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It started, like many good things do, with a Comme des Garcons suit: a pair of zoot suit-style trousers and jacket in navy blue wool. Johnny Valencia purchased it on eBay for around $100, about a decade ago. The online market in vintage designer fashion was just emerging, thanks to sites like eBay, Etsy, and Nasty Gal Vintage, and Valencia remembers thinking: “I don’t have to go to thrift stores anymore and look for things. I can have access to all of this online.” After selling the CDG suit jacket, he started flipping Escada from the ’80s, Versace skirts he’d buy for $20. In 2018, he opened Pechuga Vintage, his online shop, which offers rarer fare: he recently acquired a Gucci thong, along with a Vivienne Westwood corset also in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s incredible, covetable stuff, despite the fact—or maybe because of it—that much of it comes from a period widely considered to be one of the worst in modern fashion: the years between 1995 and 2001.
Valencia is one of many vintage sellers collecting not heritage denim or rare Grateful Dead tees, but the campy, decadent clothing of the Y2K era. His proudest acquisition is a ginormous Christian Dior logo belt with twin denim straps, the one Foxy Brown wears with a bikini and mirrored sunglasses on the cover of her 2001 album Broken Silence. Similar stores offer Cybertek racing jackets, Galliano newsprint swim trunks, a five-panel Dior baseball cap with a tiny Dior monogram wallet dangling from the temple, a Fendi soccer ball. Coveted items like Jean Paul Gaultier’s trippy op-art spandex tees and button-downs emblazoned with a red halftone print of abs can sell for thousands.
The visual motifs of Y2K—futurism, technical apparel, logomania, and the global pastiche responsible for everything from tribal tattoos to Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku phase—have seeped into contemporary fashion as well. There are turtlenecks at Prada printed with digital collages in artificially bright, crisp colors; toggle pants with reflective strips at Alyx; a Vetements T-shirt emblazoned with the Internet Explorer 5 logo and the word “ecstasy.” The ghost of Y2K is to blame for the entire tiny sunglasses thing. Some brands offer a wholesale relaunch: Dior’s saddle bag—produced in so many limited-edition styles during the early aughts that it inspired a similar collecting strategy to Beanie Babies—returned last year, its kidney-shaped profile unchanged. And then Juicy Couture relaunched with a runway presentation that was at least 30% tracksuits. Against all odds, Y2K is cool again.
To understand this resurgence, one must look back to the jumble of excitement and anxiety about the spread of technology at the turn of the millennium. The term originally arose on an internet discussion group in 1995 as shorthand for the “Year 2000 Problem”: the idea that a coding bug would parse the year 2000 as 1900, leading to a possible global breakdown of computer systems. By the year’s end, panic about Y2K had become its own cottage industry. In December, the New York Times ran an article on Y2K-proofing apartment buildings, which quoted the author of a book titled Y2K for Women: How to Protect Your Home and Family in the Coming Crisis.
“It was the first mainstream apocalyptic scare since the nuclear threat of the Cold War,” artist Perry Chen, who studied the Y2K phenomenon in his work Computers in Crisis, said in an interview in BOMB. “It was also nested in a moment…where we were trying to deal with this huge technological shift—the real-deal arrival of the internet, cell phones becoming ubiquitous, and the related mania of the US stock market’s tech bubble.…It seemed reasonable to many that there was a price to pay for all the rapid technological changes.”
The late 1990s were also a period of significant change in fashion. Young, iconoclastic designers were taking the reins at historic houses: John Galliano at Dior, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy, Tom Ford at Gucci. “[These designers] were very steeped in subversive notions of fashion,” said Stephanie Kramer, a fashion historian and instructor at FIT. “Those leaders, who were looking at youth culture, [were] now running trickle-down culture in the form of couture houses.”
And they were interested in technology, or at least in its aesthetic potential. In Givenchy’s fall 1999 show, there were jumpsuits decorated with circuit board patterns and vacuum-molded tops studded with LED lights. In New York, Helmut Lang debuted his fall 1998 collection online and gave gold CD-ROMs containing the video runway show to press. Moschino Jeans, the Italian brand’s diffusion line, sold a T-shirt with the vaguely ominous slogan: “01.01.2000 Once in a lifetime!” Along with this anxiety around tech, designers were embracing a kitschy, sexy kind of consumerism—a shift that produced, for example, logo-printed bikinis and blue-tinted golf sunglasses with an attached visor that feature a large “Dior” in three different places. (An earlier influence on this aesthetic was Dapper Dan, who developed allover-logo outfits in the 1980s and coined the term “logomania.”) “It’s like a glam representation of tackiness,” said Valencia. “It’s camp.”
