Esprit de corpse: Fashion’s Resistance to Algorithmic Take-over

Esprit, the popular 80s brand, is the latest to jump on the 80-90s ‘mall vintage’ revival bandwagon. Global fashion executives and consultants are pouring money into bringing Esprit back by trying to mix the magical proportions of market research, influencer attention, and data capture. But what made Esprit so cool in the 80s was its arty nonchalance (you can read more of my Esprit musings here). Obviously, fashion moved at a slower pace as well back then, which meant, among other things, that every potential market was not analyzed to death by algorithms and data points. And, we’d argue one of the main drivers behind nostalgia for the 80s-90s mall brands (and even Y2K) is the freedom from the constant surveillance of social media, even if the mall was the proto internet. (Read my bff’s writing on the history and social importance of the mall here).

The beauty of 80s Esprit clothes came from the revolutionary branding, whacky color combos, and oversized proportions. All of these elements looked great in magazine ads, the fashion medium of the day. None of this stands out today in a world of tik toks. From the ads I’ve seen so far, I get no sense of any style or perspective, and it often feels “cringe”. In the 80s, diverse models were a big deal but today it’s unremarkable. As it should be. 

From this interview, the CEO of Esprit  tells us: “…part of its digital strategy to “reinvent customer engagement experiences by turning data into insights”. Besides this statement being a completely meaningless word salad, it is laughable because fashion defies the “data into insights” equation. Fashion stays exciting because in its search for the new, it often runs against and away from what the ‘data’ says. Just ask these teens in Brooklyn. As John Fiske detailed for us, the subordinate classes use commodities, or “what’s available,” to create new meanings and new trends. Once corporations glom onto what the fringes are doing, the trend loses its defiant meaning. If anything can save us from the overhyped algorithmic ‘data as insight,’ it will be fashion. 

Below are some Esprit ads from 1986. They featured their employees in the ads. The new stuff is too cringe to post, check out the Instagram account to see what I mean. Here is an archival Esprit Instagram account that is amazing. 


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