FASHION NEXT WAVE
WHO, WHAT AND ‘Y’
Byline: Karen Parr
NEW YORK — Courtney Love, an icon of Generation X angst, is cleaning up her act — and perhaps unwittingly passing the torch to fashion’s next friendlies, Generation Y.
“I’ve been playing a sort of cultural Ophelia for some time,” Love said recently at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.
As a symbol of Generation X and all its grungy glory, Love’s old style — grubby gear, apathetic attitude, strung-out stares — was much mirrored by her contemporaries, a group born between 1965 and 1976.
But like Ophelia, those trappings are drifting downstream.
Gen X is practically being eulogized, marketers are eyeing gen Y and Love is wiping off all that mascara she abused just a few years ago.
“Generation Y is not going to be gen X, the rebellious urban thing,” said Gregg Fiene, president of Los Angeles junior firm XOXO. “It’s all about clean-up now. The girls are going to be wearing pretty again.”
The next youth wave has been characterized in similar ways by marketers: technology-oriented, racially diverse, optimistic, happy, free-spirited, sports-savvy, smart and creative.
In short, a marketing mother lode.
Generation X, also known as the baby bust, represented a dip in birth rates that followed the boomers and yielded a U.S. population of 41.1 million, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The boomers’ kids — aka Generation Y, the echo baby boomers or the baby boomlet — represents a population incline that began in 1977, according to the center. As of 1993, the birth yield was 60.4 million.
“This wave has just started, and in the next five to seven years, the junior business is going to boom,” said Fiene. “But those jumping on the bandwagon late, who didn’t see the wave, are going to lose.”
And getting the pulse of this diverse group may be tricky.
“The one defining difference with them, compared to the teens of the late Eighties and early Nineties, is there’s a freestyle mentality they’ve grown up on,” said Janine Misdom, a partner at New York’s Sputnik agency.
Sputnik is a marketing and forecasting firm that targets the youth market. Its mission, Misdom said, is not to exact current trends through focus groups, but to dispatch “correspondents” whose average age is 23 to scout cities for the next trends.
“In the late Eighties and Nineties, there was more anger — anger against Reaganism, big brands, mass consumption, downsizing and college grads not being able to get a job,” she explained.
In comparison, gen Y has grown up on hope. Misdom said they feel they can start their own businesses — such as the independent record labels for which many of their music icons perform — or create “fanzines” on that ever-present entity, the computer.
“Teens are very into the glamour right now,” Misdom said. “They’re coming off the Eighties about glamour, then the Nineties about grunge, now glamour is back with these girls.”
She said cosmetics brands like Urban Decay and Hard Candy, with their wacky color schemes, taught teens that makeup can be fun.
The popularity of all-girl or female-fronted bands like the Spice Girls and No Doubt, with lead singer Gwen Stefani, also represent the “glamour thing.”
“They saw Courtney Love go from the grunge look to pampering up now,” Misdom said. “The girl bands and girl singers are all very cool now, with a kittenish, trashy look. If you look at the early Nineties, it was all very alternative-guy bands dressed in their jeans.”
Misdom projects this kittenish chic will evolve from short skirts and chunky heeled shoes to more far-flung symbols.
She feels the next trend will be face painting — a different take on what singer Stefani does with the tiny jewel she glues Indian-style on her forehead.
Misdom said this will take the form of temporary tattoos of spiritual symbols with an Eastern influence, a movement in the club scene right now.
“Cosmetics and glamour will continue because of the brights in the clothing,” she said. “These teens are just coming out from under their parents’ wings, they’re being experimental, they love fun, tacky things.”
Such creativity also resounds at retail, according to Alex Bargerac, fashion director of Wet Seal/Contempo Casuals.
“Kids in the store today — they’ll take a pair of pants, then go to the far corner of the store to pick a top,” he said. “The customer’s using much more of her imagination, reading magazines, watching MTV, getting feedback. In the Eighties, you had to give her the full outfit to show her what to wear.”
