🏔️The Fashion Frontier
Gen Z fashion trends, "self-expression", and the coming of fashion's digital future
Fashion is inextricably linked to our need to belong; using clothes as a way to express ourselves and identify with different groups, traditions, and cultures.
Fashion is the story of who we are, and who we want to be.
And forever, fashion has been shaped by the same driving forces; entertainment, music, politics, technology, sports - the elemental blocks of culture itself.
But what happens when the speed of culture shifts?
What happens when those same elements begin to change and evolve at increasingly fast rates? When new ways of listening to music, when new ways of viewing shows, when new methods of rising to fame all emerge and evolve?
And what happens when not only are these elements rapidly changing but the way in which we are exposed to them also rapidly changes?
When social media can take a moment in culture and magnify it nearly instantly to become visible to the entire world, repeatedly exposing us to that moment? Remember that Oscars moment a few days ago?
What do we see with fashion as a result?
What we see is a culture in which fashion is responding with equal and opposite reactions.
Without a doubt, fashion trends are moving at a faster rate today than they ever have before. Thanks to platforms like TikTok, where the world is empowered and incentivized to create content, we can see how one show like Euphoria can influence fashion trends, and how influencers across platforms can magnify those trends in their own unique ways instantly to their own follower base. And thanks to the rise of technologies like social commerce, we can purchase those new trending clothes in a matter of seconds without ever leaving that same platform.
With influencers being paid to promote a piece in a 10-second video, and never wear it again, trends come and go in months or even weeks.
And from this cycle, we see the rise of fast fashion: a method of production that allows brands like SHEIN, Zara, and H&M to enable the followers of these trends to quickly and affordably fit in and belong to the trends of the moment.
And yet as these trends evolve faster and faster, we see a generational response that bears surface-level similarities to the self-expression narrative:
It feels almost as if this overwhelming generational desire for self-expression is more of a hopeless one; a last-resort option.
It is commonly stated about Gen Z that we “love self-expression”, we’re the “self-expressive generation”. But has anyone ever stopped and asked why? The desire for self-expression in fashion directly contradicts Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: the human desire to belong.
So why does Gen Z want self-expression?
On one side, we see this as a backlash against the trend cycle; a push for self-expression enabled and fueled by second-hand shopping and the emergence of platforms like Depop and Poshmark to facilitate our a) affordable and b) individualistic desires.
On the other, we see the world’s biggest game of duck-duck-goose. Where young consumers are forced into consuming faster and faster, just to feel like they fit in, to feel like they belong; which is certainly understandable after that feeling of “belonging” has nearly evaporated over the 2+ year span since COVID hit, and we lost every element of our high school and college social lives. “But what about social media and technology connecting people?” Clearly, that’s not helping to bring us together; Gen Z is the loneliest generation, with more people feeling isolated in today’s world than ever before.
“Modern progress has brought unprecedented advances that make it easier for us technically to connect, but often these advances create unforeseen challenges that make us feel more alone and disconnected.
- Dr. Vivek Murthy, United States Surgeon General and author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World
Interpreting the Gen Z fashion trends of today
And yet even within this game of fashion catch-up, here are the top trends of the past year:
Gorpcore, normcore, Y2K, Indie Sleaze, dark academic, collegecore, ivy style, vintage, preppy, old-money aesthetic, e-girl/e-boy, coconut girl, avant basic, zara chic.
See a pattern? There is an overwhelmingly strong desire to connect with the past; what seems like a backlash against the always fast-approaching future. Y2K, (other trends here), athleisure, etc; youth fashion trends of the last few years have been dominated by these nostalgic eras. Today, nostalgia dominates our generational aesthetic. To pull from this recent piece by Megan Cullen of BBH on Gen Z and Nostalgia:
“If you look to the trends that have defined Gen Z and young Millennial style in the last couple of years, you’d be hard-pushed to find anything that feels truly new.
First – in early 2020 - it was Y2K: low rise denim miniskirts, bedazzled logos, and wired headphones all made a comeback, along with a resurgence in the music and TV shows of the early noughties.
Then we heard ‘Indie Sleaze’ was coming back. I didn’t know what it was either, but apparently, if you just imagine walking into an American Apparel circa 2008, you’ll have a pretty good picture of it.
And now - according to TikTok - it’s all about the Twee/Tumblr aesthetic of 2014, a time that doesn’t rightly feel long enough ago to elicit that nostalgic longing for things past.”
Fashion gives us yet another lens through which to understand why nostalgia is such a powerful factor. As society moves forward, our fashion tastes look back. Cullen of BBH calls this nostalgic force futurephobia, and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.
Because if we zoom out of the fashion lens, we observe a generation surrounded at all times by noise. We have grown up with school shootings, the senseless murder of black people in the streets, acts of terror in our backyards, the climate burning in front of us, with the coronavirus pandemic taking away our education, our friends, and our social lives at their most pivotal points, with a world war on the brink, with the noise that all generations have had; the heartbreaks, the deaths of family members, the divorces and the lost friends. The key difference? We’re exposed to all of this over and over and over again on social media.
So why are we nostalgic? And why are we seeing it dominate fashion? As Cullen writes,
“When you step back and take stock of the options available to Gen Z about the type of future they want to subscribe to, they are not only limited, but profoundly uninspiring. It’s either:
Embark on a grueling losing battle with pandemics, climate change, and social and political inequality;
Give up on earth in pursuit of limitless growth in new worlds, while lining the pockets of billionaires; or
Put your fingers in your ears, get dressed up in butterfly clips and lowrise jeans, and listen to Britney
I know which one sounds most enjoyable to me.”
Culture will continue to move at faster and faster speeds, reaching nearly unstoppable, unsustainable rates. The question is: what happens when we can’t sustain this rate of change anymore? Will we keep our fingers in our ears, keep dressing from the past and keep watching Euphoria?
Generation Z is acutely aware of fast fashion’s environmental impact (yet continues to buy it...), the trends of today are teleporting us to previous decades to escape from the future ahead, and as all of this happens, we are introduced to a completely new, game-changing variable. Feel overwhelmed yet? Too bad. In comes the Metaverse…
(pt. 2 coming soon...)
3 key takeaways:
Creating opportunities for “self-expression” is not necessarily what Gen Z wants; self-expression is an external narrative created to explain patterns in surface-level trends that fail to understand the cause of their rise in popularity.
Fashion is a world full of generational contradictions; we buy fast fashion and fight climate change, we’ve grown up with technology but are futurephobic, we’re more connected than ever but also more isolated. Overlook these contradictions and we build false narratives; unpack them and we find hidden generational truths.
Fashion is on the verge of its critical point; micro-trend cycles, the need for “self-expression” and these generational contradictions are about to all cross paths in the metaverse. And this intersection will change fashion and identity as we know it. But not in the way you might think.
Within the month, we’ll be releasing our 2022 Gen Z x Fashion: Industry Series report, a deep dive into fashion, its most relevant Gen Z brands, and its future. For access to the report, please sign up here.