A few years ago I had a conversation with a colleague on this newspaper about whether anything was too uncool to be revived. Phil Collins, I suggested, naively. I thought it was a safe bet. Collins seemed irretrievable.
No way, the colleague replied. Time spent working on music mags in the 1990s had made him familiar with the machinery of coolness. Mark his words, Phil would be in the air again. So it came to pass. Within months, Phil was back, where he has stayed ever since. There’s a Genesis tour in the works. The 70-year-old, regrettably unable to drum, was giving interviews last week. The new gigs will be “putting the band to bed”, as if it were an errant child who has snuck back downstairs to the party.
Collins isn’t the only antique to find himself back on the roadshow.
Abba released new music last week. And last Thursday Marks & Spencer announced it would be reviving its St Michael brand after 21 years, in an attempt to boost flagging clothing sales.
For those who remember that admirably fashion-averse range of low-cost staples, this is a surprising development. But M&S has apparently been encouraged by the internet, where shoppers on eBay and Depop fight over vintage items. One man’s knackered polyester trousers are another’s normcore fantasy.
By now we shouldn’t be surprised. Given enough time, money and a branding agency, just about anything can be revitalised.
The 90s are cool. “Dad” items are cool. Ugly is cool. Mullets and flares are cool. There’s nothing new about bringing old back. Sometimes it happens by accident. In his 2000 book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell dedicates a chapter to how Hush Puppies, once a critically unstylish shoe brand, suddenly became cool in the mid-90s.
There was no grand plan. At the shoes’ nadir, hipsters started wearing them ironically, and set off a chain hush reaction. Within two years, annual sales went from 35,000 to more than 2 million.
Sweatshirts and hoodies by Champion were unloved relics of the 90s until a few years ago. Now they’re back, propelled by nostalgia and canny collaborations with designers. Ungainly and indestructible Crocs seemed to have chanced on a uniquely anti-fashion recipe. Great mountains of them were piled up in warehouses. Semioticians were wondering how to warn people from the far future about these curious items, as they do with nuclear waste. Now Crocs are again adorning the feet of models and influencers.
Revivals can be engineered. In 2014, private equity firm Permira bought Dr Martens for £300m, spying the chance to spruce up a beloved old brand.
Earlier this year the company floated at a value of more than £3.6bn, some way from its skinhead origins. There’s a lot of cash floating around and returns are hard to come by. If you can take a long enough view, it’s a simple plan: buy a tragic old brand, tweak the line for the new market, as Dr Martens did with its vegan options, sit back and wait for the cool train to come around again.
It might not take long. The internet has sped up the hype machine. Trends that would have taken years to spread can be over in weeks. It’s harder than ever to stay niche. As coolness turnover accelerates, more and more cool is needed for the furnace. It is sourced from all over the world and funnelled into the consumer mechanism where, unless it is carefully husbanded, it soon becomes overexposed and mushed into basicness. Then it scuttles off and lies dormant, waiting to be rediscovered by some confident teenager.
The dowdiest product or trend contains the seeds of its own rebirth. If Phil Collins and St Michael can return to respectability, so will Cliff Richard and Jack Wills. Forget mullets – rat tails will be next, then tonsures. Get those Beanie Babies out of the attic. The ghost of Laura Ashley haunts the floral prairie dresses currently being worn by every British woman over 25, mostly with Veja trainers. If you’re wondering what the least cool brand in the world is at the moment, it’s SuperDry. Buy your shares now.