BY Kimi Zarate-Smith in Opinion | 28 DEC 23

The Year in Review: Y2K Was the Ex We Couldn't Quit

From Britney Spears to Adam Farah-Saad, the noughties trend that capitalized on nostalgia has finally run its course, leaving no rhinestone unturned

BY Kimi Zarate-Smith in Opinion | 28 DEC 23

In a freakish episode earlier this year, I ditched my iPhone for an early-noughties Nokia, intent on giving up doom-scrolling in favour of ‘chillaxing’. There was something candid – provocative, even – about scurrying through the city dialling my friends from a keypad and paying for my drinks in cash. Without a smartphone, I found myself nostalgic for a mystified era before my time: the silvery, shameless 2000s.

I am far from alone, however, in closely discerning the oracles of a noughties past. Over the last year or so, the decade’s vast annals of consumer aesthetics have been resurrected across all cultural disciplines. In November, Gen-Z empress PinkPantheress released Nice to meet you, a music video inflected with ‘UrBling’ and ‘Frutiger Metro’ – terms coined by the Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute to describe the vector-heavy, digital-grunge look that catered to teenage audiences.

Pink Pantheress, Nice to meet you, 2023
Pink Pantheress, Nice to meet you, 2023. Courtesy: Warner Records

But the recent Y2K revival consists of more than hot-pink opulence and low-rise jeans. In our current state of climate crisis, economic dejection, global conflict and unrelenting social media, the Y2K trend looks to familiar ideals and concerns of the past to quell our anxieties about the future. This year's headlines unfolded with the muted excitement of a series rerun, complete with anticipated plot twists: Prince Harry’s candid revelations in Spare (2023) revived memories of paparazzi-driven tabloid journalism; the Writers Guild of America revisited the picket lines, striking for the first time since 2007 over new media and technology; millennials ‘grief watched’ episodes of Friends (1994–2004) after the death of series regular Matthew Perry; and Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, celebrity ‘it’ couple of the early millennium, were trending for all the wrong reasons, overshadowing NSYNC’s reunion announcement after a two-decade hiatus.

Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, The Woman in Me
Britney Spears, The Woman In Me, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Gallery Books

I can’t resist imagining – through the dream-washed gaze of my childhood, throwing a precarious glance at my older sibling’s MySpace page – a version of myself had I been born 20 years prior. I’ve watched enough episodes of Skins (2007–13) and Sex and the City (1998–2004) to conjure the image, rambling on about ballet flats and Blur. I’d marvel at the five-gigabyte capacity of an iPod and, like an ignorant audiophile, believe that wired earphones will always be in.

With such recent historicization, young people are natural archivists, prosumers of trends that are ultimately self-referential, accessible and speak to Gen-Z’s desire to retrieve the unkept promises of the new millennium. To identify with Y2K is to encompass its mythical phenomena, to be at once pop yet subcultural, seductive but cringe, laidback and hyperbolic. In fashion, the trend has reached all tiers, from Marc Jacobs’s Heaven label, whose Spring 2023 campaign looked like it had been ripped from a Gregg Araki DVD, to the resurgence of the Juicy Couture brand at Urban Outfitters and the tireless efforts of once-major, logo-manic fashion houses (you know who you are) crawling from one denim set to the next. Having capitalized on nostalgia, the trend is democratic, but has been thoroughly exhausted.

iPod campaign poster, 2021
iPod launch campaign, 2021. 

To find a disruptive spark in fashion, when referencing a trend that has already come to a head, takes guts: Mowalola Ogunlesi’s namesake label, Mowalola, co-opted Y2K styles with brilliant debauchery and ludic impulse in her Spring/Summer 2024 presentation. Titled after David Cronenberg’s 1996 film Crash, the collection took the prize for the lowest trousers of the season – from waistbands at the crotch to harnessed pants appearing to sag at the knees – along with cropped (and then cropped again) tops and a double-headed T-shirt reading ‘4 SLIM PEOPLE’. Models were adorned with painted black eyes; onlookers squirmed. Ogunlesi commanded a well-needed disidentificatory storm out of Y2K paradise, bruising the bystander apathy of a Eurocentric fashion industry that buys into bland, post-ironic takes (see: Balenciaga Pre-Fall/Winter 2024).

Mowalola, Spring/Summer 2024
Mowalola Spring/Summer 2024. Courtesy: Mowalola

Taking possession of noughties’ promiscuity and excess, Mowalola reminds us that we shouldn’t forget how Y2K actually played out, particularly its shortcomings, such as the white-centric, vilified, hyper-femininity of chick flicks, the cultural appropriation found on every red carpet and the class privilege that mitigates the harm of ‘heroin chic’. For Mowalola, nostalgia is not about returning to lavish-lilac Groovy Chick pencil cases. Her designs address our complicated relationship with cringe, performance and visibility.

When I separate my idea of the 2000s from my music taste or my buying habits, I begin to uncover hazy childhood memories of London suburbia: analogue traces of industrial architecture, community halls, Asian supermarkets, brutalist high streets. I think these are the fragments of the unresolved past I am trying to access. British artist Adam Farah-Saad has built a career on pinning down what I could no longer grasp: a frame of reference that negotiates the specificity of nostalgia and collective memory of the early 2000s long before the decade made an encore. The attention afforded to the 32-year-old artist reached its zenith this year when Public Gallery, who hosted his exhibition B‑SIDES (THE RE‑UP / PSYCHOCRUISING FAITHFUL MIX) in January, won the Focus Stand Prize at Frieze London with a solo booth of the artist’s work. The stand consisted of identificatory artefacts such as poppers (THE INNER CHILDREN MIX, 2023), KA Grape Soda (N22 DISCREET MIX, 2023) and an upright multi-CD player (THE A406 ORBITAL CLASS MIX, 2023); I’ve seen these before, and so has the artist: his psychogeographical work is both biographical and expansive.  

Frieze London, Adam Farah-Saad, 2023
Frieze London, Adam Farah-Saad, 2023. Courtesy: Public Gallery

In a similar vein, British Asian artist duo Athen Kardashian and Nina Mhach Durban presented their solo show, ‘Sleepover’, at London’s Glasshouse this past summer. They collected identifiers of teenage girlhood in plastic-framed noticeboards and in thumb-tacked assemblages. Concerned with connecting diasporic histories with personal objects, the artists incorporated early Bollywood aesthetics with noughties knick-knacks – stickers, DVDs, a postcard featuring cinema heartthrob Aaron Taylor-Johnson – in works such as Musical Notes, Pink Ladies and Prem (all 2023). Etchings of ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ on objects showing signs of wear serve as the mortal remains of adolescence, producing the effect of a relic. The works are arranged with such careful affection that they could be considered shrines. Leveraging the sentimental value achieved through the marriage of memory and artefact, Mhach Durban and Kardashian delve into the 2000s paraphernalia that defined the cultural landscape of adolescents from immigrant households.

Sleepover, 2023, Glasshouse
Athen Kardashian and Nina Mhach Durban, 'Glasshouse', 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Glasshouse, London

Y2K nostalgia is in its final act, bowing out of east London bars and art schools. The aesthetic is arguably too optimistic for disaffected young adults with recession-driven hedonism. (They’ll tell you indie sleaze is back.) As we navigate our way out of the trend’s incessant recycling on social media, it’s worth reminding ourselves that we can’t repeat the past, but we can look to art to reinterpret it.

Main image: Y2K Core by Android, 2023. Courtesy: Getty Images; photography: Jamie McCarthy

Kimi Zarate-Smith is a writer based in London, UK. She was formerly Editor-in-Chief of Era Journal.