Listen to this article
Who needs words? Today, pictures (or emojis) speak louder than prose. Just look around you. In recent seasons, a clutch of images have become dominant symbols, appearing suddenly and with near ubiquity on catwalks, crockery and phone covers everywhere. Typically, the chosen symbols are bright, inoffensive and multi-generational. For a while the pineapple dominated. The watermelon and palm tree have also been popular. But the symbol of summer 2016 is indisputably the cactus.
At the time of writing, online retailer Asos is offering 56 cactus-themed products, from an £8 phone case with googly eyes to a pair of printed pyjamas for £28. Topshop now offers bras, sunglasses, shirts, shorts, stickers, socks and even ice-trays with cactus motifs. Cactus water is closing in on coconut water as the latest health-food fad. Homeware and gift retailer Notonthehighstreet.com has a section dubbed “On Trend: Cactus” where plant-lovers can indulge in cactus-shaped margarita glasses, candles and “Mexican party table confetti”. The UK’s first dedicated cactus shop, “Prick”, has just opened in Dalston, London. And a range of cheerful green ceramic cactus ornaments (from £39) are currently The Conran Shop’s best-selling vases. “They make people smile — which is always good!” says David Perez, the store’s head of lifestyle.
“At the moment I would consider it an ‘it plant’,” says Gemma White, founder of Sprout London, a company that “curates and styles” greenery for fashionable shops, homes and offices in the city. Right now, she is spotting cacti everywhere — “tropical prints, shop merchandising, interiors blogs, enamel pins, even sex toys” — but has also noticed an uptake for the real deal.
It’s no coincidence that almost all of the cactus prints available are a direct replica of the tall three-pronged Mexican cactus emoji available on our smartphones. According to Alison Farrington, retail consultant for trend-forecasting agency The Future Laboratory, the cactus trend is a telling mascot for a complex new consumer group.
“Millennials have become highly visualised in their references,” she says. “These summer icons, like the cactus or flamingo, are a testament to how fast-fashion brands or online retailers have reacted to the need for emoji-inspired products that appeal to what we’re calling Gen Viz, a subset of Generation D (the first consumer group of truly digital natives) who are increasingly adopting visual forms of communication.”
For Gen Viz, a cactus isn’t a cactus, it’s a symbol of festivals, freedom and optimism. (This, after all, is the same group who have turned the aubergine emoji into a universe symbol for sex.) “Emojis have become an ephemeral means of communication,” she continues. “Plastering your social feeds with images of pineapples or flamingos says: ‘Summer has arrived! I’ll be by the pool!’ ”
Alongside cacti ceramics and sweatshirts, one of the cactus’s most enduring incarnations has been inflatable, part of a range of pool toys (including the inflatable flamingo, £55, and inflatable swan, £55) produced by the Australian company Sunnylife and stocked by Asos and John Lewis. “The products are stylish, shareable and highly photogenic,” says Sunnylife founder and brand director Joel Bartfeld, whose company also sells cacti fairy lights, large candles and cake decorations. “As soon as you see one of our icons, it should transport you to a cherished memory or an ideal of a future moment. For example, a pineapple might make you think of cocktail hour on a tropical getaway, an ice cream cone might jog a childhood memory. Cacti tie into the desert festival vibe.”
Like Bartfeld, Sprout London’s Gemma White has traced the current interest back to the popularity of warm-weather festivals and the mania surrounding festival style. “I first noticed the rise of the cactus when SXSW, Burning Man and Coachella started gaining more international recognition,” she says. “A huge range of cacti are found in both Texas and the Colorado Desert, so for the plants to gain in popularity alongside the festivals isn’t surprising to me.”
That said, it’s not so much the festivals themselves that inspire the trends but the images that become associated with them. Coachella played out party by party, performance by performance, plant by plant, on Instagram, where the word “cactus” is currently hashtagged more than 3.3m times.
“We constantly look for the latest trends through social media to be able to stay ahead,” says Asos design director Vanessa Spence, who has been tracking cacti ever since she first spotted a trend for terrariums on Instagram this year. “Novelty street trends are definitely led by social media,” she adds. “Emojis are now part of our everyday conversation, so it’s natural we now want to wear them.”
These flash trends are the epitome of fast fashion. High-street retailers can move quickly enough to pick up on these trends and sell them back to those already engaging online. “The fast-paced nature of our business, accessibility to international travel and the advancement of social media have all contributed to changing the fashion cycle, which allows us to be able to react very quickly to trends like the cactus print as they appear,” says Jacqui Markham, design director at Topshop.
In the luxury market, the growth of the trend has been rather more sedate, but still present. Markus Lupfer, a London-based label known for jumpers and T-shirts embellished with statement prints and whimsical emblems, was one of the few houses to champion the cactus for SS16. “We were inspired by all things Mexican — the colours, the climate and the culture,” explains the designer. “And, as an image, it has a fun and playful look.” House of Holland and Stella Jean both experimented with playful cacti prints for SS16, while Prada’s women’s AW16 collection featured strange alien-looking versions by the artist Christophe Chemin.
Miuccia Prada also experimented with emoji-esque prints — elephants, sombreros, palm trees, Buddhas and the now-ubiquitous watermelon — in her most recent SS17 menswear collection. Backstage, she mentioned how Google had been an influence on her design, suggesting that global references are today distilled into a handful of easily readable symbols and images.
Spotting a new visual “icon” is an art. It has to be familiar but unusual enough to raise a smile. “Given that a hallmark of Sunnylife is inclusiveness, we try to ensure that our icons are easily recognisable to anyone,” explains Bartfeld. Perhaps the cactus has flourished because, in this new, universal visual language, the plant says both a lot and yet nothing at all.
Summer icons: Hot or not?
Alessandro Michele’s Gucci features quite the menagerie of creatures — bees, cats, butterflies — but it’s the snake that packs the most punch. You’ll find it on Gucci’s rebooted shopping bags and embroidered liberally across his clothing and accessories. The spat of the summer — Kanye West and Kim Kardashian versus Taylor Swift — has seen the snake emoji employed as a weapon. Swift’s Instagram is being inundated with them by social media users accusing her of being duplicitous. Serpent fever begins.
This summer trend taps into a wider penchant for childish garb and gimmicks. Over at Asos, you’ll find 288 items embellished with pom poms; headbands, sandals and the now ubiquitous bag charm. Many designs play tribute to other silly season motifs — see the kitten, fruit and monkey shaped key rings. All this mania means that Pomme Pomme London, a company dedicated solely to making pom pom earrings has somehow managed to build a viable business.
Like the cactus, the palm tree has seen a boom in popularity. It is part of the “huge resurgence in bold, iconic summer emblems,” says Jacqui Markham, design director at Topshop. And the trend has gone well beyond homeware and fashion. “I’m probably doing at least one palm tree tattoo a week at the moment,” says tattoo artist Matty D’Arienzo of Into You, London. “People like it because it suggests summer. There’s a real trend for these simple line designs at the moment. The more naive, the more popular.”
A favourite print of Hedi Slimane during his tenure at Saint Laurent, lips have now been replaced by motifs that are more silly than sexy, more funny than flirty. If you must go for a facial part motif, embrace the eye pin instead.
Keep Calm And . . .
This tribute to a wartime motivational poster has been reproduced and tweaked one too many times since being rediscovered by a bookshop owner in 2000. A Keep Calm and Go Shopping cushion or make-up bag is the gift no teenager wants. Keep Calm and Stop.
Photographs: BTorrez/Stockimo/Alamy, Catwalking, Kieran Pharaoh