Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, the fashion industry was at a critical crossroads. From unethical labor practices to unsustainable supply chain, fashion retail and apparel was in a challenging place while it also struggled with a looming identity crisis.
When the pandemic struck, even more issues were laid bare — with many pondering if fashion had a societal purpose at all.
So, it was within this context that a group of Fashion Marketing Management and Business of Fashion students from Polimoda engaged in an in-depth research project to investigate the future of fashion by unlocking the mindset of Generation Z and Millennials. Working under the supervision of teachers Lilit Boninsegni and Silvia Fossati, the research students sought to reveal — in a qualitative way — the “mental processes” of those surveyed while also “analyzing their visions on the future of fashion.”
“The research is qualitative,” said Danilo Venturi, Director of Polimoda. ”What I mean by that is we asked students to establish the parameters and values of the research itself. We didn’t just ask them questions or we would have already known the answers. If you want to do something for young people, you have to let them do it.”
The research was conducted at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak, this past April and May, and included students from 54 countries. The goal was to identify the values, references and questions that the industry’s younger generation “considers most relevant for the future of fashion.”
The results were surprising and refreshing, and offer a sense of hope for the fashion industry. Complied into a report titled, “The Truth About Fashion,” the researchers noted that the results “show that freedom is the value perceived as a priority for Gen Z and Millennials, followed by a strong need for authenticity and identifying with values.”
Respondents polled also “seek fashion that is meaningful, sends a message and that truly practices the diversity, inclusiveness and sustainability that it preaches.”
For example, in regard to diversity and inclusivity, “promoting a sense of freedom” was ranked by respondents as the most important action a fashion brand could take with 29.1 percent followed by eliminating sexual orientation with 17.3 percent and “including different ethnicities” within the fashion brand’s workforce garnering 15.6 percent. Other actions mentioned included featuring more ethnicities in brand content and in advertising as well as offering an extended range of clothes and sizes.
Danilo Venturi, Director of Polimoda, said examining the research results reveal that fashion will need to reimagine itself and truly innovate while letting these younger generational cohorts lead the way.
“The global emergency we are experiencing has exposed a side of fashion that was already not doing well,” Venturi said. “The overproduction was unsustainable for the planet, the overselling tension was unsustainable for human relationships and the redundancy of style denied a fashion that should live on change.”
“Fashion will have to reinvent itself, but real systemic recovery can only happen with innovation, the same way it has happened after every major crisis,” Venturi explained. “And if the future belongs to the young, it is these newer generations that can show us the way. This is why Polimoda gave the creative community of Gen Z and Millennial students from all over the world the opportunity to share their values, feelings, and fears in relation to fashion. In other words, their ‘Truth About Fashion.’”
Freedom and expression are the values perceived as a priority for Gen Z and Millennials as the real essence of fashion.
It’s important to note that the researchers found that a “sense of belonging,” in the context of community as a social value, was one of the first values mentioned by research participants “as relevant to young demographics when it comes to the essentials of life, but it was also the first attribute to refer to and evaluate fashion brands.” When asked what a “sense of belonging” stand for, the largest portion of respondents, at 28.6 percent, said it was to “share common passions within a group.” Nearly 25 percent said it was to “preserve and share different truths and cultures.”
Authors of the report said the implications of this point of view, for what they describe as “the global nation of youth,” means being “responsible for communicating, sharing and taking on the responsibility of generating a space where you can preserve your identity and accept others.” Like other values cited and prioritized, community and a sense of belonging is interconnected with inclusivity and authenticity.
But what are the implications for fashion brands in considering a “sense of belonging?” The reported noted that generating “valuable content to be shared should be a priority for a fashion brand wishing to help with the creation of a fruitful community and trying to give a real interpretation to different cultures —not by imitating, but by co-creating and appreciating.”
Back to fashion’s roots
The report also noted the importance of fashion brands in educating younger generations. Again, the effort must be authentic, and done via “relevant and meaningful storytelling.” The report also included a deep dive into media messaging and brand value (and perception of brand value) along with how messaging and branding fit into the most important values. And regarding traditional fashion media, the responses showed a diminishing role and influence.
By way of conclusion and recommendations, authors of the report said fashion brands need to go back to their roots, and their “original role” of being “culture-breakers.” The report stated that fashion brands today “could benefit from the opportunity of avoiding a mass-market transformation of their products by going back to decoding society: fashion brands to propose meaning, to make a statement, to believe in something and to express the youngest generation’s identity.”
A tall order? Perhaps. But today’s youth will not wait around and are likely to move on to other brands, embracing those that share their values.
“If big brands are close to the young generations’ values of sense of belonging and freedom, an interesting landscape of new or more niche brands also emerges, especially for authenticity, education and sustainability,” authors of the report said in the conclusion. “These values, together with inclusivity and cultural involvement, are the ones expected to shape the future of fashion, as seen by Gen Z and Millennials.”
The Truth About Fashion
To read the full report: Download Here
For a video spotlighting Polimoda students who share their values and perspectives: Watch Here