Fuzzy Futurism: Unraveling the Return of the Synthetic Sweater
From Kurt Cobain to 'Empire Records', the fuzzy sweater had a good run—but is it back for good?
Photo by Jordan Barse.
Consider this equation I developed a year ago:
‘90s nostalgia + Microsoft Paint color palette^banality + new 3D garment construction technology + snowboarders ÷ uptight fashion executive on business retreat in Chamonix Mont-Blanc = unearthing the coffin of the Synthetic Fuzzy Sweater?!?
It first appeared on Balenciaga’s Autumn/Winter 2018 runway (The One With All The Coats) in acid green: its shaggy, sheeny, polyester fluffiness clinging neatly to its wearer’s shoulders; tucked into a belted, pleated, below-the-knee-skirt over black stockings and pumps (on some secretary shit)—and topped with a shiny blue carabiner necklace. The overall look was dull, but this was no ordinary sweater. “REMEMBER ME?” it screamed. I’m a millennial. Of course I did. But could this synthetic relic of the “Cool 4 School” section of a 2001 mail-order RAVE catalogue really rebaptize itself… into high fashion?
A season passed and I nearly forgot about my nostalgic itch—but then! There it was in the Marine Serre Spring/Summer 2019 show—an evolved Pokémon of frazzled acrylic in sun-bleached chromakey green, with an extra long scarf extension. Again it was paired with a below-the-knee skirt, and anodized dystopian accessories. A conspiracy was afoot! Why were two of the most prescient designers in Paris reviving artificial furry knitwear from the “90s Theme Party” section of 2011 Topshop? And why does the neon synthetic fuzzy sweater so readily associate with Y2K?
Everyone knows the legend of the Sweater Girl: how, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Western civilization developed heart-shaped eyes that sprung out of their heads on coils for young women wearing bullet bras beneath novel, tight-fitting sweaters. Boobs and the dirty thoughts they inspired were trending under the guise of modest knitwear. Like the words “Victoria’s Secret Angel,” “Sweater Girl” evoked a veil of purity in spirit over a willfully seductive exploitation of femininity. And her seraphic expression found its higher form in the halo of fuzzy natural fibers–mohair and angora–that, together with luxuriously prohibitive cost and rarity, framed the female form like a divine, well kept Madonna. Consider the canonical untouchability of Jane in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, sitting before the peep show glass in her backless, fuchsia angora shell. Yet, as the fashion industry is wont to do, it sought paths around inaccessibility. Polyester and acrylic fiber blends were developed and perfected throughout the 20th century to accommodate the proliferation of the fuzzy sweater, and in the process, redefine it.
By the 90s, Kurt Cobain was wearing ratty old mohair cardigans and Making Grunge A Thing. Grunge co-opted androgyny via apathy– haircuts? Nah–and the fuzzy sweater played a central role, flouting a defiance of societal and sartorial norms around gender, propriety, and just giving a fuck.
Only a year after Nirvana brought grunge into the cultural forefront, Marc Jacobs dropped the bomb that was his infamous Spring/Summer ’93 “Grunge” show at Perry Ellis. The gist of those repeatedly dredged-up, pearl-clutching Cathy Horyn reviews is that the collection shocked people because it demonstrated an inverse exchange between high and low fashion. If grunge was about “un-fashion”, or abject thrifting, Jacobs recycled that old piss and fermented it into expensive Chardonnay. Real grunge-heads hated it, too. But no sooner had Jacobs been fired as creative director than “Grunge and Glory” spreads hit the pages of Vogue, prompting generic labels like XOXO to manufacture the equivalent of Diana Wine to feed the widespread appetite for grunge. Teen shoppers emblematized grunge as an iteration of The Latest Fashions, not a Salvation Army binge. The $40 fuzzy sweaters teens bought that came from photos of Cobain in grandma’s mohair on the mood board in the Forever 21 design HQ? They’re polyester.
After Kurt Cobain committed suicide, fashion reexamined its relationship with glamorizing apathy. Incidentally, the Sweater Girl was reclaimed, turning the inside-out, back rightside-in. A 1994 Fall Fashion review in the Times proclaimed: “If the slip dress was a coy summer flirtation, winter has turned a bit more explicit. Welcome back the 1950's Sweater Girl, her ample fuzzy bosom clad in deep mohair.” Liv Tyler was a small town girl with big hearted ambition in a blue cropped pullover in Empire Records and Alicia Silverstone promoted her flirty teen dream flick, Clueless, in an even more cropped baby pink angora.
By 1997, pop culture was cleaning up its act or moving to LA to drop acid, as in the supersaturated rave parties and high school hallways of filmmaker Gregg Araki, creator of the “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy”– Totally Fucked Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995), and Nowhere (1997)–featuring abundant candy-colored synthetic style. Araki’s queer indie capsules of lost and disaffected youths on the brink of ungodly disasters hyperbolized the manic pop energy of a generation that felt dragged through the ‘90s, and cynical ad absurdum about the end of the 20th century.
