Entering a new year is always the time to take stock of trends that have been building, and consider how these will develop going forward. We are, of course, entering into a year that will be more digitally-focused than ever before, with fashion, art, and communities increasingly embedded in social media, and taking on new forms in digital worlds. These digital spaces we increasingly inhabit have allowed us to express ourselves, and different sides of ourselves, in new ways and fashion and beauty have become an integral part of expressing these varying identities.
Younger consumers in particular have embraced nuanced and varied self-expression - and experimentation in how to bring different ideas, identities, and cultural affiliations to life. Indeed this experimentation and variety seems set to only increase as we go into 2023, leading to what seems to be a fragmentation and decentralisation of how “beauty” is defined, and how beauty and fashion are used by consumers.
As pointed out frequently in the media, for younger consumers fashion and beauty choices are frequently seen to be less about ‘looking good’ than ‘looking how you feel’ - letting what’s inside become externalised is valued over an externally defined sense of ‘style’. Sometimes this results in eclectic, thrown-together looks, or in highly curated near-costumes aligned to a particular “aesthetic” trend. Social media is of course a major driver of inspiration for, and access to, a never-ending stream of sub-cultural affiliations and forms of expression. Tiktok, for example, has seemingly no end to hashtags ending in “aesthetic”, each an opportunity to show oneself in an entirely new light.
Frequently each individual seems to have little or no allegiance to any particular style or identity, instead choosing to express different identities or attitudes on a regular basis. As a result, style and beauty appear to be less and less tied to a unified cultural ideal, and instead are fragmented into specific communities, which each individual may move in and out of at will. While mainstream culture remains as a pillar, it is no longer necessary (or desirable) to adhere entirely to its norms and trends. Going forward, brands will need to acknowledge and respond to this if they want to resonate with younger audiences.
Across fashion and beauty we see this fragmentation represented in the proliferation of small, often capsule-collection led brands offering specific visions for a niche consumer base. With social media making it easier for creative individuals and brands to reach their audience, retail is no longer owned by large brands and big-name influencers or media outlets.
Smaller, newcomer brands are now responding to and addressing this need for self expression and experimentation, their popularity driven by their unique perspectives and unconventional offerings. This is especially evident in the beauty category.
Half Magic beauty, for example, offers makeup in bright, saturated colours, and a range of glitters designed to be liberally applied for highly expressive, dramatic looks. Their imagery and suggested looks provide inspiration for playful, experimental use of makeup that throws conventional ideas of ‘enhanced natural’ beauty to the wind. Indeed, on their website, they make reference to using makeup to bring out “the versions of ourselves that shape-shift with every day,” and encourage making usually unseen fantasies into reality through the power of the perfect glitter eyeshadow. Likewise the brand UOMA, which offers an inclusive range of face makeup, encourages not only more ‘traditional’ looks and makeup applications, but also creative and abstract designs that move beyond beautification into artistic self expression.
And even magazines - inspired by the beauty looks of runway shows - suggest that there are no limits to what is acceptable and desirable as a jumping off point for inspiration, with everything from glitter eyebrows to full-face paint appearing in slideshows of seasonal makeup ideas. These costume-like looks transition immediately from social media to themed subcultures and k , suggesting that individuals are starting to embrace and embody their varied interests, cultural allegiances, and pop culture references. In fact, these looks are no longer reserved only for fancy dress occasions, but an integral part of self-expression whether on or offline. As a result, the traditional ‘rules’ of what looks “beautiful” start to disintegrate in favour of what is interesting, creative, and expressive.
The fragrance category is also reflecting this shift, with newcomer brands such as Byredo embracing gender neutral scents with abstract place- and feeling- evocative names. And in the luxury sector, Bulgari has created a mix-and-match series of perfumes which allow the wearer to create a different ‘story’ every day, to evoke how they are feeling and who they want to be. Rather than be a “Chanel No 5” person, every day is an opportunity to be someone new, and the perfumier simply assists in creating a product that brings this identity to life, rather than defining it in advance. Likely we will continue to see this ethos grow and expand into other categories, such as wellness, in the upcoming year.
Whilst norms around beauty are not disappearing entirely (and arguably are more pervasive than ever in some parts of culture), the fragmentation and expansion of subcultures and different opportunities for self expression mean that consumers no longer feel obligated to follow along with specific trends, or choose one kind of ‘look’. Instead, how people dress and make themselves up is increasingly decentralized, with everyone a potential tastemaker, and drawing on multiple influences and ideas at any time.
As it becomes less possible to definitively say what is “in” or “out”, or what looks good through a homogeneously-defined lens, brands will need to shift how they think of their role and the way they provide beauty products and services to younger consumers. In this sense, brands (and retailers and magazines) need to take on a role as enablers rather than as tastemakers or gatekeepers. They can no longer rely on their size or brand recognition as a sign of expertise or trend-setting, and instead need to understand and cater to the unique and shifting tastes and outlooks of their customers. However this also creates a great opportunity for brands to develop a strong affiliation with a particular subculture or form of self expression, without necessarily limiting their reach. It means there is room to be highly creative and set a clear, unique vision. There is more room for new, unusual perspectives to reach a greater audience by embracing difference rather than trying to ‘fit in.’
Overall, though, to successfully cater to consumers going forward, brands will need to think about how they can best support the ideas of each individual, and rather than sell a finished product or ‘look,’ embrace the infinite possibilities of the products and styles on offer.