More like the Me Decade-ers who grabbed the goods in the Eighties, the new Baby Boomlet wants the best. Marketers say brands and quality are key to this generation of savvy shoppers.
At Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU), a marketing firm in Northbrook, Ill., Marla Grossberg, director of syndicated research, talked about brand identity.
“In the beginning of the Nineties, teens were less materialistic than their Eighties predecessors,” she said. “It seems like the trend is slowly creeping upward where teens are equating success with money. When we ask them what makes a ‘cool’ brand cool, quality is the number one answer by far.”
According to a survey by TRU, the coolest brands for all categories in 1996 were Nike, Levi’s, Calvin Klein, Sony and Pepsi (see chart).
Cynthia Tripp, editor of About Women, a monthly marketing newsletter based in Boston, said teens’ influences are still traditional — peers, trends, TV, music.
“Teens still want to be cool, and their top answer to what is ‘cool’ is ‘quality,’ which has something to do with brand image,” she said.
The reason this young group thumbs its nose at lesser goods is because it learned to shop young and is therefore more discriminating, Tripp said. In homes where both parents work, children are more likely to shoulder shopping responsibilities.
“Teens have demands on them as family shoppers, because sometimes there’s just no one else to do it,” said Tripp.
“This market loves to shop,” said Lori Burgess, publisher of Seventeen magazine. “Our readers visit a mall eight times a month, and they have an average of $80 a week to spend on no one but themselves.”
TRU reported that U.S. teens spent approximately $103 billion in 1996, according to a survey of 2,025 demographically selected youths, ages 12 through 19.
Burgess noted that the magazine includes brands like Tommy Hilfiger or DKNY in the editorial pages because part of the teen spending is focused on these designer identities.
“They’re judged by their peers on their appearance,” Burgess noted. “Brands give them approval.”
Beyond the creativity and shopping moxie of this generation, the media blast of MTV and the Internet further whet the appetite for all things new and tantalizing.
“It’s all about grabbing the attention fast and quick, with color and shapes,” said Nicole Murray, the 26-year-old Gen X designer for Dollhouse, a division of Joujou.
Murray wasn’t talking about Dollhouse’s cartoon girl T-shirts or zany prints. She was explaining how the Dollhouse Web site must wow this super-stimulated group. The Internet and MTV have done more than enlighten and globalize; they’ve seriously shortened viewers’ attention spans.
“How many novels do they read a year?” Murray asked. “A song lasts for three minutes. I don’t know if ‘Stairway to Heaven’ would be such a hit now — it’s like 10 minutes long!
“You don’t see the long video segments like Michael Jackson used to do, like ‘Thriller,’ ” she added. “It’s shortened up, everything’s disposable now.”
This quick pace is changing the way Dollhouse works its Web site, which Murray said gets between 5,000 and 7,000 hits a day, mostly from teenagers.
“We’re going to update every couple of weeks instead of every six months,” she said. “The same thing is going on with the Dollhouse line, with small groups every couple of weeks.”
At Gadzooks, the Dallas-based junior chain, the quick-pace mentality also rules.
“With this generation, you’ve got to keep with them and ahead of them,” said Loretta Beck, the chain’s senior vice president of marketing and merchandising. The store, which encourages teens to come in and just “hang out,” flows new merchandise in once a week.
“Newness is the key word, since they shop frequently,” Beck added. “They’re used to having 400 things to choose from.”
While the teens keep Gadzooks current, the firm keeps the teens guessing — especially about how long their coveted items will be available.
The firm orders a sweeping array of brands — no private label — but it doesn’t buy in depth.
Beck said they’ve “trained” the customers to know that if they don’t buy it now, it might not be there next week.
Besides the labels, the quick turns and the monitors blasting the latest music videos, Gadzooks also keeps a sales staff teens can relate to.
“We have young people selling to them because they really don’t want to deal with having their mothers sell to them,” Beck said.
While many will ride the teen wave, others will watch it pass them by.
Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Management Horizons, feels some retailers and vendors have watched an older target group, while Gen Y has mushroomed behind their backs.
