Grunge gripped the world with its nihilistic sound. Starting underground, it soon catapulted itself into the mainstream, changing music with its infectious, outspoken and introspective takes on society. But beyond the sound was another cultural identifier: grunge also came with a uniform that has stood the test of time.
The sound and subculture stems from the Pacific Northwest of America, with bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam setting the tone. The musical movement was influenced by punk rock and heavy metal, both being genres which developed into their own subcultures with fashionably distinct followers. Fans of punk rock could be identified through their heavily accessorised outfits, which used leather, studded detailing and oversized embellishments such as safety pins to set themselves apart from the crowd. Heavy-metal followers again made use of accessorisation, working with practical utilitarian garments such as cargo pants, ripped jeans, pins, and badges as a form of anarchistic rebellion.
Grunge fashion was, and still is, epitomised by a uniform of plaid shirts, oversized knitwear and relaxed ripped jeans, offering its wearers something accessible and filled with attitude. Initially, the style was anti-fashion, working with uncomplicated and easy-wearing garments. Grunge poster boy and Nirvana frontman Kurt Kobain was regularly snapped wearing light-wash denim and baggy loose-gauge knits on the covers of Esquire, and even wore a dress on a 1993 edition of The Face, further rocking the mainstream boat. Little did he know, his signature looks would be gracing mood boards in fashion offices for decades to come.
While it would be easy to assume that grunge died a death, with nobody but purists sporting the rag-tag styles past the turn of the new millennium, traces of grunge can be found in some of the most exciting and culturally relevant brands today.
Jack Mitchell is a London-based designer and founder of the grunge-leaning, skate-rooted label Life is Unfair. Its capsule clothing collections feature patched denim and bomber jackets, and accessories include studded, textured belts saturated by a grungey, DIY aesthetic. The name of the brand is a nod to the sentiment of grunge, with its acknowledgement of the difficulty of life bearing similarities to the nihilistic mood evoked through the genre’s lyricism. Point in case: Nirvana’s grunge anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hears Kobain croon “Load up on guns, bring your friends / It’s fun to lose and pretend,” offering a fairly unruly start to a track that embodies the rebellious spirit of grunge. The feelings poured out through these lyrics can be seen in Life is Unfair’s branding.
Mitchell’s graphic-heavy offering sees T-shirts screen printed with slogans such as “I don’t want to die,” worn by promising London skaters such as Harry Haddon as they ollie north down hefty south of the river stair sets. The brand has captured the hearts of today’s modern-day rebels who channel grunge’s lasting spirit into their own outlook. Its slow-motion skate footage, which is shared on Instagram against a backing track of ambient electronic sounds, presents a reworking of grunge’s rebellious spirit – which is alive and well.
Grunge’s modern-day influence isn’t just limited to IYKYK skate brands, but is also regularly seen on the runway and worn by your favourite celebrities. This September, at London Fashion Week, Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena-led Chopova Lowena presented a grunge-coded collection against the backdrop of West London’s BAYSIXTY6 skatepark. The show saw models wear layered leather belts accessorised with pin badges stomp down the runway to a heavy metal soundtrack. It represented the rebellion of girlhood and the theme of escape as models donned dishevelled knitwear in the attitude-filled display. Chopova Lowena has been seen on Dua Lipa, Julia Fox, and Madonna, demonstrating the longevity of grunge’s appeal and influence in fashion.
The moody skatepark showcase saw an authentic casting, where models such as Cameron Wilson took to the runway, whose personal style sees vintage streetwear mixed with grunge-style influences. As a brand, Chopova Lowena positions itself with one foot in the underground and the other in the zeitgeist, perfectly representing the grunge subculture’s legacy. Chopova Lowena isn’t the only one leading the charge. As Culted has previously stated, Heaven by Marc Jacobs has Gen-Z in a chokehold with its interpretations of grunge, proving too tantalising for its TikTok-native army of fashionistas.
But it’s not limited to such rebellious brands, often finding itself referenced in high-fashion. Spring/Summer 2023 saw Matthieu Blazy present his sophomore collection for Bottega Veneta, with Kate Moss taking to the runway. The legendary supermodel was seen strutting down the catwalk wearing what looked like a cropped plaid shirt, worn over a white tank top and a pair of relaxed-fitting jeans: a deceptively simple look straight from the grunge rulebook.
Of course, it would never be that simple for a brand like Bottega Veneta, as the garments brought a dose of the House’s signature trompe-l’œil with the ensemble crafted entirely of leather. The outfit showed that grunge will always be a source of artistic inspiration within the fashion space, with a longevity awarded to it as one of the last subcultures to take hold in the pre-Internet age.
Bottega Veneta’s SS23 display drew on the subculture in a purely aesthetic way, as there is nothing deeply grunge about a £4,300 shirt and a pair of leather jeans. Instead, it was rooted in nostalgia rather than subculture, transporting us back to the hazy guitar riffs of the ‘90s with the inclusion of Kate Moss, an original grunge girly.
Luxury fashion works on the basis of paying a higher price for a high-quality, well-made, impeccably-produced product that will last a lifetime, which Bottega Veneta does extremely well. It has always been stylish, and it always will be, with its items, such as the Pre-Spring 2024 Argyle Intarsia Wool Jumper showing parallels with the knits worn by Cobain. The Italian House’s Leather Bicolour Intrecciato Shirt, while being crafted from leather and exemplifying the attention to detail associated with the House, also mirrors the aesthetic properties held by a flannel shirt – a key component of the grunge uniform. For the brand to elevate grunge-inspired garments on its runway, the look is indoctrinated as timeless and will be remembered for years to come.
From DIY brands to high-end luxury labels, fashion just can’t get enough of grunge. It is a style and subculture conceived in the pre-Internet age and it has maintained a notable staying power, seen in its reinterpretations both on and offline.
Grunge continues to influence, inform, and mould the looks worn by tastemakers. It’s seen on the runway, tapping into our desire for nostalgia and love of the past. Thanks to its accessible foundations, grunge-inspired fashion is here to stay.
Main Image Credit: @jerks.store
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