Will Fast Fashion Survive Gen Z?

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Have you ever heard a young woman say that she has nothing to wear, while simultaneously standing in front of an overflowing closet? The problem she faces is that many apparel brands simply do not understand Gen Z women, their lifestyle, values, or aspirations. To understand what Gen Z women actually want from a brand, I conducted a nationally representative survey of 500 women ages 18-25, in which I explored their brand preferences for apparel. Specifically, I looked at the brands that young women like the most, that reflect who they aspire to be, and that are in potential trouble with this demographic.

1. Which brands are on top today? Athletic, Fast Fashion, Lingerie 

I asked the survey respondents which apparel brands—from a list of more than 90—best reflect who they are currently. Figure 1, below, shows the 10 brands that topped the list. 

Athletic brands Adidas and Nike were two of the top three most preferred brands among Gen Z women, indicating their powerful reach. As recently as a decade ago, women did not wear athletic apparel as their daywear. However, we can’t leave the house these days without seeing at least three people wearing black exercise leggings. This shift reflects how Gen Z women deeply value health and wellbeing, as workout and self-care culture has consumed the demographic. By wearing sportswear, Gen Z women are making a statement: I am healthy, youthful, and confident. 

Figure 1: The Top 10 Brands That Reflect Gen Z Today

RankBrandReflects Who I Am Today (%)
1Adidas31.0
2Forever 2128.3
3Nike19.7
4American Eagle18.0
5H&M15.3
6Old Navy13.6
7Victoria’s Secret12.7
8Hot Topic11.8
9Aerie8.4
10Levi’s8.0

Note: respondents could select up to 5 brands each

Fast fashion brands—Forever 21, H&M, Old Navy and Hot Topic—also dominate the list of brands that best reflect who Gen Z women are. While these brands are ubiquitous with young women at the moment, Gen Z women are conflicted. They want their clothes to be trendy and affordable, but also to reflect their values, such as sustainability and quality. This dissonance spells trouble on the horizon for many fast fashion brands, as their young female customers aspire to align their purchases with their values. 

Figure 1 also highlights the significance of lingerie brands to Gen Z women. It doesn’t seem like a piece of clothing that no one sees would matter much to any cohort. However, young women now dress not only to look good, but to feel good. Victoria’s Secret, which has long dominated the lingerie market for young women by selling its signature sexy styles, remains popular. However, Aerie, a relatively new brand founded in 2006, has nearly caught up to Victoria’s Secret in terms of status with Gen Z shoppers. By focusing on comfort and body positivity, Aerie has adopted an authentic message that aligns with this demographic’s values. Few Gen Z women would prefer a hot pink bra printed with palm trees over a simple, light pink lace bralette. Victoria’s Secret is feeling the effects of this shift. For instance, it was recently announced that the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show has been canceled. It’s possible to attribute that cancellation to the brand’s lack of connection to and popularity with the emerging Gen Z market. 

2. What brands do women aspire to? In a word, luxury

In addition to asking which brands best reflect who they are today, I also asked these women to indicate the brands they aspire to most. I combined this information to create the Gen Z Brand Power Index (BPI). The BPI of any given brand is simply the percentage of people who aspire to that brand divided by the percentage of those who say the brand best represents who they are today. The higher the BPI, the greater the head room a brand has to grow with Gen Z women. Conversely, brands with low BPIs might be in serious trouble, as fewer women aspire to those brands than identify with them. 

Figure 2 below summarizes the BPIs for select apparel categories, drawn from the 70+ brands for which I calculated the index. Results indicate three categories with the highest BPIs and substantial room for growth: luxury, mass-market luxury, and “forever young.” 

Figure 2: The Gen Z Brand Power Index

CategoryBrandReflect Who You Are Today (%)Reflect Who You Aspire to Be (%)Brand Power Index
LuxuryGucci1.9012.26.50

Burberry0.905.106.00

Louis Vuitton1.709.105.30

Dior0.904.605.30

Chanel2.609.303.60
Mass-Market LuxuryCoach1.004.003.90

Kate Spade1.906.203.30

Michael Kors2.705.301.90
Forever YoungBrandy Melville 1.904.702.50

Anthropologie4.309.802.30

Free People4.005.701.40
Athletic Adidas31.0021.000.70

Nike19.7012.900.67
Fast FashionHot Topic11.805.700.50

H&M15.307.300.50

Forever 2128.3012.000.40
LingerieVictoria’s Secret12.709.900.78

Aerie8.405.800.70

Luxury brands—including Gucci, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Chanel—had the highest BPIs. Why did Gucci have such a high percentage of women aspiring to their brand? With the skyrocketing popularity of streetstyle and rap, Gucci has evolved not only into a status symbol, but into a symbol of pop culture. Many women aspire to these luxury brands, reflecting the way that exposure to these brands through social media and celebrity influence has radically expanded the addressable market. 

Mass-market luxury brands—such as Coach, Kate Spade, and Michael Kors—also emerged with strong brand power indices. These brands had a high percentage of women who feel these brands reflect who they are currently, but an even higher percentage of women who say these brands reflect who they aspire to be. These brands have a unique opportunity in the current market as they are well-known, more-affordable, and quality alternatives to luxury brands. 

On the other side of the coin, brands embodying the “forever young” attitude had very promising BPIs. Brandy Melville, for example, is actually marketed towards teenagers rather than young women. Free People and Anthropologie likewise epitomize a free spirited and youthful lifestyle. This data suggests that these youthful brands might end up replacing fast fashion brands like Forever 21 and H&M which, as Figure 2 shows, have alarmingly low brand power indices among Gen Z women. These brands, not coincidentally, have been struggling financially. For instance, A 2019 Business Insider article reported that, in 2018, Forever 21’s sales dropped by 20-25%, illustrating their significant loss of popularity.

What sets these “forever young” brands apart from fast fashion brands is the style of their clothing, which often features higher quality and more simplistic looks. The popularity of “forever young” brands is a testament to the fact that young women’s tastes are multifaceted; there is not just one kind of brand or one kind of lifestyle that young women are drawn to. Women may want to wear a timeless Michael Kors bag with their Brandy Melville hoodie.

3. Which brands need a reboot? 

As shown in Figure 1, fast fashion brands largely represent who women are right now. This should not give these brands a false sense of security, however. Gen Z women are settling for fast fashion brands, rather than aspiring to them. When asked what qualities make women dislike a brand, 50% said being bad quality and 28% said being tacky. Overall, price and quality seem to be the two most important factors that determine whether or not women will like a brand. Fast fashion brands don’t need to worry about their prices, but price alone is not enough to ensure their future success. These brands need to step up their quality, or risk losing a large demographic. Forever 21, which filed for bankruptcy in September, is a cautionary tale. 

In short . . . 

While Gen Z women might be mercurial in their tastes, brands cannot afford to ignore their multifaceted needs. With nearly $25B in purchasing power concentrated among Gen Z women, apparel brands will need to better reflect their values, lifestyle, and aspirations, or find themselves out of favor. 

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