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BoF Insights | Gen-Z and Fashion in the Age of Realism

Find out what makes Gen-Zers so unique and crucial to the fashion industry in the latest BoF Insights report. Co-created with Gen-Zers as well as a host of fashion and social media experts, we unpack what this generation expects from fashion today, and tomorrow.
BoF Insights
By
  • Benjamin Schneider,
  • Diana Lee

Key insights

  • Gen-Z is the largest generation, accounting for around 25 percent of the world’s population, and has an outsized impact on culture and economy.
  • In the US, this generation aged between 12 and 25, is coming into its own, with purchasing power of around $360 billion.
  • Fashion is the favourite entertainment category for US Gen-Zers to spend money on, outranking other categories like dining, video games and consoles, and music.
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“What are the kids wearing these days?” is the perennial question fashion forecasters ask. The fashion industry, often out of necessity, is obsessed with chasing youth, especially as young consumers enter the workforce, inform new styles and shift buying behaviours.

Gen-Z — aged between 12 and 25 and accounting for approximately 25 percent of the world’s population — is now coming into its own. But Gen-Z is truly unique. As the first digital natives, their formative years have been unlike that of previous generations, creating a greater cultural chasm between Gen-Z and older generations. Social platforms have given Gen-Z tastemakers an unparalleled ability to convene and speak to audiences.

In the US, Gen-Z is particularly shaping the culture and moving the economy with a purchasing power of about $360 billion. Each generation experiences distinct events that shape its life outlook. Baby Boomers benefitted from an economic boom after World War II, living in an age of optimism. Gen-X matured as social mores changed and female labour participation jumped, living in an age of independence. Millennials, typically the children of more affluent Baby Boomers, benefitted from the advent of the internet, living in an age of idealism. Yet, Millennials are old enough to remember a less digital world.

Gen-Z is much more pragmatic, growing up under the lens of technology from the outset. The worsening climate crisis, pressing global movements such as “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter” and the Covid-19 pandemic all serve as a backdrop for the current age — an age of realism.

Gen-Z and Fashion in the Age of Realism is the newest report from BoF Insights, exploring Gen-Z’s relationship to fashion, identifying the distinct personality types, their sources of inspiration, their preferred brands, and their approach to sustainable fashion. This report is informed by in-depth analysis of social media behaviour, a survey of nearly 1,000 Gen-Zers as well as focus groups.

Fashion is the favourite entertainment category for US Gen-Zers to spend money on, outranking other categories like dining, video games and consoles, and music. Young consumers are critical to the fashion industry, not least because per capita spending on fashion declines as we age:

You consumers are key to the industry: shoppers spend less on fashion as they get older

To best engage with and speak to young consumers, BoF Insights partnered with Quilt.AI — an AI-powered insights company — to canvass social media behaviour and profiles to identify six personality “clusters” that characterise the US Gen-Z population. While Gen-Z is like other generations in that they defy stereotyping, these clusters are a critical heuristic for executives to understand Gen-Zers’ shared affiliations, interests and perspectives:

We find that six personality clusters characterise the US Gen-Z population

BoF Insights has also collaborated with Juv Consulting — a company launched by three 16-year-old entrepreneurs in 2016 — to field a proprietary survey of nearly 1,000 US Gen-Zers. This survey reveals that 89 percent of the survey participants rate fashion as important for boosting confidence, while 82 percent say fashion is important for establishing their identities. For Gen-Zers, fashion is less about being trendy or denoting status.

Keeping up with fads has become more difficult than ever, as social media has accelerated trend formation. Moreover, Gen-Z has inverted the design process — aesthetics like Barbiecore, Cottagecore, Dark Academia and Coastal Grandma originated bottoms-up from social media and resale platform content instead of top-down from fashion brands and retailers. As a result, many Gen-Zers tend to adapt pieces representative of trends into their own personal styles, as opposed to following trends full-scale.

Brands like Nike, Gucci and Adidas have built the most ardent following among this generation as the leading favoured brands among our panel. Gucci is the only luxury brand to appear in the top 10 list of unprompted favourite brands, while Louis Vuitton appears further down among the top 20. Gucci is notable for its efforts to court young consumers early on within virtual gaming worlds like Roblox. In particular, BoF Insights reveals that the majority of Gen-Zers aspire to buy more luxury clothing and accessories as they gain purchasing power.

Nike, Gucci and Adidas lead as Gen-Z's favourite fashion brands by unprompted awareness

The report completes its analysis with a playbook for fashion executives, unpacking how your companies can best connect with Gen-Z through four pillars: communications, style, communities and brand evolution.

Why this BoF Insights report is a must-have:

  • Assesses the generational divide and prevailing attitudes of each major US generation from Baby Boomers to Gen-Zers, including a detailed examination of why Gen-Z is distinct by identifying six key values
  • Features proprietary research with Gen-Z consumers in the US, revealing the most in-demand fashion and footwear brands, shopping triggers, sources of inspiration, and information for purchasing and finally methods of product disposal (including resale)
  • Analyses six key personality clusters that are representative of the US Gen-Z population using machine learning applied to social media profiles
  • Highlights concise case studies on Dr. Martens, Gucci, PacSun, Princess Polly and Remass (one of the top sellers on Depop), as well as strategic analysis of fashion companies like Abercrombie & Fitch, Aritzia, Forever 21, Gap, Guess, J.Crew, Nike and Patagonia
  • Unpacks tactics for brands and retailers to effectively appeal to Gen-Z related to tailoring communications, honing in on style/positioning amid trend acceleration, building and engaging communities, and enabling a company to identify and adapt to cultural and technological shifts

This report is based on four proprietary research inputs:

  • Survey panel of approximately 1,000 Gen-Z participants (aged 13 - 25) across the US fielded by Juv Consulting
  • Social media analysis by Quilt.AI of approximately 5,000 public Instagram posts conducted via machine learning to create six personality clusters
  • 4 focus groups with a total of 15 Gen-Z participants located across the US (conducted with The Z Suite from BCG PR and Juv Consulting)
  • 8 interviews with executives from agencies, consultants, start-up operators and influencers and 12 interviews with founders, chief executives and other senior executives from brands, retailers, rental platforms, resale platforms, and gaming and social media platforms

Companies featured in the report include: Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, American Eagle, Aritzia, By Rotation, Claire’s, Depop, Forever 21, Gucci, Guess, H&M, Levi’s, Louis Vuitton, Nike, Old Navy, PacSun, Patagonia, Pink, Princess Polly, Puma, Roblox, Shein, TikTok, Under Armour, Uniqlo, Urban Outfitters, Vans and Zara.

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