Trend Report | Happystalgia, long live Y2K


You’ve heard of Nowstalgia, the creative strategy that consists of juggling modernity (now) and nostalgia, but have you heard of happystalgia? This 2000’s revival has invaded digital culture and the wardrobes of Gen-Z worldwide. The choker, the butterfly clip, and the low-rise boot-cut jean are back, and it feels like American Idol all over again. What insights are behind this resurgence of 2000s cool? And how does the new generation reinterpret these codes that they are too young to have lived firsthand?

Our strategic planning team decided to investigate…

1st reason: The quest for good vibes

The youth have always fostered a fascination for the past: cultivating an air of “it was better before“, grieving the loss of a bygone era they never knew (and surely exactly because they did not live through it). Between escape and contestation, idealizing the past provides the perfect negative light to shed on the present. And this penchant for nostalgia has always been exploited by brands under the guise of retro-marketing.

By reappropriating Y2K sartorial, technological, and musical genres, the Nowstalgia movement boasts an infatuation with the technological and digital advancements that were in vogue at the dawn of the new millennium: flip phones, Tecktonik, “early online chat room” aesthetics, and cyber ravers make up this peculiar panoply. It’s a Kaybug-infused world (remember the digital bug that threatened the very existence of Y2K computer systems?), we’re just living in it.

“The 00’s marry the extravagance of the 80’s and the futuristic delirium of the new millennium. The make-up is saturated, the hairstyles explosive, the clothes colorful. We are beyond the AIDS crisis and the new millennium is a promise of renewal, with an optimism that we can also find in the technicolor TV series of the time.” Zoé Térouinard, Editorial Director at Muuuz.

Diving back into the pop culture of the past means reconnecting with a sugarcoated version of reality, far removed from the woes of the international news cycle: Newport Beach, Lizzie McGuire, Even Stevens, That’s So Raven, One Tree Hill or even Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars. Havens of cozy utopia and acidic humor where everyone is beautiful and everyday problems are solved instantly. On Instagram, the candy-pink tabloid looks inspired by these cult series continue to grow massive followings: popcultureangel, Every Outfit On Lizzie McGuire, Thank You Atoosa. Somewhere between The Real World and The Simple Life, the quest for realism is lost—only reality TV matters.

Evan Collins is one of the first curators of “Y2K” images. Founder of the blog “The Institute of Y2K Aesthetics“, he wanted to delineate the hallmarks of this aesthetic and the values it could embody:

From The Matrix and its digital rain to video clips that blend 2D and 3D graphics to portray joyful cyborgs (e.g. Out of Your Mind Victoria Beckham), optimism and techno-utopism are essential components of the Y2K era. With all the hype of the dotcom boom and the new economy, people thought prosperity might never end.

In a woke world, Nowstalgia seems to take a melancholic look at the “World Before…“, full of frivolous insouciance and naivety, where we thought that the earth’s riches were unlimited, progress endless and the new millennium full of promises, far from the relentless gaze of social media, the climate crisis and the advent of war. Can we read in aughts nostalgia a plea for the optimism and confidence of this lost time? Nowstalgia’s strength lies in reappropriating these codes of frivolity and optimism and using them in our current reality. A reality that does not lose sight of the urgent matters we must face. No doubt this search for a “feel good mood” explains in large part Nowstalgia’s exponential spread since its appearance in 2016.

Is positivity the key to engaging the younger generation? That’s the recipe Pepsi decided to rely on with its “The Mess We Miss” campaign, which reminds us of the small, harmless pleasures of everyday life before Covid. For Todd Kaplan, VP of Marketing at Pepsi, by combining nostalgia and optimism, the brand intends to help the general public see the future with a smile. Smiley employed a similar strategy, celebrating “50 years of good news” at the Galeries Lafayette with retro-gaming arcades, limited editions and “It’s time to smile” collabs.

