When Cringe is Cool: The Rebellion of Anti-Aesthetics 

January, 2024

We’re living in an age of hyper-individuality. Mass media has fragmented into niche corners of the internet, escalating pressures to adopt unique expressions of personal style and taste. And with over 1,000 aesthetics and “cores” in the zeitgeist — up 43% from the start of 2023 — the proliferation of unique style categorizations is nearly impossible to keep up with. The abundance of aesthetics and obscure passions online is creating a paradox for Zoomers. While they champion individuality, they also grapple with the pressure to stand out in a landscape saturated with originality. As a result, intentionally shocking and ironic anti-aesthetics have emerged as the unexpected standout hero.

“Since social media is such an integral part of our lives, we feel a pressure to identify with something very strongly in order to be unique.”

Angela, 19, Horizon Z Lab Member 

In 2022, bright-colored decor and intentionally mismatched patterns flooded fashion feeds, introducing Maximalism as an antidote to “fitting in” — a celebration of unapologetic self-expression. Now, the antidote to sameness is coming in the form of even more over-the-top, even ugly forms of expression. In a world where niche is the norm, embracing comically off-putting, clownish style and cringe creations may be the final frontier of novel expression and brands are joining in on the playful rebellion. 

Nearly 6 in 10 Gen Zers are drawn to content creators who “let their freak flags fly.”*

Marni via BBC

Clown Couture:

In August, Crocs paired up with artist collective MSCHF to release their “Big Yellow Boots,” a sunflower-color take on the brand’s subversive Big Red Boot. Y2K queen Paris Hilton modeled for the product release donning a skin-tight, similarly cartoon-inspired black and yellow bodysuit. In September, Italian fashion house Marni debuted a similarly comical sneaker style, the “BigFoot 2.0” at Paris Fashion Week. But what may take the cringe cake is Louis Vuitton’s $2,470 Illusion Boot, released in a Fall 2023 presentation in Paris. Inspired by surrealism, the knee-high boot is designed to trick the eye into seeing an exposed leg adorned with white socks and black pumps. 

Louis Vuitton via Vogue

Everyday Cringe:

Beyond the elite corners of high-fashion runways, cringe has permeated everyday marketplaces. A quick search on Amazon for “ugly clothes” returns over 50,000 results, ripe with questionable selections like “taco cat bathing suit” and “fake ab tee shirts for men.”

Questionable creations are also hitting food shelves, infusing grocery aisles with a dose of gross. Last spring, Hidden Valley and Van Leeuwen released an exclusive line of ranch-flavored ice cream at select Walmart stores. The ice cream brand’s embrace of daring, almost disgusting products has been a hit with shoppers who are proving hungry for more. In October, Van Leeuwen re-released its 2021 Kraft Mac and Cheese-flavored ice cream at Walmart, which incorporates powdered cheese from Kraft’s nostalgic blue macaroni box.

Hidden Valley via People

Brand Implications:

As standing out grows increasingly difficult in a landscape saturated with distinctive trends, we expect to see continued movement toward absurdism and irony. Brands looking to make an impression among those seeking unique expressions and experiences can have fun playing with shock value. When done intentionally, and with some irony, cringe becomes cool and gives brands the chance to capture the attention and loyalty of new, vocal audiences. 

Here are some ways brands can tap into this moment:

Retail: A furniture retail brand could take a bold leap into anti-aesthetics by launching an “Uncomfortable Comfort Collection” of intentionally awkward and ugly furniture pieces. To spread the word of your line, partner with influencers known for their unconventional taste in home decor to showcase these items in their living spaces via live streams and vlogs. To drive people to buy, create a custom augmented reality filter, enabled through a smartphone camera, that allows people to stage the awkward pieces in their homes and purchase with a click of a button.

Fitness: Turn the fitness world on its head by launching the “Cringe Core Fitness Challenge” within an app. Create a series of intentionally unconventional and “ugly” workout routines that challenge traditional fitness norms. Encourage users to record themselves attempting these awkward workouts and share the videos on social media using a dedicated hashtag. The most creative and humorous entries could win exclusive fitness gear or personalized training sessions.

*Source: Horizon Media Finger on the Pulse. Survey Fielded November 13-November 21; n=1,001

Other Popular Stories