Gen Z Says: This Is What the Next Gen Is Saving, Wearing, and Shopping
Over the last few years, designer brands and luxury conglomerates have set their sights on winning over one of the most coveted pieces of the fashion pie: Gen Z. Millennials are still the largest consumers of fashion, and baby boomers yield the largest spending power, but Gen Z has quickly become all anyone in corporate boardrooms can talk about. Aged 12 to 25, Gen Z is poised to become the fastest-growing generation as it pertains to spending power, leveraging around $360 billion, according to the Business of Fashion, so it's no surprise to anyone that the industry has taken notice. Since before industry leaders were paying attention, we've had an annual tradition of ours that allows us to dive a little deeper into the younger generation—Gen Z Says.
Formerly, it was a series where we exclusively tapped young insiders to discuss what's cool in the fashion space, but we've now taken it to the masses. While billionaire CEOs and marketing executives think they know what Gen Z wants, we're here to break down the truth. Over the last two weeks, Who What Wear sat down with industry experts, leaders, and over 200 Gen Z readers to hear their takes on the fashion choices they're making right now, from where they're spending their money (and where they aspire to shop from) to what exactly is influencing those late-night purchases and hauls. The proof is in the numbers, and as we're among the next gen ourselves, we were able to put together a concise report of what we actually care about, from us to you. Welcome to the new and expanded Gen Z Says.
This year more than ever, it feels like brands are finally taking strides to appeal to the new, young, hip crowd on the scene. In an effort to grow with the generation, brands of all sizes are investing time and money into capturing their undivided attention. Miu Miu and Tory Burch have tapped sub-25 celebrities like Sydney Sweeney and Zaya Wade for campaigns and runway debuts. Emma Chamberlain has made the shift from quirky and sporadic YouTube vlogs to front-row and red carpet appearances. Both Madelyn Cline and Jenna Ortega rose to superstardom after their Netflix series and movie roles, working with the likes of Valentino and Versace as they go.
The Lyst Index, which is the industry's quarterly report that ranks fashion's hottest brands and products, cited both Gen Z and TikTok virality as reasons for multiple brands' successful ranking in both 2023 Q1 and 2022's end-of-year data. On the corporate level, luxury giant LVMH announced in 2021 it was planning to recruit 25,000 people under 30 by the end of 2022, proving that looking from the outside isn't enough. They want the inside scoop.
These days, it's almost impossible not to pay attention to the path the younger generation is forging. If there's one thing we learned from the style discourse Portia from The White Lotus caused, it's that there's a lot we have yet to learn about the next gen's place in the fashion world—snarky think pieces included or not. So read on to see their impact on fashion in 2023, and prepare to be captivated.
Photo:Courtesy of Prada; Courtesy of Coach; Courtesy of Zara
With the boom of social media influence, Gen Z has become much more aware of the brands they're following than older generations. Everyone is prone to a little influence, but growing up online means their spending is directly impacted by what they're consuming digitally. Younger age may mean less money, and while a majority of the generation is still currently shopping on the affordable end, higher-end brands are betting on their future and current buying power. As mentioned previously, Business of Fashion reported that the generation has a purchasing power of $360 billion, so it's clear that focusing on the younger demographic is a worthy investment.
Photo:Courtesy of Prada; Courtesy of Nordstrom
Despite Gucci and Miu Miu offering the trendy aesthetics we'd associate with Gen Z (respective campaigns with Harry Styles and Sydney Sweeney call for proof), Prada still took the top luxury spot by our polled audience. Lyst recently named Prada as the top brand of Q1 2023 and cited a 131% search increase for the Prada Re-Edition 2000 Re-Nylon bag, which shot up through TikTok virality and Gen Z's love of nostalgia. Who What Wear Editorial Director Lauren Eggertsen, who is also a Prada superfan, believes that the generation's shift toward the brand relies on the vast product offering and vintage revivals: "The opportunity to buy into the world of Prada via vintage or secondhand finds coupled with the diverse product offering allows consumers to still feel like individuals even though they are shopping the brand literally everyone is wearing. It's so Gen Z."
