We’re In It: The Era of Personal Style — but What Does That Mean?

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Leandra Medine | March 22, 2016

What is personal style? What determines whether someone has “good” personal style or whether it’s “bad”? Does such a thing exist? Can you call it “taste”? How do you define taste?

We’ve talk a lot about this new era of personal style. We say that trends are dead. That in order to be a successful designer today, you’ve got to be reactive; no longer do members of the upper echelon dictate what we want to wear so much as they do respond to our hankerings. The most compelling proof of this concept is Vetements, a label that exploded into fashion last year, whose creative director is already so respected that he’s been tapped to take over at Balenciaga.

But that’s the conflicting thing about the death of trends. They aren’t actually dead. Personal style is just the trend that we’re leaning into right now.

But what does that mean?

If you think about a designer like Dries Van Noten, a man who has been consistently lauded for the styling at his shows, you get to see a solid case for an interesting definition of personal style. At Dries, personal style is what happens when you put average stuff together and suddenly, it’s extraordinary. Standout pieces exist: bras made entirely from paillettes, brocade coats enveloped in palm trees — but outside the statement stuff, when pulled apart, what you get is a lot of well made clothing that’s remarkably unremarkable.

I was recently at Miu Miu’s shop thinking that the impact of the new clothes on display were best represented at the show six months earlier where they were piled together to evince the spirit of a sort of a personal style pioneer: The Eccentric. And per this eccentric, who better to define the modern day version than Gucci’s much talked about Alessandro Michele? Ditto that for Prada’s most recent fall collection. The most common criticism among the reporters and market editors for Miuccia Prada’s show was that once taken apart they’d just look like regular clothes. But to argue this is to miss the point.

We’re not supposed to feel like our clothes put us in boxes anymore. They don’t say everything about who we are or who we’re not. Something I have always admired about the aforementioned Dries Van Noten is that when you walk into his world, what you find is that the dress you’re eyeing as a twenty-something has just been sold to a middle-aged blonde woman with a bob in town from Alsace. Those are clothes that pack a punch — that speak to your personality, but also to her personality, and they do it for completely divergent reasons. Isn’t that power? To appeal to so many kinds of women at so many different junctures?

Women were never Just One Thing, but we were made to feel that way by the clothes that we elected to define us.

AYR’s Maggie Winter put it well when she said, “There’s nothing today’s woman can’t do — she isn’t limited by a label or a logo.” This is true of a silhouette or garment color, too. That a look by Gucci, or Prada, or Miu Miu or whomever could feel like it speaks so accurately to “the era of personal style” because of how kooky it looks is a surface way to interpret the clothes. I only realize that now.

It’s really when you break apart these collections to learn that they consist of tons of regular garments that appeal to tons of regular women that you see real personal style on display. And that personal style, by the way, isn’t about the clothes or how you wear them. It’s a sort of political statement that rejects our being typecast and articulates our relationship with choice. Not just our ability to choose, but also our right — a choice! — not to.

Runway images via Vogue Runway; collage by Emily Zirimis.

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  • Allie Fasanella

    i rly like the word echelon.

    that’s probably not the response you wanted to this article, but it’s too early for me to put real thoughts together, so that’s all i’ve got for you. but i enjoyed reading this.

    • Commentycomment

      It kind of sounds like food, “I’ll have an Echelon with a salad and fries please”

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  • http://hashtagidle.blogspot.com/ #idle nimue

    All I wonder after reading this is: what is it with this trend to declare that trends are dead? Sure, they might go more bottom-up then say a decade ago, but that doesn’t mean they ceased to exist. I mean, frayed kick flare jeans, anyone? Or bell sleeves? or lace-up tops? granny heels? Aren’t those all very obvious trends? I don’t know, I guess I just don’t see it.

    • Leandra Medine

      well that’s whyyyyyyyyyyyy i say that personal style just ISSSSS the trend!

      • Aggie

        It would be interesting to see a chronological timeline on how garments like the lace-up tops became so popular. I think I blinked when this started on the runaway but all I can remember was seeing them on many fashion bloggers and even then it took a while for those to hit more affordable stores. Is the personal style trend, the one we get from looking at how famous people dress rather than how designers styled their own pieces?

      • http://hashtagidle.blogspot.com/ #idle nimue

        Yeah, but that’s the thing: fashion has always existed exactly on that border between trend and personal style, sometimes hovering more to one side and then more to the other. I just don’t see what’s changed. I’m sorry Leandra, usually all I do when reading Man Repeller is firmly nodding my head. But this time I just don’t agree 🙂

        • genia evelina

          I think maybe it’s more that trends don’t seem to follow the same rise and fall anymore. There used to be a longer period before a trend came back, and we only followed a couple trends at a time. Now anything can be on trend, as long as it’s well done, sort of making the idea of ‘what’s on trend’ a moot point. Which makes the case for personal style.

  • http://www.thefashionloonatic.blogspot.com/ The Fashion Loonatic

    ‘Clothes don’t say everything about who we are or who we’re not.’ Yes yes yes

  • http://www.chicfb.com/ chicfbdotcom

    “Women were never Just One Thing” is exactly it. No matter how your employer wants to cage you in “corporate attire” or if you simply want to go shopping, what you end up wearing or buying goes with an attitude, your personal style. A very Italian mood

  • http://instagram.com/shypony Josie Fillat

    Is the trend personal style? or is it “visually appealing” or “tastefully eclectic”. I just feel like individual style – outside of the runway – is so…uniform. The runway is where the fun styling is. Maybe this is because I am in Chicago but I go to art school and I can count on one hand the number of people who truly stand out with unique style. Nobody seems to having fun when they get dressed. I would say that most people don’t necessarily dress for fun. However, everyone builds their wardrobe a certain way and in a culture where individuality and creativity is promoted, I don’t see that reflected in public. Blah blah blah.

  • N St Veron

    & yet, you recently labeled one of your outfits a “librarian” look – implying that it was drub & boring

  • xtyb

    I think it’s so interesting that you reference both Vetements and Dries Van Noten in this story. I really think that when it comes to Personal Style vs Trends those two are on totally opposite ends of the spectrum! Never having touched an actual Vetments DHL t-shirt (maybe it is woven with magical thread spun from gossamer unicorn hairs and liquid diamonds, I don’t know), I think that is actually NOT ‘Personal Style’ piece as much as a total Trend.

    Personal Style is what you see as women focus more on individual personal expression and well-made, truly creative pieces and crafted items. It’s an outfit made of cool pieces from many years apart, at a range of ‘price points’ but unified by authenticity of design and production. That’s Dries <3 !

  • Grace

    I would postulate that a piece in and of itself is never style, what you do with it is. By that, I don’t think this is a matter of pointing out which labels or pieces can be considered “personal style,” since any basic, trend, Vetements tshirt, or fantastic heirloom brooch can be incorporated into personal style. At this point in time, it doesn’t feel “right” to wear a head-to-toe look from a runway (any runway) without adding your own tszuj. While at the same time, runway looks right now are styled to simulate personal style. Paradoxical?

  • Louise Howard

    Couldn’t agree more. I’m still negotiating my own metaphysical fashion identity dilemma! i find the concept of fashion leaders a really interesting one – for all the incredible fashion designers out there that essentially dictate what is currently ‘on trend’, it’s often an individual on the street that turns my head and makes me want to reconsider what I think defines ‘cool’ at the time. PS. LOVE your site, Leandra. Would love to contribute in some way. My stuff comes from my soul too – http://www.rellikjewelry.com