Michael Smith

I remember noticing the style beginning to coagulate a little while before the financial crash, in the tail end of that age of aspiration, when it still seemed perfectly normal to eat out every night and go shopping in New York for the weekend. It was around the time the enclave around Broadway Market in Hackney had become the discreet epicentre of East End alternative cool; you could people-watch the early shoots of a sartorial change in the bohemian trendies who'd begun congregating there, going up and down the canal on their old fashioned bicycles, wearing Barbours, brogues, and an increasing number of beards. Not just the stubbly kind we were used to, these were full blown, horticultural, big bushy Bloomsbury Group beards, beards that evoked Eric Gill's sandal-wearing utopianism, beards from an era before the baby boomers had set the template of post-war pop culture. Nowadays the world and his wife might have one, but these chaps stood out like sore thumbs, looked funny, even a bit lunatic fringe.

But the longer I looked, the more cool types I saw riding those trad bikes with the Brookes saddles, wearing those lovely heritage brands that used to be the preserve of Tory farmers. I'd been scratching my head for some time, disappointed by the era's seemingly pathetic inability to produce any original style movements, in the way the previous century had done, time and time again, from Elvis and the Teddy Boys onwards. In my youth in the 90s, the most virulent strain of pop culture had a strong future-bound trajectory new drugs, new music with electronic basslines and rhythms that seemed to be engaged in a kind of space race, hi-tech waterproofs and combats, air-bubbled trainers, a culture with such a strong forward thrust it seemed to be trying to achieve escape velocity.

But then that was a style from an era that believed in the future, a window of opportunity between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers when it seemed like the laissez-faire Anglo-American model had triumphed against all the alternatives, and the future was bright, the future was orange.

We're no longer living in such times. It gradually occurred to me that waiting for a similar style shift was maybe waiting for the wrong thing. Maybe the beards and the Brookes saddles signified a shift in attitude and lifestyle that was quieter, more modest, but no less interesting, in the sense it had moved the goalposts expected of such style revolutions away from variations on the themes of youth, drugs, loud music, and the forward-looking tendencies of an increasingly prosperous society. This early 21st century style seemed to be concerned with things outside these narrow parameters, concerned with things from before and after youth culture. Craft Beards and their associated style began as a shot across the bows of the crass, vapid aspirationalism of the Noughties boom years, a rejection of that shiny bubble culture some of us vaguely sensed must be heading towards a sharp pin. I remember, as the pin drew ever nearer, the visual arts stopped being flashy one-liners made with dead sharks or diamond skulls and started to look hand-drawn again, design started feeling less shiny, more domestic and even home made, food started telling us which farm it was from. But if this all had a distinctly fringe feel in the Noughties, then the crash and its continuing fallout has brought this style and mindset from the fringes into the mainstream, with Tesco and McDonalds adopting hand-carved typefaces on their packaging, and adverts for banks using folkey acoustic guitars to coax you further into debt.

But if the baddies have hijacked and appropriated these stylings, it's because these stylings resonate so strongly with a sea change in our attitudes. We now appear to be living in a culture that has outlived its former ideologies. If the era of Neoliberal excess was ushered in by the collapse of Communism, then these days, like a car crash in slow motion, belief in the Last System Standing seems to be crumbling too.

In a culture where our trust in the bigger picture and the people who paint it has all but fallen away, beleaguered citizens of the contemporary conundrum are trying to short circuit the need for it; the crafty, beardy style is one symptom of this, an attempt to re-negotiate our basic and immediate social and economic exchanges, re-negotiate our consumerism, attempt to de-scale and humanise our consumerism from within.

We look for meaning in the imagined honesty and transparency of the locally sourced, the crafted, in things that bare the trace of the human hand heritage brands, craft beers, or single estate, artisan coffee become more and more invested with ideas of integrity, authenticity and nobility in a larger society that seems to have lost these qualities. We have the romantic sense these things might just help to anchor our lives in some simpler sense of meaning, a basic transaction with nature, and also the rest of society, rooting us in both, an umbilical cord to the world in a rudderless society that seems to be heading for the rapids. And so the act of manual labour is also invested with a renewed sense of nobility and honesty. A Norwegian bloke who smokes his own salmon in Hackney is the stuff of East End urban legend. The ex-art students making the coffee have become barristas in those minimal, wooden and distressed brick coffee shops where all the information is hand written on blackboards in chalk, pouring the froth on the flat whites like it was Renaissance marbled paper.

The sparse beauty of these wooden flat white cafes is a good visual shorthand for this style of the era we're in. It'd be doing it a disservice to imagine it's an entirely retro style fixated with heritage: it's not just a pastiche of some vague period before World War II, but with olives and Apple Macs there's a strand of modernism in the honesty-with-materials interwoven into this sensibility: I've noticed with enjoyment the recent vogue for showing off shit building materials like chipboard or breeze block in fashionable galleries and style bars. The Scandinavian version of this trend seems to cleave to a Calvinist's invigorating and ennobling sense of a hard-won clarity through austerity, and there's a beautiful purity in the precise and deliberate design aesthetic of their craft denim and crew neck sweaters which never threatens to descend into anything remotely twee. I have meetings with people I respect, and notice they have the same Muji notepads and pens as me, pens that look like chopsticks, clean, minimal design with a zen-like, sashimi-like purity. I tend to read a lot into all this.

This aesthetic seems like a valid and important expression of where we are and what we want out of the world these days. Our hopes and fears are embodied somewhere within it. Whether this style, or any style, has futurist or heritage-fixated tendencies is sort of missing the important bit: style embodies the spirit of the times, and this style embodies ours.

Add a comment

All comments are moderated. Published comments will show your name but not your email. We may use your email to contact you regarding your comment.