Millennials, or those born between 1980 and the mid-1990s, have dominated media and marketing for the greater part of the last decade. Known for their love of social causes, social media, socialism and all other things 'social,' they are now the largest generation in the world. With $2.45 trillion in spending power, they have used their influence to push fashion brands to be greener, faster and more digitally savvy.
Ironically, as pop culture lurches towards the final season of "Girls," Lena Dunham’s penultimate love letter to Millennial ennui, it may also be twilight for her generation’s reign over the popular zeitgeist. On the horizon, the dawn of a new cohort is shedding light on what’s to come: Gen Z.
Born immediately after the Millennials, between the mid-1990s and approximately 2010 (give or take a year or three), Gen Z are the first generation after the world wide web — making them the first true digital natives (read: addicts).
With 92 per cent online daily and 24 per cent online constantly, they went from the playground to plugged in short time. And while they may not have much money now as teens, in just four years they will represent 24 per cent of the US workforce and 40 per cent of consumer spending. For fashion brands hoping to start a lifelong relationship, step one is understanding they’re not just mini-Millennials.
"On the horizon, the dawn of a new cohort is shedding light on what’s to come: Gen Z."
As Farla Efros, president of retail strategic firm HRC Advisory, tells HuffPost Canada Style, "I think the fundamental difference is their savviness with online and the Internet, and the number of devices. I think that’s one piece. I think the other piece is they’re very much out there; everything they do is on social media, especially Youtube."
In fact, 90 per cent of Gen Zers watch Youtube daily, with many having intimate knowledge of and emotional attachments to the platform’s biggest stars like Bethany Mota and Eva Gutowski. Reflexively, brands are started throwing themselves — and money — at vloggers; take Vine star Cameron Dallas’ recent campaign for Calvin Klein.
With an average teen attention span of eight seconds, it should come as no surprise the other most popular social mediums for Gen Zers are Instagram and Snapchat. Their love for Snapchat and Instagram is tethered to the philosophy of "If I didn’t share it, it didn’t happen," and the fact that 91 per cent of them have access to a smart phone.
This mobile mania extends to their style spending: 70 per cent have used a mobile shopping app in the last month and 94 per cent prefer browsing digitally versus in-store.
"I think the fundamental difference [between Gen Z and Millenials] is their savviness with online and the Internet, and the number of devices." — Farla Efros, president,HRC Advisory
As Linda Chang, VP of Merchandise for Forever 21, tells HuffPost Canada Style, "With the rise of social media, teens have access to fashion 24/7. We understand that more than simply having a presence, we need to engage our Gen Z customers. Their favourite styles are available to them with a simple tap of their phone, and it’s important to be part of that."
As Chang continues: "We have conversations with them, and we listen to their feedback. They ask us for something and we do our best to meet their needs."
Brands should heed her advice. Started by her father, Don Chang, Forever 21 had $4.4 billion in sales last year. Alongside fellow fast fashion mainstays H&M and Zara, they dominate the market with a combination of price and style sensitivity.
For fashion retailers hoping to emulate Forever 21’s success with Gen Z, being relevant online and on mobile has become a do-or-die adjustment. The problem is, this generation is spending less on clothes and more on tech, meaning retailers have to work extra hard. Those who don’t risk disappearing faster than a photo on Snapchat.
Look to Aeropostale: the former teen mall giant recently closed all its Canadian locations. Unable to compete with the prices and designs of fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara and relying too heavily on physical retail spaces, the brand’s worth fell from $2.6 billion to about $2 million USD.
"With the rise of social media, teens have access to fashion 24/7 ... their favourite styles are available to them with a simple tap of their phone, and it’s important to be part of that." — Linda Chang, VP of Merchandise for Forever 21.
Aeropostale’s reluctance to leave their formerly tried-and-true logo designs may have been what was ultimately lethal to them. Social media-savvy Gen Zers are exposed to so many different styles, they’ve grown to value individuality over conformity.
As the New York Times reports: "47 per cent of the youths [Futures Company] surveyed (ages 12 to 17) say they 'care a lot about whether their clothes are in style,' compared with 65 per cent for millennials surveyed in 1999." Their viewpoint is already have a down-up effect on mainstream fashion — for evidence, look no further than Gen Zer Jaden Smith dressed androgynously for Louis Vuitton’s SS16 women’s campaign.
Social media isn’t the only driving forces behind Gen Z’s purchasing decisions; they are also highly socially conscious, even more so than Millennials. On a limited teen budget, they’ll only spend on brands that reflect their values — and will ravenously research a company’s history to ensure it does.
Not only are they actively teaching themselves, but they are also teaching their parents. As Efros notes: "Gen Z is so tapped in that they’re educating the parents and helping them make the right choices. Especially around anything animal-based and furs."
"Social media-savvy Gen Zers are exposed to so many different styles, they’ve grown to value individuality over conformity."
She points to more pervasive environmental values during their childhoods — or, as she puts it, "growing up green" — as the root of their social consciousness.
Ultimately, the brands that will survive and thrive are those that can provide value for dollar and a values-oriented ethos — alongside strong digital and social strategy. And there is hope: unlike its peer Aeropostale, American Eagle tapped into these insights and has seen sales climb.
As Efros shares, "[American Eagle] went back to basics. They went back to what they’re so good at, which is great jeans, great denims, great shorts, great basics at a reasonable price. They’re not the cheapest by far, but it’s really reasonable. And it’s stylish, and casual, and doesn’t really go out of date."
The brand’s Aerie line has also made headway with its 'Aerie Real lingerie campaign. Featuring un-retouched images and real women like 19-year-old plus size model Barbie Ferrieria, it’s been a big win. As Business of Fashion notes, in the first nine months of 2015, same-sale stores of the Aerie brand rose 17 per cent.
As the Gen Zers move out of their teens over the next few years, what should fashion retailers keep in mind? Efros says, "They’re pushing the status quo. They’re making us think harder and faster and be more nimble. They’re forcing it. And they’re not accepting it.
"As retailers, that’s why it’s so important to study them. We can learn a lot from them."