Can 2023 Be the Year of "Nothingcore"?
After Shein was named the most popular brand of 2022, consumers have much to reconsider.
If you were asked to describe this year’s fashion identity, could you? Perhaps, you’d mention nostalgiacore, for the glorious revival of Y2K fashion; or maybe you’d reference fetishcore, for the influx of leather harnesses and latex bodysuits that pushed BDSM-adjacent styles into the mainstream (thank you for your contributions, Julia Fox). Instagram’s 2022 trend report said this would be the year for goblincore, and sure, fairycore’s grungier counterpart had its moment, but so did the Miu Miu flats of balletcore, the Valentino pink of Barbiecore, the denim-everything of cowboycore, the Gilded Age silhouettes of regencycore, and so on.
Thanks to TikTok’s ferocious For You page and its sea of fleeting commitments, [insert any noun here]-core trends will oftentimes reach an intense moment in the spotlight before just disappearing. So how can you decipher the real gold from the fool’s gold? Can quality clothing still emerge on its own, or does it always need an algorithm-friendly title to earn widespread appeal?
“The same strategies people use to try to go viral on TikTok, fashion is using to get noticed.” – Mandy Lee
“Modern fashion right now is veiled by gimmicks,” Mandy Lee, a Brooklyn-based fashion analyst and trend forecaster who operates on TikTok as @oldloserinbrooklyn, told Hypebeast. “The same strategies people use to try to go viral on TikTok, fashion is using to get noticed. It’s really crazy to watch how fashion is molding itself to fit this new way we consume things.”
Splattered across that veil is the exhausted, four-letter term: “core.” Since its introduction to the fashion dictionary, the little-suffix-that-could has offered thousands of stylistic blueprints for internet-born microtrends. Among them, some find subcultural success, like cottagecore and gothcore, both of which have amassed cult followings in their own right, while others remain (rightfully) reserved for their niche audiences: see bubblegumbitchcore or feralcore. Regardless, there’s a core for everything. Anyone can create a core, and anything can be a core.
And all it takes is a viral moment.
TikTok trend forecasters, fashion commentators and style-focused media outlets can slap a nicely-packaged “core” at the end of a hot-topic noun to communicate a new trend to their audiences in a relatable, consumable manner. But the problem with the “core” lexicon is its digestibility — it’s like a reversed Sour Patch Kid: first, it’s sweet, then it’s sour.
The “cores” that gain traction will quickly see ruin, as fast-fashion brands gruesomely mass-produce the moment with stolen designs made from harmful materials under unethical working conditions. And once a core becomes too mainstream, people look to rebrand under a new one, perpetuating the toxic cycle that was responsible for one of this year’s most depressing headlines: “Shein Is the Most Popular Brand in the World.”
The fast-fashion company, which was founded in Nanjing in 2008, was crowned the most-Googled clothing brand in 113 countries across the globe. For context, Shein earned $10 billion USD in 2020, while competitors ASOS and Boohoo made $4.4 billion USD and $2.4 billion USD in the same year. Today, the brand is valued at a startling $100 billion USD according to The Wall Street Journal, making it the largest digital fashion company in the world.
Mere hours after claiming the Google crown, Shein admitted to working-hour breaches that saw some employees working 75-hour weeks with only two or three days off per month — and that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the company’s unethical practices. Quick refresher: Shein is the poster child for design theft, primarily stealing from independent and emerging designers. It has reportedly failed to compensate its employees fairly, and according to Public Eye, “numerous informal workshops [have] no emergency exits and [come] with barred windows that would have fatal implications in the event of a fire.” It operates with a grossly unsustainable environmental model, in which it produces 700 to 1,000 new styles every day, leaving behind 6.3 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year, nearly all from its supply chain.
In an era where businesses are fast to tout their commitments to sustainability, how exactly has Shein managed to proliferate into the fast-fashion mammoth that it is today? The most obvious answer is the company’s unbelievably low prices (the average item costs $7.90 USD), which come as a saving grace for many facing a cost of living crisis around the world. In that regard, capitalism is to blame. However, the sheer volume of product that the brand releases on a daily basis is not an effort to clothe the needy; it’s just an absolutely ludicrous response to the ever-accelerating micro-trend cycle — and it begs the question, why are we buying so much?
