I’ve been on the waiting list for the Paloma Wool Enya top for months. I’ve wanted it since I saw YouTuber Nayna Florence wear it in one of her videos but due to the item’s popularity, it’s perpetually sold out. The Enya top is just one of many fashion items that have achieved cult status in recent months – along with the House of Sunny Day Tripper cardigan and Hockney dress – after the meteoric rise in popularity of this kitschy, maximalist aesthetic, dubbed by editor and consultant Emma Hope Allwood back in January as 'avant basic'.
The avant basic woman is easily identifiable. As well as owning a wardrobe stocked with the latest drops from Paloma Wool, House of Sunny and Lisa Says Gah, she drinks oat milk, decorates her home with Astrid Wilson prints and the Murano mushroom lamp, and 'curates' an immaculate Instagram feed. She’s quirky but not different. As Allwood puts it: "If Summer from 500 Days of Summer was an Insta gal with a mullet." Up until now, thanks to a seemingly endless lockdown, the look has been confined to Instagram and well-dressed walks around the park. Now that pubs and restaurants are open though, all bets are off. Avant basic, also described as 'kindergarten kitsch' or 'hot girl maximalism', is set to take over the summer.
Leicester-based Natasha, 24, is a huge fan of the trend. She owns "quite a few pieces" from brands like House of Sunny and Lisa Says Gah and feels that the trend reflects her own personal style. "I usually wear quite a lot of clashing patterns, a lot of bright colours," she says. "And it’s definitely an asset knowing that these brands are all sustainable too. I don’t mind investing my money into these brands."
Moya, 21, lives in Dublin and is another fan of avant basic fashion. "I love the colours and funky patterns," she says. "It kind of reminds me of my mum, who wears very colourful mismatched pieces." Like Natasha, Moya says she’s "happy to invest" in sustainably made clothing.
The style feels ultra modern but has its roots in the 20th century. Olivia Yallop, creative director at The Digital Fairy, explains that "the psychedelic swirls, flared trousers and bohemian checks are reminiscent of the carefree fashion of the previous 'Summer of Love' in 1967." This much is clear from the names of several House of Sunny designs, such as the Beatles-inspired All You Need Is Love bomber jacket. Yallop adds that the trend is also potentially "a nod to the decadent aesthetics of the post-plague roaring '20s, which internet users are eagerly anticipating for summer 2021."
But the trend is not a straightforward rehashing of '60s psychedelia or '20s decadence. This time around, the aesthetic is coloured by the impact of the pandemic. "Cool girl maximalism has been trending on Instagram as a reaction to clinical minimalism for a while now, but it was accelerated by last year’s cultural embrace of 'chaos' as a lifestyle aesthetic," Yallop explains. She describes the trend as "the unofficial uniform of post-pandemic hot girl summer" and adds that the style tallies with the current sense of optimism now that the end of lockdown is nigh.
The trend is also a "product of the algorithm", according to Yallop. "The wide range of aesthetic influences make it feel like an attempt to accumulate whatever’s trending together for maximum impact on an explore page," she says. The trend certainly gained traction thanks to the internet: the Holiday the Label checkerboard-print pyjamas stocked on Lisa Says Gah went viral and sold out after Gigi Hadid posted an Instagram video wearing them.
Despite the trend’s apparently ubiquitous popularity, not everyone who wants to has been able to get involved. Manchester-based Lucy, 22, liked the trend but found that its sizing is hardly inclusive, leaving her unable to jump on the avant basic bandwagon. As a woman with bigger hips, she’s found that the slip dresses and straight-leg jeans that dominate this trend simply don’t work for her. "It’s a very specific silhouette," she says. "And if your body doesn’t fit into that cut, it seems like you’re just pushed out of it."
Sizing isn’t the only thing barring consumers from getting involved with the trend. Twenty-three-year-old Ella, also from Manchester, says that brands like House of Sunny aren’t within her budget. "I usually just look on Depop for the clothes but then people resell them at stupidly high prices," she says. Lucy has encountered the same problem: "You’re expected to have the originals, but the originals are a bit out of my price range."
Moya also has doubts about the style’s longevity: "There's an element of unsustainability with these pieces being 'trendy'. There's a huge difference between buying a sustainable pair of everyday jeans vs a pair of checkered, groovy, colourful trousers." Yallop shares the same concern. "Avant basic feels inherently anti-sustainable," she says. "I’m not sure anyone will still be using psychedelic swirled trousers or checkerboard tufted rugs in 2022."
Ultimately, while brands like House of Sunny, Lisa Says Gah and Paloma Wool are more sustainable than most with their smaller collections, infrequent restocks and locally sourced materials, there’s more to sustainability than just how the clothes are manufactured. What good is a 'sustainably made' top if it ends up unworn and consigned to landfill after two years? With this in mind, it’s vital that we think hard before buying into this trend – or any trend, really. "I can never tell whether I like the trend or whether it’s just been shoved down my throat so much that I’ve now convinced myself I like it," says Lucy, which is ultimately the crux of the issue here.
We ought to follow the leads of women like Natasha, who feel assured and empowered in their style choices. Sure, thousands of other women wear this trend too – but as the story of that Zara dress taught us, ubiquity in fashion isn’t an inherently bad thing as long as we’re sure we like our purchases. "If people think it’s boring, I personally don’t care," Natasha says. "And I don’t really care if [the trend] goes out of style or not. I know I’ll wear it for years and years because it was very up my street to begin with."
While writing this, I get an email to say that the Paloma Wool Enya top is back in stock. I bolt to the site and immediately add it to my basket – but then pause to think if I really want to spend £77 on this top.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I decide. I wouldn’t be superior for shirking 'algorithm fashion', as Allwood puts it; nor would I be a bad, 'basic' or fundamentally unoriginal person for buying into the trend. All that matters is that I stop and think about whether I actually like this top when it’s laid bare as an item in a shopping basket and not dressed up as a cult, must-have product on my Instagram feed.