We've devoted quite a bit of space on this website to Generation Z — comprising of those born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s — as of late, and for good reason. As the demographic continues to accrue more buying power, brands are working overtime to connect with them in hopes of harnessing their clout. But for companies, Gen Z is a fickle, if mysterious, group; they're the first to have been raised entirely adjacent to the internet, a proximity that affects how they consume product more than it does the millennials, or certainly Gen X, before them.
As the first "digital native" generation, Gen Z holds an estimated $44 billion in buying power, so you can imagine why brands are doing everything from hiring "microinfluencers" to reinventing their brick-and-mortar experiences to appease them. But is the secret to getting through to Gen Z as easy as, well, doing less? That was one of the topics discussed during the "What Does Gen Z Want Next?" panel at the Fashion Culture Design conference in New York City on Friday, with guest speakers that included, among others, Man Repeller's Leandra Medine and streetwear guru Jeff Staple of Staple Design.
"I'm in constant pursuit of simplifying everything. I want to work smarter, not harder. We grew up as members of the 'work harder' generation," said Medine, a millennial herself. To her point, studies have proved that millennials are actually "workholics" — quite the departure from the lazy, entitled caricature by which the generation has come to be drawn. "That is something I admire so much about people who are younger, is that they've totally figured out how to simplify."
Staple offered the example of now-ubiquitous contemporary and streetwear label Anti-Social Social Club, founded by Neek Lurk in Los Angeles just over two years ago. Though Lurk himself is 27 years old, his pared-down business strategy more closely appeals to Gen Z than it does a more traditional, older shopper. Staple explained that Lurk designs a product line in Photoshop, promotes it on Instagram and subsequently rings in up to $8 million before the items are even available. He goes into production based on demand, "then he goes out and buys a Camaro." For Gen Z, Anti-Social Social Club's appeal lies in its indifference; Lurk isn't trying to build a brand in the way that "corny-as-hell" moguls like Ralph Lauren or Jay Z once did, and that's who Gen Z wants to support.
This, of course, relates to Gen Z's penchant for full transparency, a quality it prioritizes above all else and which stems from a lifetime spent on the internet. According to Leslie Ghize, executive vice president of consumer culture and creative think thank Tobe, Gen Z values originality and self-expression more than millennials do, the latter demographic of which has grown used to a digital world that's designed and curated for them. Look to the success of Snapchat, which was designed to be nearly impenetrable for brands to enter with any sort of prolonged success.
Moderator Kate Lewis, senior vice president and editorial director of Hearst Magazines Digital Media, sees this as being a pointed backlash to the polish millennials prefer. "If you post a picture that's too nice, you get backlash," replied Staple. "It's so weird. I took [a picture of] this great sunset — the perspective was perfect — and people were like, 'Booooring.'"
So, are glossy, finely-tuned heritage brands entirely lost on the Gen Z customer base? Staple believes that the "prescribed" looks seen so often with fashion houses like Ralph Lauren are done; Gen Z-ers need to be able to mix-and-match and fully express themselves as they see fit for any given day. Companies can certainly try — the best they can do is to keep moving, but they should stop attempting to put all of Gen Z into one bucket and look at them simply, and for what they are: people.
"I think that the newer generation is becoming so much more diverse, and it's harder to put them all into one [category]," said Maria Al-Sadek, BPCM social media and digital project manager. "I think we just have to continue being with it."