What do you call an à la carte, mix-and-match, label-agnostic approach to style, an anti-fashion fashion trend and a conscious effort to look effortless? If you answered "normcore", then you've at least heard the fashion world's biggest buzzword of the year - even if you don't know it when you see it. And if normcore isn't on your radar yet, that may be because it's a slippery concept.
There are a few things about normcore that aren't up for debate. One is the origin of the term, which can be traced to an October 2013 report titled "Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom" by New York City-based youth trend forecasting agency K-Hole. It reads, in part: "Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts into sameness.
"But instead of appropriating an aestheticised version of the mainstream, it just cops to the situation at hand. To be truly normcore, you need to understand that there's no such thing as normal."
But like an unruly child that parents can't control, once birthed into the petri dish of popular culture, K-Hole's hashtaggable nugget was being defined variously as "self-stylised blandness" (in New York magazine), signifying that "blending in is the new standing out" (according to The Guardian). Those cited as members of the norm corps include British media personality Alexa Chung (who apparently bristled at the sobriquet), comic Jerry Seinfeld, the late tech titan Steve Jobs and the former Kate Middleton, whose middle-of-the-road wardrobe choices earned her the title "the Duchess of Normcore" (from Vogue, no less).
While some publications (such as The New York Times) couldn't seem to decide whether normcore was the next big trend or simply a massive fashion in-joke, others doubled down.
When GQ included it in a recent round-up of style tribes (normcore's about "dressing as inconspicuous as possible," according to the fashion bible), there seemed to be no denying the (bland) eagle had landed.
"Oh, I think it's very real," says author and Barneys creative ambassador Simon Doonan, who penned a column about the phenomenon earlier this year for slate.com "I think there's a whole generation of younger hipster dudes, whether they're in Brooklyn or Silver Lake, who are very much against obvious designer prestige signifiers - sort of anti-designer, in a way - and they like the look of super-anonymous clothing that sort of fetishises the look of a guidance counsellor from 1982."
To Doonan, the message is clear: "What it's saying is 'I'm so young and groovy I can wear these sort of super-anonymous made-in-Romania windbreakers.'"
What does normcore look like? Doonan points to items such as the fawn-coloured golf knit, logo-less sneakers and "grey sweat pants pretending to be trousers". But here's the rub: a pair of off-brand heather grey sweatpants won't cut it. The key is to wear a high-end designer version of the drawstring-waistband, elasticised-at-the-ankles sweatpants that only looks like you're slumming it - in cashmere, wool herringbone and chino-like cotton twills. Sound familiar? It should - that was the biggest autumn 2014 menswear trend to come out of New York Fashion Week.
Doonan isn't alone in pointing to the hipster set as patient zero of the normcore meme. Lizzie Garrett Mettler, LA-based cultural observer, says: "Hipsters do things to be funny and ironic - like those T-shirts from 10 years ago that said 'Spelling bee champ' on them. But those shirts are dated, and the jokes are old. Now that the ironic T-shirt and the handlebar moustache have become stale, hipsters are being funny by going mainstream. It's a bit condescending to wear normal clothing as a joke, but maybe that's the next natural iteration of the hipster."
For Mettler, that highlights the big hitch in normcore: "You can't unwittingly be normcore," she says. "You need to know it to do it. And you really have to know the person to know if they're dressing normcore and for it to be a statement."
In other words, like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, can you truly be normcore if no one knows you're dressing that way?
Whether anyone truly understands it, Doonan, for one, thinks it's going to be around for the foreseeable future. "Normcore is very easy to wear, and you don't get beaten up on the street or have people laugh at you because, essentially, you're anonymous," he says.
That means there's probably one sure-fire way to stop the trend in its tracks: emblazon "Got normcore?" in bold letters across the chest of a good old-fashioned hipster T-shirt.
Totally ironically, of course.