College students voice their opinions on the best way to sell to their peers. Are you listening, Fashion?

In the movie Big, it takes a child to design toys that other kids will actually like. Perhaps the "it-takes-one-to-know-one" theory could produce similarly successful results for the fashion industry—especially for firms that cater to young adults.

College students at a number of campuses say that if they were responsible for marketing to their peers, they would advertise differently than companies do today. Apparently, one of the biggest sins committed by apparel retailers is lumping together high school students and younger teens with college-aged consumers. Porscha Radcliffe, a junior at the University of Notre Dame majoring in marketing and graphic design, often can’t tell if certain styles are aimed at her age group or younger teens. "A lot of companies are still giving us cheesy ads that fit teenagers," she says. "Take the Steve Madden ad. It’s got cartoonish-looking girls wearing the shoe, and the colors tend to be bubbly and bright. I don’t like that. I like the more sophisticated ads of Prada and Burberry."

"Millennials Go to College," a study by Neil Howe and William Strauss that examines the generation born between 1982 and today, bears this out. Those in their late teens and 20s are more conventional than other generations, "take pride in their improving behavior and are quite comfortable with their parents’ values," the report says. "They reveal a smaller generation gap with their parents than any group in history."

"So much fashion marketing is targeted to the tweens," agrees Stacey Leuliette, a senior majoring in marketing at Southern Methodist University. "We look to fashions that our mothers wear, like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. They’re not for tweens and not only geared to the older generation."

What really annoys Laura Gildner, a junior at Ithaca College majoring in psychology, is the retail industry’s assumption that all students are living for the next keg party. "There’s an entire demographic of people who don’t go out drinking and clubbing and pass out in some stranger’s arms," she says. "Try appealing to our intellect. If somebody actually targeted a commercial toward us we’d be so happy we’d buy whatever they were selling."Gildner avoids brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle, whose messages seem rooted in the high-school culture of exclusion, where "everybody’s moody and mean," she says. "People grow up. [Those companies] are trying to prolong the brutality."

Rachel Moss, a junior marketing major at Stern College for Women of the Yeshiva University, objects to the overt sexuality of ads aimed at her age group. "I like some of the clothing, but I don’t like the fact that the advertising borders on pornography," she says. "I like the professional-looking ads of Banana Republic and Ann Taylor that cater to the professional consumer. I think my friends feel this way, too. The sexual ads are pushing it." Leuliette finds Gucci’s ads, in particular, entirely too racy. "I like Tom Ford’s clothes for Gucci, but if you go on the Web you’ll see some ads that they wouldn’t put in magazines. I don’t think they could!"

"A few years ago, I would have worn clothing that was more revealing," Radcliffe adds. "Now my style seems to be more tasteful. It’s not about how much skin you can show, but about what’s flattering for your body type."

Which brings us to individuality—perhaps the most important factor for college-age consumers. "I don’t really see too many people wearing [logos] across their chests," said Olga Ovodenko, a New York University marketing major, class of ’06. "I think the Gap lost out because everything looks the same."

Ashley Beauchamp, a sophomore at Cal Arts majoring in music, claims she’s not a "big label whore." Rather, she likes vintage clothes and fashion that refers back to earlier decades, like the David Bowie Labyrinth T-shirt she recently bought at Hot Topic. "The way to keep things fresh and not pigeonhole yourself is to have clothes that reflect a lot of different things," she says. "Reinventing yourself is how to stay current."

"I don’t like mainstream clothing lines," declares Daniella Diament, a senior at Stern. "I look for something that’s not available in every store. I like the Gap for basics, but I don’t want to be seen in the same sweater as everyone else. I’ll buy my underwear at Gap. If I want something special, I’ll go to Anthropologie or Henri Bendel."And who decreed that all coeds should be tall and model-thin, especially in an environment where cafeteria and student union fare consists of starch, starch and more starch? "If I were advertising my own clothing line, it would show all shapes and sizes," says Radcliffe. "As you grow older, your body changes, especially in college."

Diament concurs. "Those of us who like to follow fashion trends want to see models our age and good-looking people of every size," she says. "A lot of clothes are very skimpy, but not everybody can wear that. The amount of bare skin you see now is ridiculous. People say you don’t see any clothes in the Abercrombie catalogs. It’s overdone."

Finally, there’s the price issue. "Fashion is taken so seriously, and it’s so expensive," says Beauchamp. "Take Imitation of Christ. The clothes are basically deconstructed to look very vintage-y, but they’re not giving them away. The concept is almost contradicting itself.

"The pricing of other popular brands isn’t very good," she continues. "Every time I walk into Banana Republic, I’m pleased with the quality, but uninspired by the design. I could go to Target and get the same thing."

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