This article was originally published on September 18, 2017.
Perhaps the unofficial theme of the Spring 2018 season at London Fashion Week should be "the comeback." From Burberry and Topshop's respective attempts to turn around weak sales figures with flashy shows and new digital strategies, to the return of Donatella at Versus Versace, the week has been marked by collections continually flagging themselves as 'new' or 'reinvented' in some way or another.
By and large, what these labels are attempting to do is to keep up with the pressures of the restless, changeable contemporary fashion industry and also pivot towards targeting millennial customers. In doing so, brands - especially heritage labels like Burberry - are wrestling with the difficult and rather imposing question: what does it mean to be young today?
So far, according to their popularity for the forthcoming season, being young looks like wearing baseball caps, fanny packs, oversized blazers and coats, statement earrings, athleisure, and sneakers. Show me a runway show that didn't open or close with one or all of Adwoa Aboah, Slick Woods, or Kaia Gerber. Talk to me about a campaign that didn't feature moody young Instagram artist/activist/model types brooding on a curb in Brooklyn or suburban London. Apparently, this is what the corporate authorities of the fashion industry think that young people look like and respond to. And maybe they're right about certain engaging tropes (they must be popular for a reason, after all), but maybe they're also missing something far more critical as a result of this blueprinting, and that is an original point of view.
If there is one thing that researchers can pin down about us inscrutable millennials, it is that we value realness. In a 2015 study by Elite Daily and Millennial Branding, 43% of young participants ranked a brand's authenticity as a greater priority than their content or product itself. As such, when brands forgo having an individual point of view for an acquiescence to some kind of normative, watered-down idea of what is 'young' and 'hip,' they actually end up sacrificing exactly what might have made them appealing in the first place. Without a strong sense of what a brand is really about, how can consumers trust them?
In a panel talk for showStudio this weekend, Editor Lou Stoppard, along with ex-Sibling designer Cozette McCreery, stylist Amnah H. Knight, and journalist Dan Thawley, weighed up the consequences of the fashion industry's new fixation with the millennial economy. Commenting on the Versus Versace Spring 2018 catwalk, Lou raised the issue of brands trying so hard to vie for young consumers by constantly reinventing themselves, citing the revolving door of Creative Directors at fashion houses and the ephemerality of collaborations and capsule collections.
"It's just become this accepted thing that you have to be new all the time for people to engage with your product and I don't know if that is entirely the case," she pointed out. In the video, Lou also goes on to contrast the high fashion impetus for constant change with the new considerations of high street brands like H&M newbie Arket for "slow" fashion models. Also considering young shoppers' penchant for thrifting and sustainability, there could very well be truth to the idea that in fact, millennials don't want an unceasing barrage of new trends and products; maybe this deluge of content is moreso the result of brands trying (and oftentimes failing at) so many different ways to be "young," rather than the so-called insatiable taste for change that marketers think young people are so keen on.
Lou's colleague Dan Thawley then raises the particularly compelling point that there seems to be confusion in the fashion industry about who is the consumer of information versus the consumer of the product. Translation: are the same people who look at the collections online and engage with the brand digitally - whether on blogs, Instagram feeds, or even in magazines - the same people who will actually shop their line in real life? Does having a cult Instagram following actually guarantee high sales, or can it be a false lead? He adds that brands need to learn that "we can't all go for the same customer. We shouldn't all try."
It's worth considering this in the context of the collections we saw this weekend from Burberry and Versus, both of which were arguably very similar, both to one another, and to previous lines from other labels like Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton, Vêtements, and even Céline or Prada. Both collections showed us variations of bucket hats (the latest trend to be taken up by young hipsters toying with irony and normcore), something of a departure from what one might expect luxury labels to normally offer their clientele. Especially when a product like a bucket hat is exceptionally easy to find on the high street or in a thrift store for a fraction of the price, it's worth asking whether design choices like these are more likely to result in Instagram 'likes' or actual dollars in revenue, and whether brands are suffering because they have mistakenly conflated these two goals. The democratization of fashion on social media also means that the same people who make your label appear popular online may not actually be able to afford to buy your products, or may still chose not to.
Regardless, we have seen an overwhelming number of designers so far - not just in London - adopting this practice of injecting their collections with accessories or silhouettes that have already sold well at other labels or reflect existing trends that are popular with young consumers on social media. Instead of trends "trickling down" from the top, labels are so fearful of redundancy that they get their inspiration from what is already in style - ironically, eschewing innovation for reiteration is the exact behaviour that has made them redundant.
To prove the point, brands that are actually young and 'hip' (think Molly Goddard, Charles Jeffrey's Loverboy, Ashley Williams, Off-White, etc.) are the ones who are creating garments that have an individual, innovative aesthetic; in seeking millennial adoration, established brands have diluted their points of view and built their collections around a common, and sometimes misguided, perception of what it means to be young. The results all look like separate collections from the same designers; the same handwriting is all over the major collections and in the hopes of courting young consumers, there has become a total loss of authenticity - in short, the millennial shopper's worst nightmare.
As Cozette McCreery wonders in the showStudio clip, "I don't know where youth is going to go next. Maybe there will be a backlash." I think that if we can predict one millennial shopping trend, an aversion to being pandered to by brands in flux might be a safe one to bet on.