While the fashion industry is mostly about forecasting into the future, sometimes it’s just as revealing to look for meaning in the past. For example: what do our recent purchases say about what we desire? Or, more generally, where our heads are at? Turns out a lot. That’s one of the big takeaways from the Lyst Index, the quarterly data drop released by the global shopping search engine that crunches the numbers on what we’re buying.
There’s the expected news here—like Balenciaga, Gucci, and Prada all dominating the top spots for buzziest brands—but a look at a list of the 10 hottest products of the quarter reveals our collective state of mind. Taken separately, it’s mostly cold outdoor gear: a the padded and insulated Moncler Cuvellier down coat, an Arc’teryx tough-as-shit SV jacket, Kanye’s massive Adidas YEEZY NSTL boots, Stone Island’s face-swaggling wool balaclava. But taken together and you get a group portrait of a society that is looking for protection—physical, psychological—on all fronts.
“The pandemic has fundamentally shifted consumers’ expectations,” says Lyst’s Camilla Clarkson. “In uncertain times, movement and functionality have become key purchasing criteria for many fashion lovers. As COVID becomes a regular part of life—along with fears of a recession, geopolitical uncertainty and the threat of climate change—we can understand why shoppers want to reflect an image of survival.”
Even before the pandemic, a certain strain of apocalyptic fashion was starting to bubble up—fire safety orange, tactical vests, camouflage, and emergency ponchos were making appearances on luxury brands’ catwalks. Meanwhile, gorpcore started merging the worlds of utility-use garments made with a functional purpose with more high-fashion sensibilities. Then the pandemic hit. And all the while, the effects of climate change were becoming increasingly obvious (not to mention dire). Is it any wonder that our purchases seem to prioritize safety and well-being?
At the onset of the pandemic, GQ fashion critic Rachel Tashjian has a prescient chat with Ben Hansen, who organizes PrepperCon, an exposition for those readying themselves for the end of times. As part of the 2018 edition, there was a fashion show, demonstrating the latest in quar-core, something that probably seemed slightly goofy at the time. Hansen, in explaining the ways that prepper gear makes its way to the mainstream, used face masks as an example. Hansen noted that garments or accessories that seem extreme can suddenly become a normalized part of daily dress—and also means of self-expression and status. “People say, ‘If this is the new reality, psychologically I can cope with this better if I can still retain a sense of self.’”
So perhaps the shift is not so surprising—and maybe we should known all along that overlapping dilemmas that have the potential for bodily harm would, well, shift our priorities. “Today’s luxury consumer is no longer solely fixated with jewelry and the latest leather purchase,” Clarkson of Lyft said. But, in a sign of the indomitable force of the human spirit (and of, uh, capitalism), we’ve found ways to make utility a luxury good.