What the ‘Indie Sleaze Revival’ tells us about the world we live in now

·6-min read

I was quite buoyed by the news of an ‘Indie Sleaze’ revival — predicted many months ago by the New York-based trend forecaster Mandy Lee but truly taking hold (on social media at least) now.

In a now-viral TikTok video she argued that we are on the cusp of a resurgence in the long-maligned indie aesthetic last seen in the late 2000s/ early 2010s.

There’s a lot to love about it. American Apparel disco pants, day-glo and slogan t-shirts, skinny jeans, ripped tights, dirty ballet flats, dirty hair, trilby hats — it was a look that wallowed, gloriously, in its own glitter-smeared filth. Pete and Kate, and innumerable other skinny, pallid, hot people were the icons of the age, as much for their don’t give a f*** attitudes as their artfully torn t-shirts.

It’s been seeded into the wider consciousness by nostalgia accounts like @indiesleaze, which have been resurfacing images from an era known for its low-fi self-shot photography.

The look — uniform of the many indie bands who haunted Camden — seems to encapsulate some long-forgotten good times. The elder millennials who spearheaded shutter-shades in the club and denim-cut offs worn with tights, came of age in a time of relative economic prosperity. Hedonism — as Lee points out “opulent displays of clubbing” are a mainstay of the trend — was an easier undertaking because rents were affordable and jobs plentiful. It was simply a better time to be young and off-the-rails.

It is in some ways the perfect nostalgia trend for Gen Z, offering a little respite from hyper-perfection to a generation who are unlikely to remember a world pre-social media.

Photo-perfection was a far-off dream for the average person; curation, angles and airbrushing were alien concepts

In the mid-00s, the digital age was just stuttering to life and amateur image makers (i.e. all of us snapping club pix on our pink Sony Cybershot cameras), were still naive enough to be playful. Photo-perfection was a far-off dream for the average person; curation, angles and airbrushing were alien concepts. Personal branding was unheard of.

In comparison, last year research from the Education Policy Institute and The Prince’s Trust found that social media use had had a particularly deleterious effect on young people’s mental health. One in three girls was unhappy with their personal appearance by the age of 14 and the number of young people with probable mental illness had risen to one in six, up from one in nine in 2017. It makes sense they might look back on the results of all that unironic, unexamined living and feel inspired.

At its heart the aesthetic was about being unpolished; the kind of anti-fashion approach to dressing that’s so rare nowadays. Going out, getting mashed, looking dirty, looking not your best, safe in knowledge that any evidence would stay locked on a camera’s memory card, is clearly intoxicating to those who’ve grown-up under Instagram’s watchful eye.

Of course, pre-#MeToo, it wasn’t all day-glo shutter shades and House of Holland slogan tees

It helped that in that period, our digital selves (which existed largely on Myspace) were of almost no importance. Now we might consider the optics of our actions (and our outfit choices) because they can be (and often are) recorded and disseminated. And once it’s on the internet, it’s there forever. But back then we’d yet to experience that constraining ‘double-think’ — there was only real life, lived in that moment.

Still, the advent of social media has had its upsides. Pre-#MeToo, it wasn’t all day-glo shutter shades and House of Holland slogan tees.

Internet micro-trends appear, crest and wash away with the speed and regularity of waves at the beach, so memory can be short. But clearly, freedom from ‘double-think’ had its dark sides. Accountability was not ‘a thing’ back then. Cancel culture had yet to arrive; and regardless of whether you agree with that kind of internet-dispensed justice, the late 2000s and early 2010s were dicey times for lots of people, particularly women.

In recent years the ‘indie sleaze’ aesthetic became famous for alleged exploitation. The most famous image-maker of the time Terry Richardson (whose provocative American Apparel ads have spawned a whole nostalgia micro-trend on their own) was not-so-long ago called out for allegedly exploiting his position of power to abuse the women he worked with.

Richardson has consistently denied any wrongdoing. Writing in Page Six of the New York Post in 2017, he said: “I collaborated with consenting adult women who were fully aware of the nature of the work, and as is typical with any project, everyone signed releases . . . I have never used an offer of work or a threat of rebuke to coerce someone into something that they did not want to do. I give everyone that I work with enough respect to view them as having ownership of their free will and making their decisions accordingly.”

Regardless of whether you agree with internet-dispensed justice, the late 2000s and early 2010s were dicey times for lots of people

Still one ‘collaboration’ included photographing a model giving a blowjob with the word ‘slut’ written on her forehead. At the time he was one of the most powerful men in the fashion industry.

Is it dour to say that seeing the images he and others created for American Apparel held up as examples of a hot, cool trend is uncomfortable to me? The internet has a very short memory indeed.

Still, it tells us something about the people most likely to be taken-in by the ‘trend’ — hyper sexualisation; provocation; the body (particularly the female body) as currency — have become a normal part of the everyday lives of today’s teens.

Clearly, a naughty ad for socks means nothing to a 16-year-old who’s grown up with easily-accessible porn.

Does it matter that these things are being deified? In the long run, probably not. The gap between trends cresting, crashing and being ironically revived is closing. I’m thinking particularly of the cut-out body-con dress — the return of which was heralded a few weeks ago by Alexa Demie in Euphoria.

It only went away in 2016. How to mentally assimilate a trend that is cool, discarded and then ironically reappropriated, within less than a decade? Other than to become resigned to the fact that within fashion — as within everything subjected to the relentless churn of the internet — there simply are no new ideas.

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