Honorable Mention: Chanel
Due to the explosive nature of Gen Z bride Sofia Richie's Chanel-clad wedding, it only feels fair to give an honorable mention to the recent spiked interest in the French house. We haven't seen this much conversation surrounding a bridal look since Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's royal nuptials. Lyst cited a 300% soar in searches for Chanel, so we can't help but assume the brand might've scored higher in our survey—where it tied with Miu Miu for second place—if we had conducted it at a later date.
Photo:Courtesy of Coach
Thanks to successful marketing campaigns and celebrity endorsements, American leather goods brand Coach has made a massive resurgence with the fashion crowd. Due to the label's high quality and lower-cost luxury price points, Gen Z's fascination with the brand made it a winner in our poll by a long shot, with almost 45% of respondents naming it as one of the most desirable contemporary brands when in competition with labels such as Tory Burch, Staud, and Kate Spade. The brand's Tabby line, consisting of the structured Tabby 26 and viral Pillow Tabby as well as miniature versions of both silhouettes, has been making waves with beloved Gen Z talent like musicians Ice Spice and Lil Nas X. Following in the socially conscious footsteps of its growing Gen Z consumer base, Coach's latest sustainable sister line, Coachtopia, has a slew of younger talent promoting styles at a lower price point for Gen Z to buy into.
Photo:Courtesy of Zara
Zara has been a long-established brand and leader in the fast-fashion industry, and although brands like Urban Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch offer a more "youthful" variety of products, the Spanish retailer still came first, with 43.4% of respondents naming it as the affordable brand they're most likely to shop at. Even with a small focus on influencer marketing compared to other brands, #zarahaul currently boasts 5.9 billion views on TikTok. With editorial-level imagery, hype-worthy collaborations, and a slew of new arrivals hitting the site daily, it all comes together to explain why Zara is the top affordable destination for young consumers looking for fresh and trending pieces.
Photo:Courtesy of Zara; Courtesy of Nordstrom; TikTok; Getty Images
It would be reckless to mention Gen Z without acknowledging the mass influence they have on the global fashion markets. While Instagram remains one of the highest social platforms to engage with fashion communities, TikTok's sheer impact on runways, trends, and the illusion of celebrity has never felt stronger thanks to the app's overwhelming Gen Z base. As Gen Z turns to online communities, digital mood-boarding, and e-platform-based activity, it's not a stretch of the imagination to assume somewhere, somehow we have a fine-tuned algorithm to thank for all of this. Sure, marketing often takes a brand far, but according to Gen Z, a shiny 60-second clothing-haul video just might do a tad bit more.
For what it's worth, Gen Z is quite self-aware about the core-ification of today's fashion landscape, with eclectic aesthetics and subgenres of hyper-niche sartorial tastes garnering billions of views for the world to see. While we latch on to screen times so high they might scare a Victorian-era child, it's only fitting to acknowledge the future of the digital-first fashion world Gen Z is creating on their own terms.
With the app's finely tuned algorithm, it's no surprise that TikTok took the leading spot as the preferred social media platform. When shown results about the impact of influencers, Teen Vogue editorial assistant Aiyana Ishmael was not surprised. While TikTokers with large followings quickly become influencer titans, anyone on the app can go viral. "We're more likely to trust the relatable-looking 20-something in college who shakily sets up their camera post–hitting record over the slightly older billionaire posting a perfectly filmed, edited, and captioned video to TikTok." she shares.
From our own on-site data, TikTok/viral-pegged content has gone up 34.44% in gross sales year over year. Mentions of virality lead to the most conversions, proving that anyone's curiosity can be piqued enough to read (and shop) what next thing is blowing up on Gen Z's favorite app, even if they don't have a TikTok account themselves.
Photo:Courtesy of Zara; Courtesy of Mango; @aniyahmorinia
Gen Z has never shied away from risk-taking trends (sheer fabrics and micro miniskirts to name a few), so it could be surprising to some that a modest trend was most favored this year. But Ishmael doesn't think the longer-lengthed look is far off from the smaller skirts, as they both fall into the category of Y2K and '90s nostalgia. "Although it's closely attached to an era of fashion, if styled correctly, it's a timeless addition to your wardrobe. I personally own a few maxi jean skirts and a few bohemian-style maxi skirts that get compliments whenever I wear them," she tells us.
