Cover Loewe Paula’s Ibiza 2020 Smiley collection

Call it Dopamine Dressing. Consumers are using a universal language of sunny colours and Smiley faces to lift their spirits and send a message of optimism to others

Fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen, the first black female professor of psychology at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and author of recently published book Dress Your Best Life, counsels many people, from politicians to parents, on the relationship between well-being and being well-dressed. While her services are in high demand even in normal times, she has seen a huge surge of interest this year from clients who are wrestling with a more modern problem brought on by living for weeks or months in quarantine in a time when it rarely seems worth getting dressed up. In fact, a physician who treats Covid-19 patients came to her because she felt clinically depressed.

“I prescribed wearing the colour yellow in every one of her life uniforms, whether it was under her medical jacket or at home, and within days it brightened her mood,” says Karen, who prescribes colour just as a medical doctor would a drug.

In today’s context, many singular shades have become heavy with political meaning: think of the swarms of protestors in Hong Kong painting the streets in black, or the Black Lives Matter movement in America darkening signboards and social media posts alike. Green, after decades of environmentally conscious marketing, now instantly connotes a sustainability agenda. But what we’re seeing today is an embrace of not one, not two, but an explosion of happy hues, colour-blocked on dresses or dipped in tie-dye by both perennial luxury labels and young millennial brands hoping to fight our global depression one hoodie at a time. Along with a fresh sprinkle of Smiley faces cropping up in the latest collections, designers and consumers alike are ready to embrace dopamine-induced dressing for their own sake as well as, I’ve come to learn, for others.

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It's All Good

Take the kaleidoscopic patterns in Richard Quinn’s frothy dresses, or the zesty neons and swirling pastels in model-influencer Irene Kim’s unicorn-inspired label Ireneisgood, which debuted in Paris last September. With the mantra “Good clothes, good vibes, all good”, Kim’s millennial-friendly label is a psychedelic line-up of highlighter-hued hoodies and cotton-candy-coloured dresses “fuelled by my belief that our world could use more expressions of love and encouragement”, she says. For Kim, and for many people, a cornucopia of colour is synonymous with an expression of joy and while her label launched pre-pandemic, there is a timeliness that resonates, and a consensus that joy is one of the few things we need more of.

Fashion buyers are hearing and responding to this plea. Luxury e-tailer Matches Fashion has seen a spike in vibrant resortwear sales despite current times. “We are selling lots of colourful pieces such as the Loewe x Paula’s Ibiza collections, brightly coloured dresses from Valentino and ‘More Joy’ T-shirts from Christopher Kane,” says senior buyer Chelsea Power. “We always buy with the idea of dressing how you feel.”

Another brand flying off digital shelves is La Double J, which was founded in 2015 by maximalism-loving fashion journalist JJ Martin, who launched an exclusive capsule with Matches in July. Martin says her mantra is to “raise your vibration”. Women are drawn to the collection’s dizzying patterns and slogan prints like ‘Ready to Resurrect’ and ‘Why Can’t We Have a Love Pandemic’. “Over the Covid-19 lockdown, the overwhelming feedback I’ve been getting is that people want to re-enter the world in toe-tapping technicolour,” says Martin.

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Don't Worry, Be Happy

Today’s retail landscape also sees a familiar face erupting back onto the sartorial scene—the ubiquitous, instantly recognisable Smiley leaping off phones and appearing on clothing at a moment when our real smiles are often hidden behind face masks. “The Smiley is trending right now because it evokes feelings of happiness, and it is also literally a reminder to smile,” says Karen. “It’s for the person wearing it but also for the person encountering him or her, creating that positive exchange.” There is something (perhaps misleadingly) disarming about someone wearing a T-shirt with a grinning round ball.

Eyefunny, a Japanese jewellery brand of Smiley pendants made with Indian diamonds, was founded on this sentiment in 2003 with the hopes of “creating a cycle of happiness for people, thereby perpetuating peace in the world”, according to its website. Originally available outside Japan only at cult Parisian store Colette before it shuttered in 2017, the label only reached mass popularity this year thanks to a collaboration with Hong Kong streetwear label Clot and its embrace by Korean stars like G Dragon and Peggy Gou.

Around the same time, LVMH Luxury Ventures invested in Madhappy, a mission-based Los Angeles label of tie-dye, logoprint and Smiley merchandise powered, it says, by optimism. Coincidence or a call for action? You can decide. The Smiley then made a cameo in Sandro’s 2020 spring-summer collection accompanying the phrase “Everybody loves Smiley”. Perhaps in a time of such divisiveness, the Smiley has become today’s hallmark of goodwill.

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The now-iconic emoticon created by graphic artist Harvey Ross Ball was originally the result of a project commissioned by a Massachusetts insurance company in the hopes of boosting morale after a series of stressful mergers and acquisitions. It has since undergone various permutations and perversions, including the counter-culture movements in the 1980s, coming to symbolise electronic dance music during the Second Summer of Love, imprinted on ecstasy pills, and even becoming the symbol of morally ambiguous superhero The Comedian in the 1985 comic series Watchmen. But its revival today brings the Smiley back to its intended purpose: a sincere and literal urging for people look on the bright side.

Most recently in Loewe's 2020 Paula’s Ibiza collection, which launched in July, the Smiley made a roaring statement woven onto basket bags and outlined on tie-dye T-shirts. “I have always been fascinated with subcultures that bring people together that create bonds and erase differences,” writes creative director Jonathan Anderson in the press notes.

Social Impact

Shopping post-pandemic will be littered with metaphorical landmines, mired in heightened awareness over sustainability and social impact. Consumers are more likely to ask how each purchase will impact the environment and reflect their own level of cultural awareness. Is it OK to purchase items from a brand that’s been called out for institutionalised racism? On the one hand, sceptics say this is just all marketing strategy—no one likes to buy from a doomsayer. But with potential shaming associated with buying anything at all, perhaps there’s also something comforting about buying something that makes you happy, and to lean a little harder onto the “only buy what sparks joy” aspect of sustainability. After all, you can measure the carbon footprint of a T-shirt but you cannot measure or discount the joy it might bring to you and to others. 

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There is no doubt that the tone and contours of dress will also undergo a remodelling; periods of upheaval often give rise to a reactionary form of dressing. While the shape of ours is yet to be defined, Gucci's creative director Alessandro Michele, who was one of the first to announce his departure from the seasonal fashion schedule, gives us a hint, writing in an impassioned letter that there will be “irregular, joyful chapters” of fashion showcases akin to symphonies and rhapsodies of creative output. “Music, after all,” he writes, “has the sacred power to travel beyond borders, to produce reverberations and connections.” Perhaps like music, cheery colours and Smileys can be used as universal symbols that transcend masks, barriers and borders. That might sound trite, or kitschy, or simply not your jam, but any bit of cheer will set off some good vibrations.

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