Think Tank: Anjee Solanki on the Era of the Unbrand

Gap tried to get in front of the trend last year with a collection of ordinary clothes and a global advertising campaign with “dress normal” as the tag line and brand positioning.

Andrea Manzati

Once upon a time, you could wear your status on your sleeve, your taste emblazoned across your chest. The brand that spoke to you could be proudly displayed on a T-shirt, bag or pair of jeans. Now comes a new trend — no labels — which is causing traditionally label-happy brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch and its sister brand, Hollister, to steadily lose market share. Popular in the Nineties and early Aughts, these brands were built on marketing a colorful teen lifestyle of conformity, but in 2014, sales had decreased by about 10 percent compared to the year prior.

The era of conspicuous branding is over, and teenagers no longer feel the need to sport labels and brands to fit in with the popular crowd. As buyers rely more on personal taste than conformity to make their purchasing decisions and want to downplay, not accentuate, their wealth after the Great Recession, retailers are left scratching their heads: What now?

This story first appeared in the January 6, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Today’s teenagers and Millennials aren’t interested in the “aesthetic of conformity.” Less likely to identify with a political party or religious group, Millennials prefer not to be aligned with a logo either. (A recent study showed that 55 percent of people between ages 13 and 34 say, “I don’t follow trends; I like to think I have my own personal style.”) As teens spend less at A&F, Aéropostale and American Eagle — known as the three As — they’re shopping more at H&M, Zara and Forever 21 — fast-fashion retailers that move designs quickly from the catwalk to the shelves. While A&F charges a premium price for the privilege of belonging, H&M and other fast-fashion retailers deliver a constant supply of fresh fashion at low prices. Instead of producing seasonal lines, fast-fashion retailers roll out new items each week.

At stake is the $600 billion Millennials spend annually in the U.S., a sum projected to grow to an estimated $1.4 trillion in 2020, when the oldest of the cohort will be approaching their mid-40s. Yet this generation came of age and began entering the workforce just as the Great Recession hit in 2008. Many are underemployed and are still paying off student loans. The typical 18- to 34-year-old makes $2,000 less each year than young workers did in 1980, according to the Census Bureau. Across the world, 60 percent of Millennials say they feel personally influenced by the economic crisis and are doing more of their shopping at thrift stores to find cheap and unique clothes.

“Clothes aren’t as important to me,” said a teenager to The New York Times as she shopped at Hollister with her sister and a friend. “Half the time I don’t really buy any brands. I just bought a pair of fake Doc Martens because I don’t really care.”

Young shoppers are so adept at mixing and matching different elements of their persona on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest that it makes sense that this approach would carry over to their clothing choices, which they can carefully curate by posting an #ootd that celebrates their own unique look.

“People are looking to create a unique identity,” Allen Adamson, an author and branding expert at Landor Associates, commented to Reuters. “They want to put together their own story rather than have someone else tell them.”

Logos are disappearing at the other end of the shopping spectrum, too. High-end retailers such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton are feeling their share of the pain as wealthy shoppers move away from logo-heavy clothing and accessories. This is because, along with their pursuit of personal style, wealthy Westerners are sensitive to the debate about income inequality. Additionally, discerning shoppers in China, who until recently have been clamoring for logo-centric, high-end fashion and accessories, want to avoid attention in the current anticorruption drive.

Louis Vuitton has plans to reduce the visibility of its monogrammed luxury items, but it will be challenging, considering that two-thirds of the retailer’s products carry the logo.

“This is really what keeps me up at night,” Johann Rupert, the chief executive officer of Compagnie Financière Richemont, which owns Cartier, told the Washington Post. “Because people with money will not wish to show it.”

“Today, it’s really about understated luxury,” said June Haynes, a luxury retail consultant and a former executive at Valentino, in the same Washington Post piece.

How will brands help shoppers in this pursuit of individuality? And, more importantly, can they?

Gap tried to get in front of the trend last year with a collection of ordinary clothes and a global advertising campaign with “dress normal” as the tag line and brand positioning. The celebrity-filled campaign urged shoppers to “be confident in who we are by dressing how we’re most comfortable” and presented a minimalist, androgynous look and feel. It missed the mark, and Gap’s sales fell by 4 percent.

Selfridges & Co. in 2013 launched a “No Noise” campaign, which included the Quiet Shop, featuring a variety of “de-branded products,” including Levi’s, Crème de la Mer and Beats by Dre minus their signature logos. Shoppers were asked to remove their shoes and cell phones and were offered a variety of mindfulness exercises in-store.

One thing is certain: Brands must preserve quality. Their name is still attached to the product, whether it can be seen or not.

Anjee Solanki brings more than 20 years of focused retail real estate experience to her role as national director of retail services for Colliers International USA, where she provides strategic leadership to more than 400 specialized retail professionals operating across 83 markets. During her career, Anjee has worked with retailers such as Urban Outfitters, Sports Authority, Clarion and PNC among others.

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