People love owning the latest “it” item, and these days, Gen-Z’s elusive “it” is largely defined by TikTok’s For You Page, which churns out new trends around the clock. In the face of TikTok’s tsunami of new styles, “cores” make it easy to define those popular-yet-hyperspecific moments in fashion. But to be clear: it’s more than okay to let a microtrend be just that. Naming it as a “core” turns the clothing into a social media movement, and more often than not, the title is an overcomplication for rather basic color choices or fabric selections. But with that hashtag comes the fast-fashion overhaul, and with just a few clicks, those items are in your cart.
@oldloserinbrooklyn #stitch with @laini ozark everything is back all at once #fashiontrends #trendcycle #fashion ♬ original sound – Mandy Lee
To be fair, the inundated “core” is not all Gen-Z’s fault. It surfaced back in 2013, with normcore, a term coined by two millennials: brand consultants and K-Hole founders Greg Fong and Emily Segal. The industry-shifting moniker was used to denote those who recognized the power of fitting in, rather than seeking originality or virality. In Fong and Segal’s words, “Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts into sameness.”
Then came gorpcore, in 2017, thanks to New York Magazine. The term, which is actually an outdoorsman’s acronym for trail mix (good old raisins and peanuts), tied a bow on the granola get-ups that included pieces from brands like Arc’teryx and Salomon. Repeller’s Harling Ross wasted no time introducing the next one: menocore, or coastal grandmother chic. But where fashion writers walked, the internet ran.
Cores have gone too far, and it’s time that we let the tired suffix sleep. If you actually buy into every core, which fast-fashion brands make very possible, it’s likely that your wardrobe closely resembles that of The White Lotus’ Portia, whose style Vogue’s Sarah Spellings so eloquently describes as “clearly algorithmically informed.” Each individual piece in Portia’s closet speaks to a different core, and together, prints clash with no remorse, accessories ask for too much attention, and her look lacks identity overall. At its core (pun fully intended), style is a vehicle for personal expression. Where is the personality in an algorithmic prescription?
Back in 2021, Lee predicted the present-day mess with her first-ever viral TikTok video. “The trend cycle will reach a point where it implodes in on itself because there are so many different micro-trends and they’re becoming more and more obvious,” she said. “People will have no choice but to lean into their personal style because it will be just impossible to keep up.”
Establishing individual style does take dedicated effort, and for that, Lee offers this advice: “Always have conviction. If you love that swan knit vest, you wear the f*ck out of it. You didn’t buy it because it’s just a trend. It’s lasting longer in the cycle because you just really liked it.”
“I don’t think that there’s ever going to be one single attitude or shift that stops the Shein machine.” – Mandy Lee
Instagram’s 2023 trend report states that more than half of Gen Z plans to DIY their clothes next year, citing sustainability as a key issue for the generation, which could lead to an influx of individualism. Additionally, the social media giant reports that more than a quarter of Gen Z buyers plan to thrift their clothes in the new year, especially when items are out of budget. That’s promising, but sadly, it won’t be enough to fight fast fashion.“I don’t think that there’s ever going to be one single attitude or shift that stops the Shein machine,” said Lee. “I really don’t see how we’re going to get out of this.”
So here I am, telling you to do exactly what I just spent the last 1,361 words preaching against: embrace another core … sort of. Enter nothingcore, the full stop to the core cycle. Nothingcore is not your traditional core, nor is it really a core at all. It’s a social-media-friendly call to action to drop the core altogether.
In lieu of cosplaying as TikTok’s next hashtag, prioritize fine-tuning your personal fashion identity on a larger scale. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still participate in new trends, nor does it mean that you shouldn’t look to cores for sartorial inspiration — because, let’s be honest, a lot of them can be very creative. It’s about writing your own doctrine of style, not adopting social media’s version. It’s about taking responsibility as a consumer in today’s vicious trend cycle. It’s about fighting against the Shein machine. After a year where fashion was defined by gimmicks, might nothingcore be the one that finishes them all in 2023? Only time will tell.