardrobe” that they had invented. And we know why: In the early 2000s, they started trying to compete with fast fashion, with the Zaras and H&Ms.


AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED? (Normcore becomes, almost, normal)

NEF: It’s funny to look back on that 2014 moment because it feels like now we have a different “core” every two months.

SCARABELLI: Cottagecore, bonnetcore, gorpcore, fairycore, clowncore, balletcore—

BOYLE: Cringecore, me-core, slobcore, brainrotcore, goblincore, fakearistocratcore, dazecore, corecore—

YAGO: Corecore is my favorite.

NEF: Barbiecore!

DUNCAN: Everyone always forgets about mumblecore movies.

SEGAL: Once “norm” was attached to “core,” anything was possible.

FONG: The “core” for us was meant to indicate authenticity. But as the logic of it expanded, and as culture and society have changed, the authenticity component has become far less important. I feel like Gen Z embodies normcore in the way that we meant it philosophically. For Gen Z, all clothes are like costume, hence “aesthetic.” Normcore then makes dressing “normal” almost like costume in a drag sense.

JEANNE-SALOMÉ ROCHAT, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, NOVEMBRE: Normcore launched a wave of fashion neologisms.

DUNCAN: First, the normcore look was dissected and subcategories were labeled: athleisure, dad style, gorpcore. Now it’s like everyone wants to be Adam, the one who names.

SCARABELLI: Indie sleaze, old money, coquette, clean girl, office siren, seapunk, mob wife, Y2K…We’re still living in the cringecore era, where everyone is doing weird shit to get attention online.

SEGAL: There’s this eternal return with normcore; it keeps getting re-announced.

DUNCAN: That’s because normcore is connected to ongoing style norms that can be traced back to the 18th century, “the Great Male Renunciation,” the dawn of modern Western “democracy,” and the invention of “fashion” as a system to denigrate women and the feminine—but no one wants to talk about that.

RACHEL TASHJIAN, FASHION JOURNALIST: There’s still a conspiracy that normcore isn’t real.

BELT: Normcore became the taste. Everyone was in Merrells and the Nike Monarch, the most dad sneaker.

LEUNG: By 2017, I remember being gobsmacked by the number of people walking into China Chalet with their baggy jeans, white dad sneakers, baseball caps, and puffer jackets, refusing to take the puffer off, wearing it in the style of Demna’s Balenciaga—off the shoulder.

LEWIS: Half of Demna’s success at Balenciaga is normcore. It’s Normcore Extra.

NEF: I would counter anybody who would include Demna within a conversation of normcore. That’s a capital-D designer and normcore is anti-design. If you walked into a Denny’s from the Midwest in Demna’s Balenciaga, you would stand out.

ULMAN: I see Balenciaga’s normcore in the same way Telfar was doing normcore. It has a twist because it’s romanticizing the poor of Eastern Europe. It’s very different from Martha’s Vineyard stealth wealth. It’s, “I’m from Vladivostok and this is what I am wearing.”

SEGAL: In 2017, Virgil [Abloh] told Hans Ulrich [Obrist], “Normcore is the basis of everything I do.” We went on to work together.

FONG: I’d met Virgil for hamburgers in San Francisco in 2016. He was obsessed with this idea of empowering the kids. He was talking about kids buying designer and upholding the value of luxury brands, asking, “How can we restore their agency because they’re bringing something to the table too?”

EMORY: The whole Denim Tears project is putting the Black gaze on white ready-mades. It’s taking these American staples, these normcore staples, and subverting them to tell Black stories.

BRADLEY: It’s crazy how normcore has influenced fashion where Dior, Balenciaga, and Prada are all making hunting and Carhartt jackets. Every luxury brand now does a sneaker, a sweatpant.

YAGO: I think it was my sister-in-law’s mom who sent a picture of “normcore shampoo” and was like, “I hope you’re getting royalties!” Even the thought felt antithetical to our project.

ULMAN: Once something becomes mainstream, everyone starts doing it and doesn’t know why or how it started.

YAGO: There is this conception that if you come up with something that has legs, you’re profiting from it. But that’s not how the internet works. We know that the people who create content and meaning are not necessarily the ones who are able to pay their rent with it.

GLAZEK: You can coin something but you never really own language.