2nd reason: Intentional irony

Deconstructed & mismatched aesthetics, asymmetries, rhinestones, excess, collage, and a veritable debauchery of materials. Somewhere between self-deprecation and provocation, Gen Z embraces the promise of an adolescence where all stylistic experimentation is permitted. A widespread liberation, far from the demands of a perfectly Instagrammable life. Everything seemed possible in the 00s, and it was above all a way to have fun without caring about the rules social media would later enforce. The opportunity for unbridled creativity. And so much for looking classy : lip gloss, bobs, Hawaiian shirts, whale-tails, side-zip pants and jean skirts over jeans. Between celebrating body positivity and self-expression, the Y2K aesthetic is a monumental finger to Instagram and Pinterest.

“Behind the 2000s, there is a desire not to take oneself seriously, and a total disregard for potential ridicule. This also explains the advent of the worst fashion trends associated with this time, flashy and unharmonious, and the arrival en masse of vulgar but terribly funny reality shows”, muses Nawal Bonnefoy, fashion and celebrity journalist at BFMTV.

“Stolen photos of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears walking out of a nightclub totally drunk, it just couldn’t happen today.”

It is on this premise that Nowstalgia brands are surfing: to reflect the personality of its wearer with humor and derision. Playful, ironic, extravagant; mixing styles, symbols and eras, Nowstalgia takes a disillusioned look at today’s diktats and playfully bypasses them like the nail sticker brand Ivine, the psychedelic, non-gendered cosmetics of Pleasings by Harry Styles, or the costume jewelry of Ian Charms.

“From the beginning, we’ve been very careful to only create pieces for people who we think really have a sense of humor and fit the brand (…) We’re a brand that trolls itself, so we want to make sure that anyone we dedicate a product to really has a sense of humor and (…) doesn’t take themselves too seriously”, says Sahakian, founder of Ian Charms.

3rd reason: Aughts but make it progressive 

This obsession is not merely aesthetic: it is also deeply social. Y2K was the era of girl power, where sexy and powerful were far from being mutually exclusive: the Spice Girls, L5 and Destiny’s Child, for example. But also Carrie Bradshaw, Reese Witherspoon, Marissa Cooper and Summer Roberts (Newport Beach): ingénues who suffered because of it, often confined to the role of bimbo, but who embody the spirit of the era. In her music video “Thank U, next “, Ariana Grande pays tribute to the cult films of the time, now elevated and elected into the feminist canon: think Mean Girls and Legally Blonde.

The return of these icons, Britney and Paris Hilton at the helm, raises questions about the way these women were looked at at the time. Once considered brainless babes, they now take on a whole new dimension : at long last considered role models with storied careers, masterful marketing strategies, fighting to make their voices heard and to emancipate themselves from the patriarchy. Whether it’s Britney’s recent battle for her guardianship, or Paris Hilton’s big comeback on social, detailing in her recent documentary the years of abuse she suffered at a Utah boarding-school and her work as a feminist and businesswoman committed to building her empire.

“The return of the 2000s is a kind of sugarcoated last-ditch effort by fashion to respond to #MeToo. Those years, despite their pop empowerment, weren’t very political. It was mostly fun/cute provocation, and not really militant slogans. So by hijacking the 2000s, some brands can now surf on feminist issues without getting too wet.” Mélody Thomas, fashion journalist at Marie Claire.

If the “Nowstalgia” state of mind is fueled by a desire to reinvent contemporary codes and aesthetic diktats, it does not only affect the female sphere: Adam Sandler, the most searched fashion icon on Google in 2021 and his #itssobaditsgood style puts all fans of #Y2K trends in agreement. His galloping popularity echoes the Yougov survey, revealing that 91% of men would like to see the “everyday” man better represented by fashion brands.

