You might not see or feel it yet, but something is shifting about the way we spend money. Floundering department stores have never felt more homogenized and impersonal; the allure of cheaply produced fast fashion is waning. Navigating the massive world of retail, with its vast, oppressive blur of stuff, feels like we're trapped at a crowded party, desperately scanning the room for a friendly face. Product itself isn't enough to capture our attention anymore — it also needs to represent a brand that we believe in.
"There was very much a time period in which everyone identified with a particular brand," retail consultant Robert Burke says when I share these observations over the phone. "Then it moved away and became very trend-driven, almost to the point of being anti-label." However, he's quick to point out that social media's direct line between consumers and companies has strengthened our personal connection to the places we shop. In other words: Remember your favorite mall store in high school? The way it defined everything from your taste in music to choice of friends? (Everyone knows the Abercrombie crowd and Hot Topic kids sat at different lunch tables.) These days, tagging your Glossier Balm Dot Com collection in an #ITGTopShelfie is just as telling.
"It's about creating a lifestyle and telling the story really well [across multiple platforms]," Burke explains. "The customer today is more curious and better informed than ever before. It's not just enough for them to run out and buy, say, a ruffle top. They want to know everything about it: what it stands for, who's behind it, how it was made, and the type of person it represents."
For some, this manifests itself through discerning purchases. "I think overall I'm just more mindful in my shopping," Verena VonPfetten, a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor tells me over email. "If someone asks me what something is, I want to be able to tell them what makes that particular piece special or what sets one brand apart from another. I like being able to tell a story about my clothes — that the designer lives in Brooklyn and makes her own prints, as is the case with Ellen van Dusen of Dusen and Dusen — or that each collection is inspired by a different artist, like Mother of Pearl. Ultimately, it's more than just a thing I wear that I spent money on."
Jenna Gottlieb, Shopbop's features director, notes that a ready-baked image also makes crafting your own more convenient. "Certain smaller lines, like Rachel Comey, Ulla Johnson, and Jenni Kayne, offer tightly-edited head-to-toe collections with very specific points of view. It's not just about the pieces anymore, but the whole presentation. It's easy to identify with and become that 'girl' because [the work's done for you]."
When it comes to this well-rounded approach to marketing, young, modern start-ups seem to have an edge. Glossier, for example, only launched in 2014, but by presenting itself as a fun and approachable girl gang, it has already become a behemoth in the beauty business. Besides selling out of nearly every new product it launches, the label's signature packaging — a plastic pink bubble wrap pouch — has become the new "It" bag of 2016 by making appearances at Fashion Week and parties tucked under the arms of influencers; due to overwhelming demand, the company recently started selling it separately on its website.
Reformation, a seven-year-old up-cycled line that I find myself noticing on nearly every corner I turn in downtown Manhattan, is making similar waves in the apparel space. By way of sassy, straightforward copywriting, as well as an instantly recognizable aesthetic that can best be described as the Lower East Side meets Brigitte Bardot, the label has made eco-friendly clothing cool and sexy where much of the sustainable fashion industry has failed. And while the collection itself is filled with flattering and pretty pieces — silky floral dresses, soft bodysuits, vintage-inspired T-shirts — it's worth noting that similar options are not hard to track down elsewhere. It's the "ability to strongly communicate its message through digital media," says Burke, that keeps women loyal and coming back for more.
In the crowded world of athleisure, though, you'll find the repeat customers at Outdoor Voices. After establishing the line in 2012, founder Tyler Haney raised $7 million (bringing the brand's total investments to $9.5 million) to expand her collection last October; a solid vote of confidence, no doubt, inspired by the label's compelling "Doing Things" ethos — a softer, gentler alternative to "Just Do It" — and the enthusiastic community of casual exercisers it speaks to.
"I think when you look at brands like Outdoor Voices or Glossier — Sweetgreen would be another good example here — we're going after spaces that are traditionally for a select set of people," says Haney. "The same way beauty and wellness can seem really complicated and exclusive [to those outside the industry], activewear is often intimidating to non-competitive athletes. We're flipping the model on its head and creating brands that are all about inclusivity — that's what's attractive to our generation. [If you let them], people really want to be part of these communities, and help these brands grow."
Glossier's founder and CEO, Emily Weiss, shares in this sentiment. "Our 'girl' isn't a made up, abstract concept invented in a marketing brainstorm. She is real, and we talk to her every day in our Instagram comments, on Snapchat, on Into The Gloss. So naturally she is very present in our photographs, our content, our development story — everything." In short, the core of Glossier's business goes back to the customer base Weiss has cultivated, and what its specific needs are. "People are used to thinking of themselves, of their worlds, in 3D and in real time, and they're connecting with brands that do the same. We think about Glossier like a girl: Where does she live? Where does she go on vacation? What art does she like? What furniture? What music does she listen to? What does she eat for breakfast? What mood is she in? And just like a girl, her tastes evolve. She's growing up every year, but her DNA stays the same."
Not that newbie brands are the only ones to tap into this strategy as of late. The designers creating clothes with a certain type of woman in mind — think Alessandro Michele's granny-chic magpies over at Gucci, or the glam rock party girl we've come to associate with Hedi Slimane's (and now, Anthony Vaccarello's) Saint Laurent — are the few making financial gains in what's generally been a dismal few years for high-end retail. Following his January 2015 appointment, Michele closed out Q4 with 4.8 increase in sales; in Q1 of 2016, the growth had a 3.1 percent edge on the preview year. Slimane, meanwhile, exited Saint Laurent last spring after hauling in a 27 percent jump in revenue for the struggling label he brought back to life.
In a recent report from consultancy group Bain & Co, the luxury goods industry as a whole is predicted to grow a mere 2 percent in the forthcoming year based on languishing sales across the board in 2015, especially in the apparel sector. However, it also touts millennials as a powerful new generation of potential buyers — the same group of people who are looking to brands as a place to belong. This means, as Burke points out, big fashion and beauty conglomerates will need more than their rosters of prestigious names to keep up. "Some of these more [established] companies create in an ivory tower, and then have the customer come and decide if they like or don't like it. But connecting and listening to the customer is incredibly important for any brand's success today. It needs to inspire, of course, but simply putting a product online or hanging it on a rack won't sell it."
"Luxury today means simplicity, convenience," Weiss explains. "It should be accessible to everyone. But [many] traditional luxury brands are very far removed from their customer, they sort of base their value on how inaccessible they are. It's harder for them to truly tap into this community movement where customers want to be a part of a brand's development."
As for what that development entails for herself and her contemporaries, Haney has high hopes for the future. "The neat thing about this new generation of brands is that they all stand for something larger than products. So if our goal is to get people active every day, wearing Outdoor Voices and being part of our community impacts that larger mission as well. When there's a second level of purpose baked into what the company's doing, customers will respond. I think that's the coolest thing."