Relaxed fall silhouettes from Marc Jacobs, for one, may indicate a wave of fashion merging with comfort.

The cascade of cash from youths and young adults, banked on forever by the fashion business, could be flowing more slowly with the Millennial generation's ever-shifting priorities.

NEW YORK — The cascade of cash from youths and young adults, banked on forever by the fashion business, could be flowing more slowly with the Millennial generation’s ever-shifting priorities.

The group’s growing willingness to sacrifice style in order to dress comfortably, a trend that began gathering steam around six years ago, has ratcheted up again recently.

This tendency to value comfort over style is the latest expression of a quest for authenticity among youths and young adults, ages 25 and younger, observed Yankelovich president J. Walker Smith. Nearly three-quarters of that group — 71 percent — polled by market researcher Yankelovich said they “prefer to dress comfortably, even if I don’t look my best.” The responses came in a nationally representative poll of 1,303 females and 1,219 males, ages 16 and older, including 242 male Millennials and 223 female Millennials. The group was surveyed in 2004 for the most recent edition of Yankelovich’s annual “General Lifestyle Study;” the data on comfort versus style in fashion was highlighted in a Yankelovich Monitor Minute published in September.

By another measure, in America’s Research Group’s nationally representative survey of 1,000 women this spring, 58 percent said comfort was more important than style, while 42 percent said style trumped comfort considerations.

“More and more [Millennials] are unwilling to make compromises to fit in with other people’s expectations, across wide measures,” Smith said. The groundswell for comfortable clothing, he noted, is one manifestation of the broader trend.

Of course, this yen for comfort — which, in Smith’s view, has yet to peak — is particularly significant for a business whose appeal has long focused on a young customer. (Millennials spend around $40 billion annually on apparel, according to NPD Fashionworld.) About two-thirds of the Millennial females polled by Yankelovich, or 67 percent, placed a priority on comfort over looking their best, a share only 10 percentage points fewer than the 77 percent of women north of 60 who said so. In addition, 74 percent of Baby Boomer women, 40 to 60 years old, expressed that preference, as did 71 percent of the women in Generation X, ages 26 to 39.

“I think people are thinking of comfort as a style,” Smith posited. “Comfort is a large part of what [they] want to create for themselves.”

This story first appeared in the October 19, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In part, that’s because “the world is a very uncomfortable place now,” said Marian Salzman, executive vice president and director of strategic content at JWT. “You can’t get through a day without bad news. People are looking for things that are more positive,” Salzman continued. “Comfort is a happy thing. It’s almost like comfort is nirvana.”

Further fueling the trend, observers said, are people’s persistent unwillingness to be dictated to by fashion players; the casualization of American style and the overweight bodies that characterize a growing portion of the population. Approximately 65 percent of Americans are overweight, according to Vasan S. Ramachandran, associate professor of medicine at Boston University and lead author of the Framingham Heart Study. That’s up sharply from 43 percent in 1960, based on the findings of the American Diabetes Association.

As a result of such influences, David Wolfe, creative director at Doneger Group, predicted, “We’re about to see [comfort and style] wedded together.” One harbinger of the coming trend, in his view, is that “the two most popular designers in the world, Marc Jacobs and Miuccia Prada, have eased up on silhouettes.” For example, Wolfe said, “Jacobs’ shapes are moving away from the body without being voluminous.”

Asked in the Yankelovich study how important it is to them to dress in the latest fashions, 22 percent of Millennial females said they “strongly need” to do so; 33 percent of Millennial women and girls said they “moderately need” to wear those styles. That combined 55 percent share marks a decline from 68 percent in 1999.

Those values weakened with each successive generation of women. Either a strong or moderate need to sport the newest looks was voiced by a combined 40 percent of the Xers; 32 percent of the Boomers, and 28 percent of women 61 and older.

Just a few brands, beyond Wolfe’s mention of Prada and Marc Jacobs, were named by trend spotters as notable for effectively combining comfort and style: Juicy Couture, Gap and, to a lesser extent, Old Navy. At a time when many people prefer to have less drama in their lives, Salzman said, Juicy Couture and Gap are striking a fashion note in comfortable clothing without “overdoing it.”

And when America’s Research Group this spring asked women to name brands that successfully combine comfort with style, nary a fashion label won more than a single-digit share of the response. Said the group’s chairman C. Britt Beemer: “There was no one overwhelming choice.”

(Americans Ages 25 and Younger)
Share of People Responding
1. Prefer to dress comfortably even if I don’t look my best.
2. Either strongly or moderately feel the need to dress in the latest fashions.
3. Either strongly or moderately feel the need to be hip, cool or on the cutting edge.
4. Either strongly or moderately feel the need to keep up with new styles.
NOTE-A: indicates no response, as the question wasn’t posed in 1999. In 2003, 78% answered affirmatively.
Source: Yankelovich Monitor Minute, September 2005, based on Yankelovich’s General Lifestyle Study, Fall 2004
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