“Memes spell it out really clearly: This is cool. This isn’t.”
Earlier this year, a now-viral tweet declared the all-black Air Force 1 as the shoe of choice for shady activity around the world, and considering that it quickly racked up close to 25,000 likes, it would seem the internet resoundingly agrees. Like the Nike Roshe Run before it and the Fila Disruptor II after it, the AF1 became so heavily memed that the shoe now stands-in as internet shorthand for a whole host of other associations seemingly unrelated to the sneakers themselves.
And it isn’t just on Twitter: Today’s menswear enthusiasts have taken the task of mercilessly mocking the products to all corners of the internet. The subreddit devoted to memes on r/malefashion now yields thousands of results, and on Instagram, there’s been a proliferation of meme accounts dedicated to ruthlessly poking fun at the ripe-for-parody nature of mainstream men’s fashion.
For a generation of internet-savvy stylish guys, cultivating a degree of disdain for seemingly innocuous designs (and not just the objectively egregious Fila Disruptor) is a means of signaling you’re in the know, a roundabout way of indicating what you do like by expressly advertising what you don’t. Today, a small subset of extremely online dudes can slander a specific piece (in the form of, say, a particularly savage starter pack meme), and, through sheer repetition, link the product so inextricably to the meme their followers wouldn’t dare consider buying it.
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A number of niche meme accounts have emerged to provide a steady stream of spicy takes satirizing the fashion mainstream, where handles like @dickowensonline, @meme_saint_laurent and @raf_semens elevate meme-making to an art form, expertly employing intentionally slapdash aesthetics and a sense of wry self-deprecation in the form of obscure inside jokes and deep cuts even the most erudite of jawnz enthusiasts would be hard-pressed to place. Spend enough time scrolling through their feeds and you’re likely to resurface, hours later, with more questions than answers and a nagging suspicion you’re being made fun of. If you don’t get it, it’s because, quite frankly, you’re not supposed to. IYKYK.
In 2016, Davil Tran mocked up a long black slicker with the word “Vetememes” printed plainly on the back. Tran’s polyester raincoat cleverly parodied the white-hot label then helmed by a previously unknown Georgian designer named Demna Gvasalia, and caused an immediate internet sensation. Gvasalia had recently been appointed creative director of Balenciaga, largely due to the bump in exposure his profile enjoyed as the public face of the creative collective behind Vetements, and his influence on the industry was at its peak. Tran cites Balenciaga as one of the few brands to successfully establish its own identity in part through a willingness to laugh at itself.
Tran initially set up Vetememes’ Instagram account to promote his own products, but started posting memes when he grew tired of reposting pictures of people wearing Vetememes in the wild. Tran credits Gvasalia for lending the labels he designs for a sense of self-awareness. “Fashion shouldn’t be taken so seriously,” Tran says. That ethos informs the images that end up on the Vetememes account today, where Tran is just as likely to repost a meme celebrating the sui generis style of Adam Sandler as he is a particularly painful fit pic fail.
Although Gvasalia recently announced he’d be leaving Vetements for good, his impact as one of the first designers to wholeheartedly embrace meme culture by understanding the power of internet virality is undeniable; Gvasalia designs for the internet, not in spite of it. Many of the looks he sends down the runway are memed almost immediately, and his ascendance to the top of the industry food chain points to the internet’s capacity to influence consumer sentiment and how important it is for today’s customers to feel like they’re constantly in conversation with the brands they buy.
For Karsten Kroening, Tran’s account was the first of its kind to popularize the specific type of menswear meme making the rounds today. Kroening runs Meme Saint Laurent, an account that mocks “normies” that might mistake Rick Owens Ramones for regular Chuck Taylors as readily as it does Carol Christian Poell enthusiasts that derive the entirety of their self-worth from their collection of rare clothing. Kroening says he put together his account out of a passion for starter pack memes but quickly pivoted to focus on fashion, and praises Tran as a true pioneer.
“I think a big reason [these accounts] keep popping up is because it’s a natural progression of the subculture,” Kroening says. “There are whole accounts that are music memes or TV show memes. I’m surprised that it didn’t happen sooner to be quite honest.”
Max Womack, the man behind the meme account Raf Semens, says he was inspired to start his account because of ones like Vetememes and Meme Saint Laurent. Womack points out that fashion as a discipline can be “pretty pretentious” and that opens the industry up to parody, even, and perhaps especially, from those who follow it closest. According to Womack, memes are about not taking clothing too seriously because “there’s much more important things in life than the shit you’re wearing.” Kroening agrees; he tries to “get everyone to learn to laugh at themselves and realize it’s not that serious. It’s just clothes at the end of the day.”
Both Kroening and Womack say there’s a sense of solidarity in sharing a set of common dislikes. Meme-making is also a form of constructing a community, i.e. by finding other like-minded fashion heads that understand the day-to-day struggles of being the best-dressed dude in an endless sea of swagless homies. There’s definitely a community around fashion meme culture, Womack says — “a slightly depressing community, but a community nonetheless.”
Yet the two quickly concede that platforms like Instagram have also encouraged a more homogenous sense of personal style across the board. Instagram hasn’t elevated the median taste levels of the typical user by helping to indicate what products are hot trash right off the bat. Instead, as Tran puts it, Instagram has “made everyone dress like shit.” Consumers look at clothing with a different perspective now, Tran notes, focusing on what pieces will yield the most likes and not on what looks best IRL.
“Instagram has definitely created a mindset that suppresses originality,” Womack says, noting that people don’t develop a sense of personal style “when they can open Instagram and see what other people are liking/disliking.” That memes play a part in contributing to this homogenization is no question. “Memes influence people and what they buy,” Kroening notes. “Even more directly than influencers, because memes spell it out really clearly: This is cool. This isn’t. People don’t have to interpret whether their favorite Instagrammer or whatever is still popping.”
According to Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst at the NPD Group (and a notoriously skeptical expert on the hype surrounding the sneaker market), it’s not likely any of these memes are making or breaking a product. “I don’t see these trivial accounts as having any material impact on the business,” Powell sums up bluntly, pointing out that social media likes aren’t the most accurate indicator of actual customer sentiment. When it comes to a silhouette like the black AF1s, it’s unrealistic to anticipate any sort of online “stigma” ever seriously impacting sales of the style, no matter how viral the tweet.
Yet Kroening of Meme Saint Laurent, maintains that memes, and the public opinions people are exposed to online, do influence purchasing decisions, at least on a micro-level. He’s not wrong: Accounts like Meme Saint Laurent might be too small to substantially impact a company’s bottom line, but for many of the roughly 60k Instagram users that make up Kroening’s following his memes are law.
“It’s an odd position to be in, but I’m the authority now,” Kroening says. “Memers are controlling a lot of what people are buying.”