Today’s generation of fashionistas has been met with nothing but scepticism, no thanks to Instagram, Hypebeast and the age-old assumption that the youth are broke…. Well they are. But then how do you account for the large number of teenagers, aged between 16 to 25, donning Balenciaga from head to toe? In this confusing, frenzied, paradoxical fashion climate, we’re reduced to asking: What’s going on, and where’s the money going?
No Money, No Worry
The truth is this: The goldmine is difficult to trace amongst this particular demographic. It’s unrealistic to gauge youth’s true buying power, given the growing freelance economy, an increasing number of (affl uent) parents providing their children with financial support, and industry’s movement towards the “drop” system, where, instead of adhering to seasonal cycles, they release products at any time of the year. One thing is clear, however. Money—or the lack of it—isn’t a deterrent when it comes to fashion. Kids will spend—even when they have very little—which is especially true for university students who juggle part-time jobs. Nick, 22, admits that his favourite brands (Comme des Garçons, Kiko Kostadinov, Soloist and Yohji Yamamoto) are difficult to afford. But it doesn’t stop him from buying. “My disposable income is almost non-existent so I save to be able to buy what I want.” While an older generation of consumers may question our priorities, let’s put it this way: The economy is volatile, property prices are skyrocketing, the bills are piling such that we can barely save any money to start a family or own a car. So we’d rather spend on things like clothes, holidays, food—things we can experience in the short-term.
A New Mentality
All these reasons have given rise to the popularity of buying vintage, thrifting or repurposing/upcycling old clothes. Doing so is in line with this generation’s idealism, it doesn’t break the bank, and it enables a lot of creativity. Taufiq, 23, reveals that it’s how he gets to experiment with his look. “Personally, I wear what I can afford and [try to find] alternatives to replicate a look.” Gen Z is very critical of consumption culture and very discerning when it comes to purchasing. They understand how the fashion system works, how things are being produced and keep tabs on the various research and audits surrounding production. They’re aware of exploitation in the industry—the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh is still fresh to them—and they’ve watched The True Cost, the 2015 documentary about fast fashion. It’s no wonder many of them are demanding that the industry operate with more accountability, and that ethical needs should be met by all its participants, particularly when it comes to welfare and sustainability. Which is why the latter has become huge topic of discussion.
Sustainability: At What Cost?
The youth are changing how we perceive sustainable fashion, thanks to less mainstream labels like GMBH, Asai, Marine Serre and OAMC, who have proven success in terms of production, design and critical acclaim. They’re being picked up by a young audience for their atypical design and conceptual brilliance. And the giant online retailers are taking note. This June, Neta-Porter is launching a sustainable edit of up to 30 brands across RTW, shoes, bags, beachwear, lingerie, fine jewellery and sportswear. “Every product within the edit will take into account ethical and environmental issues and align with internationally recognised best practices,” explains Net-a-Porter’s Global Buying Director, Elizabeth von der Goltz. Key brands within the edit will include an exclusive capsule collection with brands like Stella McCartney, Mother of Pearl, Maggie Marilyn, Veja and Ninety Percent. There’s also the perception that sustainable products must be expensive—because we’re so used to seeing luxury brands marketing them in a “take it or leave it” way. Stella McCartney, for example, was a pioneer of vegan luxury fashion, so we assume all products in the market using the material will be priced the same. But there are many brands offering reasonably priced fashion lines as alternatives. Organic Basics’ eco-friendly Tencel material bikini set starts at $80, compared to Eres’ which is priced on average at $609. Filippa K has also started a Lease initiative, which allows European and Scandinavian fl agships to rent their clothing at 20 percent of their retail price for four days.
In the end, it makes more sense to buy things that already exist, instead of stoking the demand to make more new items, sustainably or not. So many youth opt to buy secondhand or even fewer fashion products in general. “I’m OK with buying less but buying better, instead of buying from actual sustainable brands per se,” says Gordon, 22. It doesn’t help that many brands that claim to be sustainable do not explicitly explain their production methods, brand ethos, or how they source their products in an informative matter—instead consumers are hit with a barrage of gimmicky language, or “corporate greenwashing” as millennials cynically term it. The truth is, there has been recognition of the many challenges facing the fashion industry on a global scale, which leaders and influencers have spoken up about. Model and fashion muse Alexa Chung has been particularly outspoken, “I believe we have reached a stage where companies can no longer blithely plough on doing what we do without educating ourselves about how our businesses could run in a less harmful way,” she was quoted in a CNN article. Virgil Abloh, Artistic Director of menswear at Louis Vuitton and one of the most exciting voices in fashion today, actually sees youth as the answer to many of these problems. Hence, his push to try to give as many young people industry training and support as possible, so that they too can have a voice. And he could be right. So let’s stop with the sweet talk. If they put their money where their mouths are and we follow their cue, Gen Z may just be the ones to lead us down the right path in fashion—toward inclusion, responsibility and positive change.