“Most department and specialty stores identify with 25-to-45-year-old women,” he said. “It’s been like that for the last 20 years, and that’s been a good place to be.
“But now, that segment is going to shrink in size, and the growth is going to take place in younger consumers, age 15 to 24, and in older consumers, 55 to 70.”
Virgin closets add major points to the juniors’ appeal, as they seek whole wardrobes to create their identity, Steidtmann explained. This draws the line between them and the slightly older generation, whose members are just looking to fill in an already set wardrobe.
Elissa Moses, managing director of The BrainWaves Group, a global marketing subsidiary of the MacManus Group, has organized research in 44 countries.
Like many marketers, she points to the defining traits of this generation: technological awareness, global consciousness, self-reliance, love of family, rejection of tradition, having as much fun as they can and hope of a better future.
She explained why some brands have it and some brands don’t.
Calvin Klein has it.
“With the CK Be fragrance advertising, there’s the power of realism in the casting in the advertising,” Moses said. Teens today “hunger for what’s real,” she explained.
She also said the action in the commercials stimulates teens’ senses.
“This generation is so used to watching TV, talking on the telephone and working on the computer at the same time,” she said. “The worst offense you can commit is to be boring. The second offense is to not ring true.
“This is a generation that is looking for honest truth and to have their senses thrilled,” Moses said. “Brands that are appealing to teens on a global basis have a real foundation of quality and authenticity.”
With BrainWaves’ global perspective, research has shown that for fashion and culture cues, teens everywhere overwhelmingly look to America.
“You see real American icons being globalized with Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren,” Moses said. “Their brand personalities are almost American — bold, confident, free, classic, very spirited, current, hip. American values of freedom and ‘anything’s possible’ have become our greatest export.”
Robert Triefus, senior vice president of global communications at Calvin Klein, said the company has used alternative advertising venues to reach youths.
These include advertising on movie theater popcorn bags for CK Jeans and distributing book covers in selected school districts.
“I think the young group of teens that we’re marketing to now are a lot more inquisitive and a lot more knowledgeable about new media, like the Internet,” he stated.
While he said the firm does not have a Web site, it is using alternative ad venues.
One is the sponsorship of “Jam on the Groove,” a musical formed by New York dance company GhettOriginal Productions, which has turned hip-hop street dance into a cultural experience.
Calvin Klein Jeans began its sponsorship of the two-year world tour last August.
“If you look at how we go into the cinema and at the sponsorship with ‘Jam on the Groove,’ we’re trying to reach a group that is notoriously hard to reach,” Triefus said. “When I say new media, I’m using it in the sense of communicating with a group that’s difficult to reach.”
At Guess, a spokeswoman said, “There’s a tremendous difference in attitudes between this generation and Generation X. They’re much more concerned with a clean, spirited image, and fashion has become extremely important with this group.”
She noted that the Guess campaign for spring “is very clean, young and sexy in a more subtle way.”
Mary Wilberding, president of juniors and girls at Union Bay, said she’s inspired by the fun in fashion again for teens. The ads produced for Union Bay by Boston’s Toth Advertising, which also does the Tommy Hilfiger campaign, are supposed to draw on the fun, multicultural attitudes of today’s teens.
“All of a sudden, this generation is hopeful again,” she said. “Four years ago, they weren’t. They didn’t think if they graduated college they could get a job.”
Because of the teens’ sophisticated shopping sense, Wilberding feels they will be loyal to a brand that makes good on its promises.
In response, Union Bay is expanding its marketing research.
Wilberding said the days are long over when execs sat in boardrooms and told teens what to believe.
“Instead of pushing them to the side and dictating to them,” Wilberding said, “we look at them and say, ‘They’re snowboarding, they’re wearing their hair different, they like sports, they like to hang out, they like cars, or whatever.’
“Who am I to dictate to them?” she asked. “I’m lucky to be a spectator.”
Fashion and footwear brands mentioned by 3 to 8 percent of respondents: