Living History: What's Fueling Retail's Intense 'Now-Stalgia'

Life in the 1970s, from the Ikea Museum

It's easy to understand why people might feel that 2023 isn't the best time to be alive. What's more challenging to grasp is how that's got them longing for the past, as long as it's blended with a generous serving of 21st-century tech. Maxine Gurevich, head of cultural intelligence at Horizon Media's Why Group, unpacks the research, which finds that 70% of American adults crave entertainment that helps them escape into the past.

Retail Insider: One of your surprising findings is that 83% of 18- to 34-year-olds say they are nostalgic for a time when they weren't even alive. Why?

Maxine Gurevich: We're not thinking of it as nostalgia in the pure sense. We're calling this trend "Living History," and sometimes "now-stalgia." It combines tech with a look back, like a brand recreating a 1980s shopping mall but in the metaverse. Jonathan Koon, a popular designer, created a metaverse-linked streetwear collection using an 8-bit graphic design in video games in the 1980s and 1990s.

Retail Insider: So this is new? Isn’t fashion always resurrecting one decade or another?

Gurevich: This trend has been gaining for the past few years. The big surprise is with Gen Z and the cusp edge of millennials. What makes this different from what happened in the past is that they have such easy access every decade. They're using that material to experience their present. This is much different than just, "Oh, let's wear bell bottoms and pretend like we're in the 1970s."

Retail Insider: And this is more comprehensive than fashion?

Gurevich: Yes. Musicians are nostalgic for older music and different decades. And tech makes it easy for them to remix it in ways they haven't done before. It's not nostalgia for nostalgia's sake. We're seeing an emergence of technology in ways that are redefining people, linking them back to the past as they grapple with the present day, which is difficult on a daily basis. This is more like nostalgia as an extreme sport, driven by tech.

Retail Insider: Much of this focuses on the '80s and '90s when tech emerged. Is that accurate?

Gurevich: No. It is not one decade, and that's a crucial point. There used to be nostalgia as a cyclical 10- to 15-year period. Today, young people are experiencing nostalgia for all decades. It might be the 1990s, but there's a lot of TikTok content around the '20s right now.

Retail Insider: That's certainly true with entertainment. I'm obsessed with period dramas, probably more so since COVID.

Gurevich: Yet this is a bigger trend than film or TV. For example, there's a popular immersive experience around the Titanic. You can feel like you're on the Titanic. The proliferation of VR and AR allows us to experience any decade, and that's a massive opportunity for the entertainment industry. It's not about producing nostalgic content. It's about letting people immerse themselves in that period. They don't want to look like they're in the past. They want to feel like they are.

Retail Insider:
What's surprised you about this kind of longing?

Gurevich: People saying things like, "Maybe I could talk to my dead relative, using a service that lets me upload their emails and images to create that person for me. I know it's not real, but it's an immersive memory.'"

Retail Insider: How will this shape the future for retailers? Your report mentions Ikea, which has created a virtual museum that explores current color trends and how homes were decorated in past decades.

Gurevich: We'll see more of these museums. And we'll see brands combine them with capsule collections. More will be in stores because this is another way to draw people back to physical retail after the pandemic.

Retail Insider: I've met futurists who are dismissive of all nostalgia. They believe what's ahead is inherently more interesting than what's past. What might they say about this trend?

Gurevich: This lingering tendency toward nostalgia will never go away. But the metaverse is a great example. It's all future-facing. One way to attract new users is through familiarity, to show them something they've seen before, but in a new way. They're revitalizing the old trend with a new lens.

Retail Insider: Fashion brands are especially vulnerable to changing tastes. Skinny pants and nail art have legs, but feather earrings and sneaker wedges lasted five minutes. What do brands need to do to balance the new, to stay current, with the old, which is, by definition, passe?

Gurevich: It has to be multichannel. Brands can stay relevant with social content, balancing the digital future against digital nostalgia. It's an oxymoron for a reason. People love mashup culture. Brands need to consider the entire consumer journey and pinpoint where they can bring that living history to life.

Retail Insider: What categories are most ripe for this?

Gurevich: Sneaker culture, because it gets inspiration from all sorts of places, especially hip hop. And music is so rich, even with how it's played. It's not just vinyl making a comeback, but cassette tapes. Look at the popularity of Spotify's Wrapped campaign, which makes us nostalgic for what we listened to 11 months ago.

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