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The earliest story that lives in the cozy confines of Fashionista's "Generation Z" tag dates back to January 2017, when Maria Bobila offered us a primer on the shopping habits of this fledgling demographic that was, generally speaking, born after 1995.

These so-called Cool Teens™ may have felt a bit alien to older age groups (millennials included) then, and to the unacquainted, may still feel a bit alien now. As known "digital natives," Gen Z is the first to be neuronally wired to navigate between a website and an iPad. They're unwavering in their values — of inclusivity, of individualism, of accountability — and, per a certain viral tweet, will sooner body-slam a member of law enforcement than ask a waiter for an extra side of dipping sauce.

In the nearly four years since that primer was published, Gen Z has only just begun to come into their own. A recent Bank of America Research report appropriately titled "OK Zoomer" predicts that they're set to take over the economy in the next decade, with an income that will reach $33 trillion. But we don't have to wait until then to feel their impact, because in 2020, Gen Z ruled everything. They became the market's new "It" influencers, top consumers and vocal activists about the industry issues that matter most. And as far as fashion and retail is concerned, they're just getting started.

"Gen Z audiences are continuously described as elusive," says Lindsay Peoples Wagner, editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue. "Still, they're really influential because they're willing to make changes, hold brands accountable and require a sense of transparency. Whether it be how items are made or how inclusive a company's C-Suite executive board is, Gen Z isn't afraid to ask the hard questions that have been crucial to brands' success or demise."

According to Evy Lyons, vice president of marketing at data-driven influencer marketing platform Traackr, there's something of a quantitative formula that has enabled this kind of unprecedented influence. Gen Z's digital fluency, paired with their inherent social media use, has stocked them with all the right tools to be ultimate tastemakers without even trying.

If Gen Z has one discernible characteristic, it's that they genuinely care about what their money goes toward beyond the product itself. The numbers don't lie: A 2017 report by Futurecast found that 60% of Gen Z-ers actively look to spend on brands that support social causes they believe in.

"Specifically, what I've seen is that our readers, both millennials and Gen Z, are only willing to support brands that truly align with their values," adds Peoples Wagner. "A few years ago, you would see people wearing brands that were clearly racist or homophobic, but would reconcile because it was a cute item, and I think now more than ever, people realize that you liking, following or buying an item from a brand that isn't inclusive is saying you support that brand."

In 2019, Facebook released a study confirming that at least 68% of Gen Z-aged individuals "expect brands to contribute to society," largely as it relates to issues of social, racial or environmental justice. In the last 12 months, this expectation was put to the global test, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the police brutality protests following the murder of George Floyd taking center stage.

When analyzing a sample of more than 41,000 influencers across the U.S., Canada and Europe, Traackr found there to be a 5,194% increase in the number of users mentioning Black Lives Matter in the first half of 2020, compared to the same period last year. This sample wasn't entirely composed of Gen Z-aged social media users, but it does indicate that when it comes to deep-seated societal topics like systemic racial injustice, Gen Z is taking the lead — and won't likely let go anytime soon.

"I loved seeing how Gen Z followed up on the brands that were posting about Black Lives Matter back in June — to hold them accountable, to see what they've been up to and whether they've made any systematic changes, or if their support was superficial and fleeting," says Peoples Wagner. "Social media gives Gen Z power to apply pressure like no other generation has done before."

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To be sure, Gen Z doesn't necessarily expect perfection, for each and every brand that exists in the world to serve as the pinnacle of inclusivity and equity, of sustainable manufacturing processes, of ethical labor practices. What they do expect, however, is a demonstrated, transparent commitment to progress. Transparency is all they've known — online, at least — and it's what continues to set them apart.

Lyons, the Traackr analyst, finds that Gen Z just has a different way of interacting. Most of them don't even remember a time when they didn't have social media; by the time they were old enough to have cell phones, Instagram already existed. "Because of this," she explains, "they use social media more as a communication tool, and feel at liberty to act like their true authentic selves online. On the other hand, millennials see social media as an art form where they seek to show the best version of themselves."

In 2020, the once-slender canyon between the Gen Z-ers and millennials grew wider. Lyons mentions that tailored, filtered influencers like Julia Berolzheimer and Blair Eadie have perhaps never been more popular among millennials, with significantly smaller Gen Z follower bases — less than 25%, for both of them — to show for it. With equal parts self-deprecation and sarcasm (and maybe a dab of zit cream, too), Emma Chamberlain's following looks quite different: 95% of her audience consists of Gen Z-aged users. And this year, TikTok emerged as a frontrunner to speak to all 95% of them. In fact, the video-sharing platform officially beat out Facebook to become the top app worldwide by downloads.

"By looking at the type of content that works on TikTok, we can certainly see distinct traces of Gen Z's influence," Lyons argues. Around 2018, she says, Gen Z began streamlining the raw, unfiltered content Chamberlain is now known for with private "finsta" accounts, less glossy alternatives to the staged production still found on Instagram today. "When TikTok emerged, it played directly to the type of content Gen Z was already making," she continues. "TikTok has been successful in part because it secured the Gen Z audience by lending itself to real, lighthearted content that has the potential to go viral."

By now, we've seen TikTok firmly take hold of the fashion industry's influencer marketing play. At press time, only a handful of luxury fashion houses themselves — including Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Prada — have made it onto the platform. But that doesn't mean that brands didn't spend 2020 tapping Gen Z-aged TikTok creators for gifting and sponsorships. Some, like Celine, are even casting them: Last December, Hedi Slimane tapped "e-boy" Noen Eubanks to serve as the French label's newest face.

Gen Z is no longer just audience members, Lyons, says — they're influencers in their own right. But they're also, categorically, at an enormous disadvantage: Bank of America Research's"OK Zoomer" report estimates that Gen Z has been the hardest hit financially in the Covid-19 recession, suffering greater unemployment rates than those that were at the peak of the Great Recession.

"This big economic shock has the potential to leave lasting scars on that group," Hannes Schwandt, assistant professor at Northwestern University's School of Education and Social Policy and the author behind the "OK Zoomer" research, tells me. But there's a tiny glimmer of a silver lining to all of this, he adds: Experiencing a time like this at such a formative age will likely make Gen Z-ers more resistant to future crises and therefore, even more influential when it comes to managing them. 

"Gen Z might be the first generation that has experienced some of those movements at a young enough age that they're really being primed to change things," he says. 

In fashion, this goes beyond the definition of what's "cool," of course. Gen Z already influences trends, and in 2020, have started making their influence work for them financially. (Lyons predicts that if the age group does, in fact, take over the economy in the next decade, it will most likely be by means of entrepreneurship.) But Gen Z is more mission-oriented than that: With the planet both literally and proverbially on fire, they'll demand change to shape the more just world they feel they deserve.

"Many people equate young people with being an audience that you can worry about later, but truly, they're an audience that you have to find that connection to early if you want their loyalty," says Peoples Wagner. "And that loyalty has to be earned; it isn't just given because you have brand recognition."

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