Nerd Mentality

Le geek, c’est chic — bifocals, brains and braces have an enduring style.

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Special Issue
WWD A issue 02/16/2009

The geek-chic trend has reared its homely head more times than we can count. “The Nerd as Superhero,” “Suddenly, It’s Hip to Be Square,” “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Industry” — these are just some of the headlines that have popped up throughout the years. But let’s face it: The geek as fashion template is here to stay. No more revolving doors.

This story first appeared in the February 16, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Indeed, the brainy bespectacled misfit has been a much-loved, if perhaps unwitting, style figure for ages. Long before Sarah Jessica Parker became the poster girl for the glam life (or at least its celluloid parody) as Carrie Bradshaw, she played a dweeb. A frumpy, socially awkward high school dweeb in glasses. The year was 1982 and the show, the rather aptly named “Square Pegs,” was on CBS. Despite only being on the air for a season, it paved the way for series such as “My So-Called Life” and “Freaks and Geeks.” Uniting the uncool kids far and wide now: America Ferrera’s brace-faced Betty Suarez.

Nowadays, there’s no denying the popularity of the unpopulars. The evidence is everywhere, from movies such as “Napoleon Dynamite” to the nation’s crush on Tina Fey of “30 Rock.” Even hip-hop’s Kanye West isn’t afraid to rock out in a pair of lab-worthy opticals. On the designer front, there’s a laundry list of geek-chic cases in point: Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, Alber Elbaz, Giles Deacon, to name a few. Before Marc Jacobs turned bronzed beefcake material, he was a cardcarrying member of the nerdy set. And Luella Bartley once closed a show with a model bearing a “Geek!” slogan T-shirt.

“I think that look is synonymous with creativity, that intellectual edge,” says Cynthia Rowley. “It’s that image of being a little bit of an outsider.” For Canadian Jeremy Laing, the look can often be traced back to adolescence. “It was never on purpose, initially,” he says. “You think you can’t wait to grow out of being a geek, but then at some point you realize that maybe it’s a cool thing. There’s also something strangely eternally youthful about the style.”

Central to the look is eyewear. Frames, after all, made all the difference between Superman and the dorky Clark Kent. And they make all the difference to Yvonne Force Villareal. “The rest of me is not very geeky looking, with the blonde hair and high heels, so when I put my glasses on, it’s a good combination,” says Villareal, who wears oversize black-rim opticals by Rowley. “It’s Gloria Steinem meets Brigitte Bardot.” The Art Production Fund president admits to having painted over the designer logo, with black nail polish, on a previous pair. “[The logo] made it look too fashiony, and I really did want more of that geek,” she says. “There’s a certain allure to wearing glasses, the histrionics of it,” notes Benjamin Cho. “The idea that putting on glasses takes you to a very studious, concentrated place.”

As for watershed moments in the nerdy culture, look no further than the Nineties. “There was the dawning of the Internet and computers,” says one-half of the geektastic DJ-performance art duo Andrew Andrew. (The two are called Andrew and don’t go by last names.) Key here, they say, was the introduction of Windows 95. The runway set, however, will remember the period for a very different reason: Miuccia Prada, who elevated the brainy, pocket-protector ethos to high-fashion status and made conservative the new sexy.

For Rowley, however, the quintessential version is only a Stateside one. “To me, true geek chic is an American thing,” she says. “Even if you’re talking about the British, that has more of an edge to it. The French, they make it seem cooler.” She pauses, then adds, “But then maybe I really am a geek. I think everybody else is way cooler than me.”

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