With other poll results having landslide winners, the 2023 trend poll was quite mixed across the board, showing that Gen Zers are not afraid to dabble in a multitude of styles to find what suits them best.
Photo:Getty Images; Courtesy of Mango; Courtesy of Nordstrom; Courtesy of Prada
Although Gen Z is known for its cyclical aesthetics, wearing each ill-fated trend like a badge of honor until the point of oversaturation, there are a few key tastes the sub-25 crowd relies on over and over. As of now, an overwhelming majority of our polling shows the younger generation is into '90s minimalism, calling on inspiration from simple silhouettes and sophisticated color palettes. Given the rise of the understated quiet-luxury aesthetic among the fashion crowd, it's no surprise to see in-your-face choices like Y2K, balletcore, and quirky maximalism on their way out—all garnering less than 15% support each. "Trends are constantly fluctuating in and out of relevance. Nostalgia sits at the heart of every fashion trend Gen Z is currently exploring, and I think we're just entering another phase of it," Ishmael explains. "It all just goes hand in hand with what viral movement we're having."
Photo:@funnyprettynice; Courtesy of Mango; Courtesy of Nordstrom; Courtesy of Reformation
There are a few myths that exist about Gen Z, one of the largest being that they're solely responsible for how fast-paced the trend cycle is moving thanks to their reliance on hyperfast fashion and social media. While the under-25 crowd hasn't known much of a world in which fast fashion and online shopping didn't exist, their reliance on sustainable methods and digitally native purchasing options like Afterpay, Klarna, and PayPal are outlining a future in which traditional methods of retail and how to shop cease to exist, paving the way for innovation as it pertains to shopping, branding, and payment platforms.
Secondhand Shopping Method: In-Person Thrifting
Secondhand shopping has always been around, but there's no doubt it's been far more normalized since Gen Z has made thrifting a "lifestyle" rather than just another form of shopping. Not only is it an affordable option to look on-trend, but it also shows the generation's shift toward sustainability. And while Depop and The RealReal hauls may garner views in the thousands to the millions range, our survey shows that the in-store shopping experience is still their top choice. Judith Jones, senior market editor, tells us she's seen it first-hand as a vintage reseller: "With the secondhand market booming and such a wide variety of online sellers and sites catering to every sartorial taste, there’s really no reason not to shop secondhand and sustainably right now," she says. "I’ve seen a huge interest in vintage designer pieces, such as Prada and Calvin Klein, and frequently receive DM requests for styles that feel relevant to what’s trending now yet have a unique, retro feel to them (think oversize distressed leather bombers, vintage nightgowns, retro-sporty pieces to name but a few)."
Growing up in the age of online shopping, visiting brick-and-mortar locations is a rare feat for the younger crowd, but the thrill of the hunt gives them a higher chance of finding something unique and one of a kind.
Top Buying Factor: Style
As Gen Z's buying power is on the rise, it's no surprise that the motivations behind why they shop are just as important as where they shop. The majority of our respondents were more concerned about the style of their clothing (38.9%) than other motivating factors such as price, cost, and sustainability. While Gen Z certainly admires luxury brands like Prada and Chanel, less than 1% of all respondents stated they cared about brand name the most when it pertained shopping.
Logo vs. No Logo: No Logo
Photo:Courtesy of Khaite
"Quiet luxury" may seem like an overused buzzword at this point, but it really is having a monumental impact on the industry right now. Logos are still present in fashion (e.g., the much-loved Prada and Loewe tanks), but the current look of opulence is now defined by the understated. Going off of Gen Z's love of '90s minimalism, it makes sense that a whopping 71.5% of our polled audience prefers no logos. This may explain why logoless items like Uniqlo's Round Mini Shoulder Bag and Baggu's Crescent Bag have risen in popularity. On the luxury end of the spectrum, minimal yet edgy brands such as Khaite are catching steam. Lyst named the New York–based label its Q1 2023 breakout brand, with searches up 10% this quarter.