4th reason: Fashion statement

Like any self-respecting Z-trend, Nowstalgia has capitalized on the viral and aggregate power of social networks, as well as its influencers : Dua Lipa, Bella Hadid, Olivia Rodrigo, Pete Davidson, Joe Jonas, Jaden Smith… All of them have been spotted on social networks wearing the Ian Charms brand’s quintessential fantasy pearl necklace. Its “homemade” aesthetic is reminiscent of the friendship jewelry of the early 2000s : motley beads, pizza charms, dice, teeth, hearts, stars … The full range of the emoji keyboard. It’s the fun, offbeat friendship bracelet for the TikTok generation.

What is striking is the apparent simplicity of the product : no more gold and precious stones. It’s as if there’s a desire to return to an order of things based on individual creativity, and not on the external signs of prosperity. A “next door” statement. But behind the apparent humility of the product, one can decipher the posture of a connoisseur who knows how to hunt for the right pieces (the custom-made necklace costs nearly $400). An opportunity to reconcile the Z’s passion for the fashion-sphere with their ecological and sustainable considerations.

This vintage renaissance is generating an unprecedented boom in second-hand clothing, especially from online platforms like Depop and Poshmark. And this frenzy for second-hand is also starting to have brick & mortar repercussions, especially in the Lower East Side of Manhattan where two vintage thrift stores – Bowery Showroom and Rogue – have earned the neighborhood the nickname “TikTok Block” in light of the massive influx of Zs.

5th reason: Identity and leverage for brands 

Launched in 2018, the Aesthetics Wiki site provides an open-source index of the various styles that thrive on social media (Cottage Core, Dark Academia, Y2K…) categorized under six general suffixes: “core,” “goth,” “kei,” “punk,” “wave” and “academia.” With the pandemic, the platform saw its traffic increase by almost 5,000% and attracts hundreds of new contributors every month. In a study published last September, Nicolas Szmidt, head of trend analysis on YouTube, and Marie Berst, head of Cultures and Trends for YouTube France, explained:

“The success of these aesthetics is largely based on the diversity of its themes and formats. The creative tutorials, for example, allow people to appropriate an aesthetic in their way of dressing, decorating their home, etc. (…) If the people in charge of the website are not aware of the aesthetic, they can use it. (…) If marketers truly want to connect with Gen Z, they need to understand what defines them. And aesthetics are at the heart of this generation’s identity.”

Opportunities for Brands

Since they live primarily on social networks, these subcultures have not taken long to interest the worlds of fast fashion and jewelry that are starting to create dedicated categories offering “Y2K” products, but made in 2021 (and not vintage). And it’s a hit! Mixing nostalgia, humor, and pop culture is the key. Among the biggest successes to draw inspiration from: Simmons, IAMGIA, Kim Shoui, Meow and Poster Girls.

The smartest ones have realized that they can harness the power of nostalgia to connect with their audiences in a more intimate way, by partnering with the toy industry. Like Gaia, whose capsule collection with doll brand Bratz is full of platform shoes, mini bags, bucket hats, berets, chokers, hoop earrings and snakeskin prints. Another big success is the collaboration between the make-up brand ColourPop and the PowerPuff Girls IP. A strategy that could extend tomorrow to accessories, lifestyle, and even food (think Figolu’s comeback in France).

Another opportunity for brands : to reminisce about how far they’ve come since the 2000s and to celebrate their heritage without fuss. With its nutri-game, Chocapic (Nestlé) proposes a retro game where the mascot (Pico) has to reach his nutriscore B objective. The opportunity for the brand to reiterate its approach to nutritional improvement.

Ditto for the Vodka Cruiser, says Brand Manager Michael O’Donoghue. “We set out to create a platform that would effortlessly celebrate our past. But it could also pave the way for its future. Fortunately for us, the resurgence of the Y2K fashion trend couldn’t be a more perfect fit. We are super excited about how it brings to life the attitude and personality of Vodka Cruiser.” The Nowstalgia of Nike x Jordan sums it up perfectly: Embrace the Future. Honor the past.

Between leveraging identity and making a fashion statement, something tells us that Nowstalgia is well on its way to becoming a permanent fixture in the lives of Gen-Z. Ready for the invasion ?

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