Putting a finger on why one thing goes viral on TikTok (here’s looking at you, frozen honey) and another doesn’t (aka everything I post) is next to impossible. But when it comes to fashion, a seemingly chaotic sphere that's actually embedded with patterns and cycles, explanations are a little easier to come by.
A case study: ‘90s designer Jean Paul Gaultier’s mesh tops and dresses, suddenly the talk of TikTok. By July, #JeanPaulGaultier had accumulated 77.7 million views on the Gen-Z-driven platform, and 18-year-olds were shopping on 1stdibs the way my 18-year-old self once shopped at Zara. The young fashionheads of today are jumping at the chance to spend upward of £500 on a sheer tank top dress the way I once pounced on £20 slips.
Gaultier is not the only one with Gen Z in his grips. Just as quickly as the designer’s mesh garments began appearing on the wish list of every under-20-something with a ring light, a wave of new pre-owned cult items was unleashed. Cropped patent leather jackets sporting the known mark of ‘60s and ‘70s designer André Courrèges were competing for TikTok space once dominated by Gaultier’s Venus de Milo- and Birth of Venus-printed tees. The ultra-mod French designer, known as the father of go-go boots and micro mini skirts, enjoyed a posthumous spike in popularity, garnering over 308,000 views on TikTok in a matter of months.
Emilia Musacchia, a TikToker with 31,000 followers, posted a video in May, unboxing “her dream jacket”: a lemon yellow vintage Courrèges vinyl jacket. “Oh my god, I love it,” she exclaimed, giving the retro garment a tight squeeze in the process. And she wasn’t the only one. Her video was a drop in the river of TikTok content tied to the Parisian designer, with everything from history lessons and unboxings like Emilia’s popping up daily.
And let us not overlook Emilio Pucci, another seemingly lost-to-the-archives fashion brand, that now has 1.5 million views on TikTok. Dubbed the “Prince of Prints,” the Italian designer rose to fame in the 1950s, when he dressed the likes of Marilyn Monroe. He was a favourite of ‘60s fashion icons Jackie Kennedy and Sophia Loren, too. A TikToker named Soco, who has more than 32,000 followers on TikTok, called a vintage Pucci printed dress her favourite item in her wardrobe in a video with over 5,700 views. Penélope, a fashion historian on TikTok who has over 3,000 followers, delved into the brand’s comeback in a recent history lesson about Pucci.
With each new vintage label spiking on the platform, the root cause for their popularity gets harder and harder to pinpoint. Gaultier, Courrèges, and Pucci all came from different eras, with their signature pieces celebrated at vastly different times. And yet they’re all rising at the exact same time. The only thing connecting the three brands is the love of Gen Z, the party responsible for catalysing their return to fashion fame.
Why are a handful of 20th century fashion stalwarts enjoying a second wind? Olivia Haroutounian, a 22-year-old vintage seller who has over 13,000 followers on Tiktok, chalks it up to the power of the platform’s data engine, which broadcasts your video to 300 to 500 users based on your video’s hashtags, among other variables, according to a LinkedIn study. Those 300 to 500 viewers are then your judge and jury, deciding whether or not your video is a bust, based on likes, comments, shares, and if they watched it until the end. “Trends spread very quickly on TikTok because of how the algorithm works,” she says. It’s true: In some cases, a user who has close to zero followers or next to zero content can grow their following by thousands — even millions — in the span of one night, only by posting a single 15-second video. If that video were to revolve around a certain brand, it could easily become a viral sensation within a matter of hours. All it needs is the right hashtag and some digital love.
Kristen Breakell, a content strategist at market research firm Trendalytics, puts it down to the outsize role of vintage on TikTok. “A lot of the success of these particular brands — older, more heritage designer brands like Gaultier and Pucci — could definitely be attributed to the increase in popularity of vintage shopping, which, of course, Gen Z is the leader of,” Breakell tells Refinery29. According to Breakell, TikTokers take to the inherent uniqueness that comes with archival and vintage pieces that isn’t present when you buy fast fashion or even re-issued garments. “For one, they have this kind of timeless aspect to them because they are high quality,” she says of the garments’ appeal, “but it's also that you know that you're not going to see somebody walking down the street in the exact same thing.”
Still, the overall popularity of vintage among Gen Zers on TikTok doesn’t explain the growing popularity of three specific brands that experienced heydays in vastly different eras. According to Breakell, that has more to do with the trends synonymous with the labels than the time frames in which they each debuted. “It so happens that these brands' signature styles really align with the current trends,” says Breakell. Take, for example, retro futurism, a term used to describe the sartorial legacy of brands like Courrèges and Pierre Cardin, which was a huge trend on the autumn ‘21 runways (think: Marine Serre's printed bodysuits, Paco Rabanne’s chainmail dresses, and even modern-day Courrèges’s mod minis and sets). Mesh naked dresses and vibrant, Mod prints like those designed by Gaultier and Pucci in the ‘90s and ‘60s, respectively, are also popular right now on social media, runways, and in street style. “It is a perfect storm,” Breakell says.
According to the strategist, the reasoning behind their current success goes back to the trend cycle, specifically, the fact that when we talk about the current popularity of ‘90s and early aughts trends — an era when Gaultier pieces thrived — we often forget that most of them were initially inspired by trends from the ‘60s and ‘70s — when Pucci and Courrèges experienced heydays. So, despite their vast difference in starting points, all three brands still fall under the Y2K umbrella that’s so popular on TikTok today.
Hard as it may be to imagine, Gaultier, Courrèges, and Pucci won’t always be the beloved vintage designers of TikTok. Another wave will come along soon enough, only to be wiped out by another. The only way to find out which heritage brand is next — that we should purchase in bulk before resale prices skyrocket — is to do what we already do best: Log on and scroll the night away.