Soft Things
Soften the World for Me

Text by Colleen Kelsey / Photography by Luke Abby

For 21of21, GOOGLE SHOPPING and PAPER came together to break down some of the most memorable shopping moments of 2021 based on Google's trending search data. The last two years were hard, so is it surprising that people in the US are seeking comfort in soft things? (Google search interest for the term “soft” itself reached an all-time high in July). In the US, Google search interest for “puffy sandals,” was up 200% this year.

When I was growing up, as a special treat, I would light jumbo marshmallows on fire using the blue flame of the gas range in our kitchen, watching the surface of the candy bubble and char. Before sliding them onto a barbecue skewer, I would hold one in my palm and squeeze tightly. After releasing, the pillowy shape would slowly reanimate — reclaiming its form with a hardy resilience.

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Coach Pillow Tabby Shoulder Bag
Coach Pillow Tabby Shoulder Bag
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A puppy is sleeping on the Coach Pillow Tabby Shoulder Bag.

Recently, a meandering internet search brought me to the origins of the candy — an entity that, to me, seemed entirely divorced from nature, a mid-century invention akin to polyethylene and garbage disposals. Rather, it derives from the marshmallow plant, a velvety perennial which flourishes in wet soil, can grow up to six feet tall and produces flowers in a delicate, anemic pink. Throughout history, the root is mentioned in conjunction with feeding those during times of famine. But the plant also served as a resource for the Ancient Egyptians, who extracted the sap and combined it with honey to create a sweet solely for gods and pharaohs. The Greeks used it to heal wounds, toothaches and sore throats. And in the 19th century, French confectioners devised something much more indulgent, whipping the sap with egg whites and sugar, then decanting the resulting substance into molds to delight the bourgeoisie.

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Reversible Octopus
Reversible Octopus
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Faux Fur Blankets
Faux Fur Blankets
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Two puppies surrounded by small reversible octopus dolls.

Humans are tactile creatures. If there’s puff, there must also be squeeze. I felt that, instinctually, after encountering a pair of mules Proenza Schouler debuted for their Fall 2021 collection. Called the Rondo, the buttery lambskin slip ons feature cylindrical seams, giving one the fascinatingly bulbous foot. An additional version sees them fabricated from cuddly sheepskin, a textural invitation to sink in and stay awhile. What is an accessory if not a certain kind of dinner companion that sets the mood, modulates a feeling? Lately, a variety of cushy, puffed-up pieces have edged their way into the party, providing sartorial insulation from the outside world: outrageously plush Ugg slingback slides that toe the line between house slipper and sidewalk wear; Coach’s inflatable-esque Tabby bag. Designs that hug the body, but that you can hug back — wearable emotional support to embrace while waiting for the train, or that double as impromptu pillows during a cramped red eye, Zoom-camera-off exhale, when you just “need to lie down.” Objects airy and pliable enough that, if they happened to be pastry — you’d want to sink your teeth into.

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Dog Puffer
Dog Puffer
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Acne Studios Puffer Jacket
Acne Studios Puffer Jacket
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A dog wearing a pink puffer is sitting in a human pink puffer jacket.

The discussions around the proliferation of athleisure, and more relevantly of the pandemic sweatsuit, tend to skew toward people wanting to be less restricted, free to move — a no brainer. The tide of “revenge dressing” has shifted. If a few months ago the term meant suiting up to reenter a brave new world, now it’s more apt to describe reclaiming creature comforts that buffer against the continual start-stop difficulties of our shifting reality; softness as subterfuge in negotiating a return to normalcy that hasn’t come to fruition. It seems as though we have never been more delicate. Permission to be comfortable has been granted. But so has permission to be enveloped, surrounded, swaddled.

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Ugg Fluff Yeah Slides
Ugg Fluff Yeah Slides
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A large dog wearing a purple outfit is sniffing a fluffy purple slipper.

If we can’t fully retire to bed, simply bring the bed with you. A pragmatic alternative to wearing a literal duvet, puffers have gone beyond the utilitarian task of simply keeping us warm, providing other protective modes — serving as a layer of safety netting to catch us before descending into emotional quicksand, our own personal air bags deploying as we brace for impact. They offer retreat, whether it’s into licorice-slick high shine quilting at Bottega Veneta or the classic North Face puffer jacket, now available in appropriately candy-colored hues. That offer of a shield, of shelter, has shapeshifted into a major fashion statement threaded with cozy élan.

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A puppy is sleeping surrounded by squishmallows.

And that feeling goes beyond what we choose to wear, to things to keep within arm’s reach. Driven by TikTok, children and adults are becoming obsessed with collecting certain stuffed animals, like Teeturtle’s Reversible Octopus Plushie, which allow their owners to share whether they’re happy or angry by flipping to the corresponding side of the expressive-eyed toy.

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ERL Quilted Tote Bag
ERL Quilted Tote Bag
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A dog is peering out of a quilted blue tote bag.

It’s a time of soft corners, no sharp edges — same for the domestic space, where dueling Instagram furniture — sofas like the modular, fittingly named Cloud by RH, or the undulating ’70s made-new-again designs of the bubble-like Mario Bellini Camaleonda and Pierre Paulin’s mushroomy Blub Blub and rounded, loungey Pumpkin chair and ottoman — allow a sinuous kind of repose. While the world keeps hitting the snooze button, sleep in.

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Men's Keen Yogui
Men's Keen Yogui
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A dog is sitting on a white faux rug next to black, puffy slippers.

VP of Production: Katie Karole, Creative Director: Jordan Bradfield, Digital Director: Justin Moran, Art Director: Malcolm Mammone, Managing Editor (21of21): Laia Garcia-Furtado, Managing Editor (PAPER): Eliza Weinreb, Producer: Amanda Kahle, Set Designer: Dorothy Hoover, Special Thanks to Wags and Walks Rescue