In the ’90s, it was hard to imagine the fashions we were wearing would ever return to the mainstream. Even then, we knew that our neon caps and Blink-182 T-shirts were not what anyone could call “stylish.” But somehow, Hot Topic, the anti-fashion line that exploited emo and punk culture by slinging band T-shirts and then outfitted a generation with neo-Goth garb and Manic Panic hair, is experiencing a comeback 31 years after it first opened. Its peak era in suburban “street fashion” marked the beginning of a generation’s shift away from haute couture-adorned supermodels toward a herd trend of first normcore and now scumbro styles. Though not a straight line, the democratization of fashion finds some of its roots in this fan-fueled fashion brand.
According to a new article from The New York Times, every mall rat’s favorite store is now thriving in a limited market for juniors apparel, with 676 stores in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico. A marketing research firm even found that “Gen Z and millennial shoppers deemed Hot Topic the top retail destination for ‘unique styles,’ with Nike coming in second.” Hot Topic doesn’t just sell band tees, it also offers kids and young adults merch that displays whatever bits of pop culture they obsess over, nostalgic toys, and a place to feel the cosplay love even if they don’t live near a ComicCon.
T.J. Petracca, the founder of Emo Nite, a company that licenses some merch to the store, told the Times that back in the day, people had certain labels — like being punk, a jock, or a hip-hop fan — that marked their “whole identity.” Now, however, “if you like Drake, you can also like Panic! at the Disco. There’s not as much separation as there used to be,'” Petracca said.
While Hot Topic kids of the ’90s and early aughts strove to be different, they maintained a subculture herd sensibility that soon hit the mainstream. In 2000, Alexander McQueen‘s spring ready-to-wear collection reflected some of the dark, glam, “rock and roll” looks that Hot Topic kids lusted after. Street fashion photography leapt to the fore of the web during the decade that followed, and the runway started looking to the fashions on the ground for direction.
By 2014, as those formerly unattainable fashionistas took a more everyday approach to their styles, the term “normcore” was coined to describe the people who dressed like dads at Disney World — but were neither dads nor anywhere near an amusement park. Wearing lots of brand labels suddenly became, well, the norm. Though emo-lite band tees weren’t a core facet of normcore, the trend in some ways took a nod, if not to Hot Topic’s aesthetic, then to the store’s idea that fashion is for the people and by the people, and not always pretty.
Once everyone was comfortably dressed like a Massachusetts mom in Patagonia and New Balances, the latest evolution of popular style that gives off a distinctive whiff of Hot Topic is scumbro. Vanity Fair has described this tragic new fashion as “a catchall for the R.E.I.-clad trustafarian co-ed meets Supreme. It’s pizza for breakfast and caviar pizza for dinner.” Think: Justin Bieber, Pete Davidson, Paris Jackson, and pretty much every second of Matthew McConaughey’s new film Beach Bum.
Rest assured, mall rats: As unfashionable fashion trends of everyday teens spread their tentacles throughout the world, the spirit of Hot Topic will survive and thrive.