In the fast-changing fashion market, ethics is good business.
By 2025, it is estimated that Millennials and Gen Z consumers will account for 45% of the global luxury goods market – and brands are now scrambling to cater to them. A study conducted by the management consulting rm Bain & Company has revealed that Generation Y and Z are responsible for generating 85% of the luxury market’s growth in 2017 alone.The most successful brands capture their share by incorporating changes that suit shifting preferences and engender loyalty, and the rise of brand activism in recent months is testament to this; fashion houses continue to take an increasingly vocal stance on social and political movements, which cater to the rise in consumer consciousness.
The new millennial mindset has succeeded in permeating traditional fashion houses such as Balenciaga, which unveiled an unexpected collaboration with the United Nations World Food Programme in their Autumn/Winter 18 collection. In a runway line-up that consisted of neon-coloured, oversized windbreakers, faux fur leopard print coats and multi-layered parkas, the eye-catching element was a subversive take on brand activism. Hoodies, caps, belt bags and T-shirts prominently emblazoned with the programme’s logo adorned models as they marched down the runway.The brand pledged to donate 10% of each branded item to the World Food Programme in addition to the $250,000 USD donation Balenciaga had already pledged. The merchandise, with its distinctively streetwear air and ironic ‘free corporate merchandise’ slant, appeals to the aesthetic as well as marking a new sartorial direction for the brand.
The steady infiltration of streetwear within high fashion could also contribute to its sustainability practices. Established fashion brands are now releasing streetwear collections in nite ‘drops’, which enhance their resale value and decrease the likelihood of excess product. This follows criticism of fashion houses which destroy unsold goods, in an effort to preserve the exclusivity and value of their products – in 2017 alone, Burberry burned more than $36.8 million worth of its own merchandise. In response, millennials took to social media to express their desire to boycott the brand, and Burberry has since announced that they will no longer be destroying excess product, touting its commitment to sustainability. Under the helm of new Chief Creative Officer Riccardo Tisci, the brand has also since embraced the ‘instant drop’ model.
The backlash from consumers towards this long-established industry practice marks a shift in consumer culture. A report entitled‘The New Luxury’ published by online lifestyle platform Highsnobiety found that 85% of respondents believed what their clothes represented was as important as quality and design. Younger consumers are more likely to view luxury purchases as a form of self-expression rather than a status symbol – sustainability and social consciousness may well be the new emblems of status.
The integration of social activism into a brand’s aesthetic, then, allows it to align with the values of its younger consumers and their passion for social justice causes. This year, millennial favourite Gucci announced a donation of $500,000 to March for Our Lives in support for stricter gun control, and in turn a demonstrative push towards ‘inspirational’ rather than ‘aspirational’ branding. Put simply, younger consumers are more likely to purchase goods from brands that resonate with them. Brands have traditionally avoided taking vocal stances on such controversial issues under the guise of corporate neutrality, but in an evolving market, brands which actively advocate their values are the most successful in engaging consumers. In a report published by Cone Communications, 87% of American consumers stated they would purchase a product based on values, or because its producer advocated for an issue they cared about.
Social media has become the most effective way for brands to disseminate their collections as well as communicate with their customers. Within seconds of Balenciaga’s aberrant World Food Bank capsule debut, the collection was live-streamed and plastered all over Instagram, piquing consumers’ interest. What may have begun as a fashion experiment is now an industry-wide phenomenon. Brands are now compelled to imbue their clothing with meaning to gain social currency and capitalise on the lucrative ‘hype’ it generates. It has become fashionable to literally wear your opinion on your sleeve. Furthermore, with the volatility of the current political landscape, more and more consumers are looking towards brands, celebrities, and other influencers to take a stance on important social issues. Can fashion be a harbinger of change?
Millennials also exhibit a lower sense of brand loyalty than previous generations, favouring brands that are innovative and disruptive to the status quo.Against the backdrop of an evolving consumer market, brands simply cannot afford to stay silent. It is imperative that they maintain a sense of authenticity when engaging in such showcases of activism instead of simply jumping onto the bandwagon. Opportunistic attempts to leverage social justice causes only result in reducing such causes to mere slogans and a thinly veiled backdrop against which to increase sales.
Brands that openly engage in activism also open themselves up to scrutiny from critics and consumers alike. Dior’s ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ shirt was the most Instagrammed look of 2017 Paris Fashion Week, with its visibility enhanced by the likes of Natalie Portman and Rihanna. Critics, however, have challenged the validity of wearing a mass-produced T shirt (marked up to $710) that proclaims solidarity, when its production relied on low-paid female labour. Consistency is key for brands seeking to outwardly embrace their core values as well as to ensure their commitment to social causes – and this extends beyond this season’s trends. Fashion houses are redefining corporate social responsibility. Brands can no longer just stand for something, they must now stand up for something.
This article was originally published in Issue 723 of Pi Magazine.