Real-life global panic set in as Y2K’s potential domino collapse approached, and fashion wrapped itself around neodrama like a snake on a scepter. Of course, by the end of the 20th century, synthetic textiles were not just ubiquitous, but essential–furry imitations and out-of-this-world inventions defined the “End of an Era” look of euphoric nightlife escapism. Led by pulsing techno beats and Ecstasy-induced “childlike amazement at the here-and-now,” ravers found sensual satisfaction in the supersoft “monster furs” and neon accessories that glowed fluorescent day or night, and were titillating to touch. From UK forests to LA warehouses, the synthetic fuzzy sweater fit well in a culture primarily focused on optimizing your vibe. World’s ending; might as well party! Or, from the optimist’s perspective: the Millennium’s coming; better dress like it.
The Millennium brought Verner Panton fantasy interiors and spikey hair with frosted tips, metallic jeans, empowered cyberpunks and Oops!... I Did it Again pop futurism. Gone were the days of mohair mimicry; Synthetica was IT. For a minute, it felt like we might leave the natural world for good. Maybe we’d never look back at the 20th century ever again… Or maybe not.
Back in the ever-advancing present, I solved the equation with the help of a magic mountain. Balenciaga’s Autumn Winter 2018 rendition of the neon fuzzy sweater looked a lot like that of the anxious, anticipatory pre-Y2K years, but the collection’s overall tone was one of a semi-professional, mid-90s purgatory—these bright, young things have JOBS and they’re going to work for the bright, liberal, corporatized future. Any question of their outlook on life can be answered by the giant, fake mountain set in the middle of the show’s runway, brimming with encouraging graffiti tags beside neon BALENCIAGAs and AW18s: pride flags, block-lettered “LOVE”, “power of dreams”, and “you are the world”. Demna’s sweaters were bursts of hope; denials of glib reality!
With one query essentially pinned down, I set out to solve the other—that Marine Serre overlap—and got more complicating evidence than I bargained for. Initially the references seemed rather explicit: “FUTUREWEAR” logos emblazon half the garments and alien-tech bubble bags, reminiscent of Stepsister from Planet Weird (2000); they basically screamed celluloid futurism. While it’s possible that both Balenciaga and Serre built their narratives on preempting the end of the ’90s, I suspected something deeper was afoot. Across generations, the fuzzy sweater has become a bellwether for radical newness and a catalyst for gender redefinition. And what about the color?!
Chromakey green was easily the It color of 2018, and the huey expression of a future realized through media. Marine’s looks are intertwined with tech-y media, from their performance-wear headphone holes to their bombardment of logos. Messaging, messaging, messaging. Nonstop listening to podcasts. Serre designs for our synthetic future in which we cozy up to polyamide fibers and wrap our offspring in matching print-meshed baby bjorns. Perhaps in this high fashion future we acknowledge the 2018 PETA investigation into rampant abuse of angora goats in the mohair industry that has already led to more than 300 fashion retailers banning the sale of mohair in their stores. Marine doesn’t claim to build her practice around political platforming, but her animal-free textiles and upcycled scarf and t-shirt designs come with the territory of her self-proclaimed “equilibrist” interests in collaging.
Real Crescent-heads will recall that Serre herself famously worked as a design assistant for Demna until some months after she won the prestigious LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers in late 2017, just a few months before Balenciaga showed that very collection, in March of 2018.
Former GARAGE editor Rachel Tashjian recalled seeing Marine in a different synthetic fuzzy sweater when she interviewed the designer this past summer. In Rachel’s recollection, the designer confessed she had purchased the sweater on the street in New York. Could Demna have plucked the idea from Marine’s own wardrobe--after which Marine herself then parlayed it into her own iteration a season later? Does knowing the truth behind a designer’s textural inspiration detract all substance from the lies we tell ourselves to give meaning to our consumer impulses to buy everything old once it’s renewed and expensive again?
Perhaps what these two sweaters have to tell us is that notions of luxury must shift. Once lauded for softness, rarity, and speciesist denial of the likely abuse of animals whose hair composes them, natural fiber knitwear may be receding from the luxury spotlight. Perhaps in this next phase of futurism, we relish in the fair trade flocculence—I tried on the Balenciaga piece, and let me tell you: it is SOFT—of our chemically-perfected, nouveau fuzzwear. In a late capitalist world that’s fast depleting its natural resources and overburdened with dark chaos, Serre and Balenciaga are making optimistic alternatives the latest luxury. Let the chromakey fuzzy sweater be the green light of our orgastic future that year by year recedes before us, bundling us through the whiplash of hyperreal macabre news cycles, borne back ceaselessly into the past.