Don’t look now, but Millennials and Gen Z are re-writing the book on what looks good. By popular demand, Mattel’s iconic Barbie is now available in three different body types, and a greater diversity of skin tones. Once-cheeky Abercrombie & Fitch is suddenly all about the clothes, and features a rugged model with a beard and a man-bun as the face of its Spring 2016 line. Wholesome braids and bangs are back in vogue. Some of the icons of so-called “women’s fashion” are men, transgender women and gender-fluid. Differing body types and abilities are now celebrated.
What’s happening here? Two generations raised on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat now expect more from their fashion photography and beauty icons. Everybody is suddenly a photographer, model, stylist, and consumer of hundreds of selfies a day. It takes somebody like a Ruby Rose to break through the clutter with a completely original sense of style. And with risqué photos a dime a dozen in the digital world, suddenly some of yesterday’s controversial Calvin Klein and A&F ads appear tame by comparison.
Competing on the basis of being risqué is a competition that brands are now guaranteed to lose. And that “loss” can include blowback from social media through campaigns like #WomenNotObjects, which fight back against objectifying images in advertising. So when A&F puts out a new line, they focus on the clothes, promote their quality and authenticity, and feature a distinct model like Alex Libby, who sets a whole new beauty aesthetic with his scruffy good looks.
And, of course, these changing standards of beauty have everything to do with teens’ ever-increasing acceptance of diversity in ethnicity, gender, size and ability. The face of fashion is no longer by default Caucasian; teens want beauty icons who look like themselves and their friends. Zendaya’s dreadlocks and Amandla Stenberg’s cornrows have become flashpoints of ethnic pride. Some of the most popular beauty vloggers are male. The winner of the most recent “Project Runway” specializes in plus-sized clothes. Jazz Jennings, Andreja Pejic and Caitlyn Jenner are fashion icons. The final winner of “America’s Next Top Model” is a deaf male. Neurologically atypical teens are pursuing modeling as a career.
How can brands ensure that they’re keeping up with these rapid changes in beauty and fashion?
*Keep an eye on the runway. The trends you see during Fashion Week (if not the exact clothes being modeled) will eventually permeate mainstream culture. What colors and materials are prevalent? How are the models being styled? What’s the “vibe”? Who is the “It” model everybody’s talking about? Continually monitor runway shows, ads in fashionable magazines and websites of fashion retailers.
*Create a physical touchpoint in a fashionable area. Go to where your most fashion-forward customers are, and interact with them face-to-face in a pop-up store, a booth at an event or through a limited-time branded experience. It will not only get your brand in front of influencers, but it will give them a chance to influence your brand, too. Take what you learn from them and apply it to all of your distribution channels.
*Create an Influencer council. Recruit a few hundred of your most trend-setting customers to keep you up-to-date on the icons, trends and tips that are top-of-mind for them. There’s so much you can do with ethnographies, video and mobile phone journals, and discussion forums where your customers interact and build off one another’s ideas.
As Heidi Klum famously says on Project Runway, “In fashion, one day you’re in, the next day you’re out.” Avoid this curse by studying, listening to and acting upon the advice of your trendsetting teen customers.