The millennials in our midst are having a serious case of déjà vu. After all, everything they once held dear from the early days of internet access is slowly but surely becoming the trend du jour.
The world of fashion is leaning increasingly Millennium-inspired, with a penchant for ironic slogan tees, tongue-in-cheek design and a level of enthusiasm for all things “Twilight” that would put even the most committed Twihard to shame. But this time around, instead of a carbon copy of all things Y2K, the look of the era is getting the Gen Z pastiche treatment, thanks to brands like Praying, Angel Therapy and Hmmmm, each of which are taking that aesthetic well beyond just their clothing, infusing 21st-century kitsch and digital retrofuturism into everything they do.
Trend forecaster Samantha Hince explains that this “Internet Nostalgia” look currently taking hold of the zeitgeist is actually just the latest offshoot of the Y2K trend that, she says, “has been growing in the background for some time now.” And if it feels like it’s really picked up pace during 2022, that’s because, well, it has. With thongs once again peeping out of pants and bikini tops being worn with jeans, Hince describes the look as something of a punk-rock response to the fashion codes of generations prior.
“Internet Nostalgia is trashy, in the most fantastic, deliberate way,” explains Hince. “It’s sticking your finger up to what society thinks you should be doing, saying and wearing all at once. Loud, sexy and provocative, Internet Nostalgia is anything but subtle. It’s not meant to please everyone.”
You can certainly see that provocateur bent in a brand like Praying, with its suggestive one-liners printed across tank tops, silk slips and booty shorts that lightly troll the viewer. This incendiary aesthetic recently got designers Skylar Newman and Alex Haddad in hot water when Addison Rae posted a photo wearing the brand’s “Holy Trinity” bikini, featuring the words “Father,” “Son” and “Holy Spirit” printed on each triangle flap.
Despite the fact that numerous celebs have worn the suit before and since, the vaguely heretical concept combined with Rae’s lightning-rod public persona suddenly made the label the focus of a whole lot of Christian ire. (A fitting outcome for the brand, as what could be more aughts than stirring up a little moral panic to boost your public profile.) But a quick scroll through Praying’s Instagram or extremely GeoCities-inspired e-shop makes it clear that while the label may be posing as enfants terribles, it’s all in good fun. Newman and Haddad’s designs are the natural output of the type of sharp humor honed via late-night Tumblr deep dives, layering cultural references to novel effect.
Angel Therapy is another such brand that falls into this category, with designers Marta Mae and Lincoln Barnett infusing their passion for cannabis, new-age healing modalities and heavy metal into highly-curated offerings.
“I think we’re mysterious and inviting,” the pair explains in an email. “Our branding is nostalgic, but hopefully, you can’t quite identify where you know it from. Our first collection was ‘444 is the new 420,’ but we don’t expect you to take that seriously.”
So far, Angel Therapy’s pieces have included socks and sweatshirts featuring the aforementioned “444” logo designed for them by David Farrugia, the head of design at New York City-based creative agency Sanitarium and inspired by Black Sabbath’s album font, but done up in hot pink to “make people gravitate toward us.” (Within numerology, angel numbers are number sequences, usually three or four numbers, that contain repetition or patterns. For example, 444 is considered an assurance that one is on the right path in life, allegedly a strong signal of an upturn in financial fortunes.)
Mae and Barnett chalk up their inclusion in this emerging aughts trend to their website designed by John Kaufmann, who also built the digital platform for Mae’s creative agency, Air Milkshake. While Mae and Barnett can see how some may find the site to be too sparse, its animated layout is intentional, instead playing into Internet Nostalgia’s digital utopia.
“We actually weren’t aware of how trendy it’s becoming,” they write. “It’s a fun way to express Angel Therapy’s world digitally. We were longing for simplicity in interface, so our website does just that.”
They insist that Angel Therapy isn’t just merch for their cannabis line, Angel Therapy Flower: It’s instead focused on creating a network of like-minded individuals.
“We wanted to create a brand we saw missing in the cannabis space, and beyond,” they say. “We aren’t a brand that’s just going to make graphic tees that say ‘angel energy’ in a script font, or post a collage of angel numbers. We’re building community around ideas and products.”
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While certain brands’ aesthetic may harken back to that AOL dial-up age, they’ve taken the decade’s visual cues and made them completely their own. Take the New York City-based Hmmmm, which is “yearning to express a fixed impartial architecture of candid thought” via T-shirts. When asked if he identifies with the Internet Nostalgia trend on which he’s currently capitalizing, the designer, Max Neuhoff, replied, “No, I don’t know what that is. I don’t care.”
Hmmmm’s visual aesthetic is similarly ineffable, a look that he instead insists is ever-evolving. Using T-shirts as the medium, Hmmmm riffs off well-known iconography like “J’adore Dior,” shipping logos and the New York Yankees emblem. For Neuhoff himself, the brand wasn’t launched out of a desire to get his work out there so much as to give something back to the internet community that created him.
“I’m a product of the explore page,” he explains. “At some point, I figured it was my turn to contribute, and as with all good ideas, my initial thought was ‘Hmmmm….'”
But it’s hard to imagine that a trend as contemporary as Internet Nostalgia would even exist without the forefather of this aesthetic, artist Cory Arcangel. Back in 2013, he launched Arcangel Surfware as a “non-aspirational” lifestyle brand “to create clothes, accessories, software and publications for the ‘highly online.” Think performance wear for those who spend most of their day behind a monitor.
Arcangel explains that he was inspired by labels like Trukfit, Lil Wayne’s skatewear brand, which got him thinking: Why not create a skatewear brand, but for computers? What came next was a fully realized athleisure line based on what he describes as “teenage-Holiday-Inn-sports-trip-breakfast-buffet attire” meets “mid-life-Linux-sysadmin-energy.” The response, he says, was extremely positive. So positive that he remembers being unprepared for and incapable of keeping up with the demand. Soon after the brand launched in 2014, he began getting inquiries for pop-ups, inventory and content from stores across the world over.
Nearly a decade later, why does looking to our recent digital past still hold so much resonance for this younger generation? According to Hince, the trend forecaster, participating in this trend is akin to a form of rebellion.
“We have a culture of always being at your best, doing, saying and even wearing the right thing continuously,” she explains. “Even now, we have a booming wellness industry telling us how to be ‘well’ correctly. Each part of our lives has to be perfect. And, well, it’’s exhausting.”
Internet Nostalgia, meanwhile, is unfiltered. There are no rules, and that in and of itself is liberating. It also shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
“It will only grow as world events still feel heavy and out of control,” adds Hince. “We sometimes have to work a little harder to seek pleasure and joy, and trends like this offer a level of escapism in the everyday.”
Hince expects for Internet Nostalgia to slowly become even more encompassing, eventually filtering into other markets beyond fashion and retail. By utilizing passé cultural touchstones and reappropriating them to new ends, brands and artists are able to not only speak to Gen Z, but to older generations that remember and lived through these trends as adults.
“The response is one of elation,” says Hince. “You’re transported to a lighter world through the emotion that nostalgia evokes.”
But Arcangel has his own theory as to why Internet Nostalgia is sweeping the masses: “What goes around, comes around.”