Since the Met Costume Institute’s Camp: Notes on Fashion has everyone jockeying to be the doyen of what does and does not meet the term’s criteria, Y2K is a useful source of inspiration and authority. “There was a really big emphasis on uniqueness, customized things and one-of-a-kind things,” said stylist and vintage collector Gabriel Held. He named as an example Lil’ Kim’s infamous 1999 VMA outfit: the sparkly lavender catsuit-and-pasties combo designed by her stylist Misa Hylton-Brim. “Even if it was on many a worst-dressed list, these are the looks we remember now. No one’s going to remember who wore a silver Balmain dress twenty years from now.”
The things that people do remember are now collectors’s items—but so are pieces of less striking origin. Held, who recently sold most of his Baby Phat collection to Rihanna, makes a point of collecting not only designer pieces, but the mainstream brands of the era. “In 90s the 2000s, I feel like there was a very cyclical relationship between luxury fashion and the urban marketplace…where the way that these styles were being reinterpreted by the urban community in turn influenced the way designers made their subsequent collections, which then got reinterpreted into the streets, and so on and so on,” he told me. According to Stephanie Kramer, by the Y2K era, the distinction had grown vanishingly small: “The feedback loop [between luxury and street fashion], it’s not even a loop anymore,” she said. “It’s almost like this little scribble, going back and forth.”
This might explain Y2K’s renewed popularity. The tech reckoning that never came to pass instilled relief, but also cynicism about the market forces that had produced the scare; it highlighted the vulnerability in being part of a global network and undermined traditional understandings of high culture and expertise. This all feels familiar today, which is why it can be fun—even cathartic—to own a piece of an era that was both very excited about the sexy, high-tech future and also already kind of trolling itself. Plus, the way these sellers are finding success echoes the informal, tech-forward spirit of Y2K: very few have brick-and-mortar storefronts, with many selling over eBay, Grailed, Etsy, or Instagram. Held has a Depop account, but “that’s not where you’ll find the crown jewels,” he says—for those, make an appointment.
“It almost doesn’t feel like we’re getting the sudden return of Y2K fashion; I think it’s been sort of creeping in under the radar for quite a few seasons now,” said Volker Ketteniss, head of menswear at the trend forecasting firm WGSN. He sees a connection between the commercial pranks of contemporary brands like Off-White or Vetements and the cycle of high- and street-fashion influence at the turn of the millennium: “If you think about how much all the recent things in fashion have been trying to challenge taste, and the whole post-post-modern Vetements thing, and all of that self-referentiality, in some ways it’s quite similar to what was going on in the 2000s… Most of it was re-referenced from older subcultures and then redone in a different way.”
Although Y2K fashion has its contemporary analogues, it’s best straight from the tap: from one of the vintage sellers with an encyclopedic knowledge of Jean Paul Gaultier T-shirt designs and spangled Gucci pants. In that sense, it builds on a preexisting infrastructure in menswear. “Certainly in the men’s market, I think we’ve learned [vintage] from the whole sneaker thing: limited-edition drops, things that very quickly become more expensive than they were originally at retail, and the sort of hype that’s been happening around that,” Ketteniss said. “That certainly raised interest in wanting to get something completely unique.”
As a counterpoint to fast fashion and designer reboots, Y2K vintage possesses an aura of authenticity: it was the beginning of fashion’s half-ironic embrace of technology and consumerism, not its end. It has a unique, brand-sensitive affect, too. Referencing a moment whose glee about the future contained a certain amount of nihilism is a way to be optimistic without being naïve. Most importantly, in an era where style-conscious shoppers are all chasing the same half-dozen pairs of sneakers and It pieces, hyper-specific Y2K vintage demonstrates that you know your stuff. “I’ve always thought that vintage is more elite than current,” Gabriel Held said. “Because anyone who can afford the current season can go out and buy it… But a vintage piece, you’re not going to be walking into a room and having anyone wearing the same thing.”
Originally Appeared on GQ