By 2035, Gen Z will make up 40 percent of the luxury market, according to consulting firm Bain & Company. But even now in 2022, they’re using their purchasing power to change the way we approach fashion. Shifting the narrative of the industry, this new generation of shoppers is interested not in conventional luxury goods but items that subvert tradition to obtain high cultural value, which fall into the category of modern collectibles.
Traditionally, luxury fashion has been built on two defining factors: exclusivity and high prices. Leading luxury houses like Gucci, Louis Vuittion, Dior and Chanel have relied upon an artificially generated scarcity to generate high demand as their products remain unattainable to the masses. Since their inception, they have profited off of exclusivity as the essence of luxury. Gen Z, however, are not buying it.
More socially conscious and better educated than previous generations — 77 percent have taken some form of action for a cause they believe in, according to recent research – Gen Zers value everything that traditional luxury fashion stands against, to put it simply. Growing up on social media has made accessibility, community and pop culture crucial to their lifestyle and the lens through which they see the world. “Inclusivity is to Gen Z what exclusivity was to millennials,” says Samira Larouci, writer and creative consultant who contributes to the likes of Vogue and Dazed. “A brand’s clout is no longer weighed up by how many people they’re alienating but by how many they’re welcoming in. All the tired cliches of luxury are thankfully being disbanded by Gen Z.”
The rise of brands like Telfar is a testament to this shift. Following a direct-to-consumer business model with the slogan “Not For You – For Everyone,” the brand exploded onto the luxury fashion space when its signature Bloomingdale’s inspired shopping bag — nicknamed the “Bushwick Birkin” and retailing between $150-$300 — reached “it” bag status after going viral on social media in 2019. Why? Because younger consumers are interested in products whose popularity derives from the ground up.
“Subcultures are now mainstream, so underground DIY brands have more chance than ever to succeed thanks to Gen Z because it’s no longer about the medium,” Larouci explains. “A brand may not afford to use the finest fabrics or source from the greatest mills but their story — if authentic — can have a reach that surpasses most storied luxury houses, effortlessly. This is because authenticity is the new currency.”
Take Chanel as an example of a lack of authenticity in practice: the brand recently received backlash for not only increasing prices for the fourth time during the pandemic, but introducing a quota system on their classic handbags – a business move notoriously used by Hermès to preserve the exclusivity of their Birkin and Kelly bags. Watchdog accounts like Diet Prada were quick to point out the copycat strategy, while several social media users criticized what they felt was a “tone-deaf” marketing strategy.
“As they are internet natives, Gen Z have had more access to other fashion eras and cultures via the internet from early on in their lives. Because of this, a luxury name on an item is not enough to appeal to this generation,” says Jessica Lawrence, fashion influencer and social media manager at Vogue Business. “Meaningful connections to subcultures, sustainability and upcycling, as well as fashion or social media trends are what drives and forms their cultural values in fashion.”
Some fashion houses have tapped into those demands of the Gen Z consumer by launching collaborations with cultural beacons in the world of streetstyle and sports. Take the blockbuster Louis Vuitton x Supreme collaboration for example, or more recently, 2020’s Dior collaboration with Jordan Brand that birthed the Air Dior sneaker. While those items still uphold the expense and exclusivity of traditional luxury (only 8,000 pairs of Dior Jordans were released to the general public), the cultural legacy attached to both Nike and Supreme, in sports, skate culture and music, give Louis Vuitton and Dior a sense of relevancy to a younger, culturally conscious audience. The collaboration acts as a stamp of approval, allowing these luxury pieces to fit organically into the wardrobes of Gen Z in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t.
“Younger consumers are choosing to build personalized long-standing wardrobes and moving away from fast fashion and soulless consumerism,” Lawrence explains. “Where other demographics may wear and accumulate new items as a way of keeping up to date with trends, Gen Z tend to focus more on the products and trends that align with their sense of self and their peer groups. Items may come from secondhand sites, be a niche nod to a specific subculture group, or come from a different fashion era they have learnt about through social media.”
Gen Z’s tendency towards secondhand shopping trends is reflected in the popularity of resell sites such as Depop. The marketplace was acquired by Etsy in a $1.6 billion deal last summer and focuses on vintage and handmade goods, with Gen Z as its primary audience – 90 percent of its active users are under the age of 25. Secondhand fashion allows Gen Zers to experiment with their fluid ideas of self identification. A 2020 study by Hulu highlighted that 75 percent of Gen Zers rejected easy categorization of their race, gender or sexuality, while 60 percent felt their identity was linked to race, culture and language among other factors.
“The need for maintaining a polished veneer, which became huge on IG thanks to millennials, is so outdated now,” says Larouci. “Young people want to see the ‘real you’ – they want to see the tears, the anxiety. Transparency is key and that’s why TikTok is doing so well. It’s unfiltered, authentic. It’s personality and values based rather than solely image based like Instagram.” The TikTok takedown of Chanel’s $825 advent calendar last Christmas is a testament to the platform’s appeal, showing once again that personality and clear values take precedence over just the image of owning Chanel — something you’d rarely find on Instagram, where keeping up appearances at all costs has long since been the driving ethos of the platform.
Ultimately, conscious shopping driven by authenticity and inclusivity is the future of luxury fashion if it wants to appeal to its prime consumer. Dated traditions and sole reliance on legacy is no longer enough, which is why modern collectibles will reign supreme of the new generation of shoppers. High cultural value is currency, and any brand that can’t deliver it – no matter how prestige – simply won’t appeal to Gen Z.