Highsnobiety Q1 is the first in a series of quarterly insights weeks dedicated to the business behind youth culture and what makes our market tick. For full Q1 coverage, head over to our Q1 hub.
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In the weeks following the global outbreak of Covid-19, it became clear that this crisis would not only temporarily stall the economy and upend our daily routine, it would also rescramble our culture entirely. Will the same things matter to us when we emerge from this thaw? And will we want the same things we once cared about, even when stores are open again?
In order to get a pulse on how our generation’s relationship to fashion and luxury has changed, we polled the Highsnobiety audience* to ask them about just that. In this data, we’ve found an emergent value system being born in self-isolated apartments across the world: one that is focused on the essentials, allergic to hype, and, perhaps surprisingly, very optimistic about the future.
Interestingly, this immunity to classic desirability-drivers seems to extend way beyond crisis mode, and into a new generational approach to the world. We ascribe this POV to a character we call the "Immunized Shopper."
In the first few months of 2020, to many of our readers, the word “essential” meant the perfect blank T-shirt, cozy sweatpants, oversized hoodies, and crisp denim — or maybe Jerry Lorenzo’s Fear of God sub-label specializing in variations of those things.
Then, as Covid-19 rapidly changed life as we knew it, many of the things once thought of as essential were deemed legally “non-essential” by many governments. Salons, clothing stores, bars, and clubs closed indefinitely. Fearful shoppers stocked up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer. We were forced into the great indoors.
During this time of re-examination, consumers re-assessed their priorities. Those still fortunate enough to have jobs wanted to continue participating in the economy fueled by a desire for some normalcy, old-fashioned escapism, and a newfound sense of social responsibility. “We’re all in this together” may be the lingua franca of brand accounts the world over, but keen crisis consumers are supporting businesses who don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk.
Conversely, like patients exposed to a virus, our audience has developed a sudden immunity to the hype and status signals that once plagued them. According to the results of our survey, logos have never seemed less cool than ever, timelessness has replaced trendiness, and selling off your sneaker closet has become not only a hustle, but an expression of common sense.
Despite a global economic crisis, Highsnobiety readers remain optimistic that this change in the world ultimately means something good for them. They are not only highly engaged with brands, but expect to hear from them at a time like this. What’s more, many of our readers plan to increase their spending in categories like sneakers, education, and furniture. And while 42 percent of the readers we polled feel uncomfortable indulging in expensive fashion while many others are tightening their belts, only 15 percent of them say the Covid-19 crisis affects their overall passion for style.
So where is this new consumer focusing their attention, and what do they now think about before they buy? The answer goes way beyond trends and preferences.
Fashion’s First Responders
If you told us three months ago that a New Balance N95 mask would be blowing up the Highsnobiety feed, we would have asked you what episode of National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers you watched last night.
Yet today it is clear that brands have become (at least symbolically) first responders to public crises, turning perceived magnanimity into valuable consumer equity. And this is not the first time. When Notre-Dame was ravaged by an accidental fire, the wealthy heads of LVMH and Kering rushed in with a combined €300 million of aid. Indeed, brands and companies who use their massive platforms to do good reap double the benefits: positive sentiment and a swell in their communities.
What’s more, Highsnobiety readers in particular almost expect this level of proactiveness from brands — and they want to be part of the conversation. Despite industry fear that now is not a time for fashion, 89 percent of our audience still wants to hear from fashion brands, in some way or another — whether it’s the efforts of LVMH and Kering shifting their ateliers to produce PPE, or it’s small labels stressing the existential importance of supporting independent brands through this crisis.
Meanwhile, brands like AKINGSNY, Eric Emanuel, and Standard Issue Tees have begun offering cloth masks alongside their usual offerings. Although non-medical use accessories of this kind have been a mainstay for streetwear labels favored by Asian consumers (for many of whom mask culture is the norm), offering these CDC-recommended products with purchases is a way to build brand awareness in a epidemiologically responsible way.
Even larger companies like Uniqlo — whose 10 million global mask donations mostly remained behind-the-scenes — benefited in the minds of readers we interacted with, thanks to word-of-mouth sentiment about their relief efforts. Meanwhile, Nike is going above and beyond, not just donating more than $15 million to relief (some of which is being donated out of employees’ personal income), but creating a campaign encouraging people to #PlayInside, making the premium version of its personal training app free for users, and even tapping its US-based Air Manufacturing Innovation factories to make PPE face shields for those on the front lines.
Value versus Values
Although youth culture has become less anti-consumerist than ever before (the idea of “selling out” has become a Gen X anachronism), it seems that the readers we spoke to are taking stock of what they’ve accrued in a lifetime of chasing clout. Herein lies the difference between the Immunized Shopper and someone who simply dislikes consumerism. While the “labels are worthless” set detests the very idea of spending more than one needs on clothing, the Immunized Shopper still values connoisseurship, yet is now reckoning with a newfound aversion to the more shallow aspects of luxury.
To put in more bluntly: The Immunized Shopper has been sick with hype, and now they’re sick of hype.
The new journey of the Immunized Shopper — young people surfing through crisis — is therefore a process of separating value from values, wants from needs, entertainment from enlightenment.
Ironically, the resale market for sneakers and hyped streetwear — which operates strictly off a commodity-based system of supply-and-demand — remains relatively insulated from the immediate economic effects of Covid-19. More than half of Highsnobiety readers plan on keeping their current spend for sneakers and streetwear staples, while more than 30 percent actually plan on increasing their spend in those categories.
And the behavior of leaders in this area of the market is clearly business as usual. Labels like Supreme and Palace continue to drop limited-edition collaborations and relatively affordable sportswear items that sell out almost instantly. Stüssy’s recent Nike collaboration still demands a hefty price on the aftermarket. As Noah co-founder and former member of the Supreme brain trust Brendon Babenzien notes, part of this continued appeal is tied to the communities streetwear brands represent.
Brendon Babenzien, co-founder of Noah
“They are driving culture. They are symbolic of where we are as a society. They show what’s important to us at a particular time. We need to find a way to support them as consumers, and in the places where consumers can’t support, the government needs to step in and make sure that our culture isn’t lost.”
But of all the categories Highsnobiety readers plan to increase their spend on, the highest are education (43 percent) and — strangely, yet not surprisingly — furniture (35 percent). For the latter, it’s not unusual to interpret that the more time someone spends on his or her home, the more attention that consumer will start to pay to other things beyond their closet. Instead of dressing themselves, they’re now focused on furnishing their external and internal environments.
Immunized Shoppers with the spending power to be able to pick up a new hobby are putting down more on educational items. Yet this also applies to a largely freelance creative class who have suddenly found themselves jobless, with no prospects of future employment. All of a sudden, expanding one’s skill set becomes a worthwhile investment. It seems there’s no time for distractions in this new paradigm, as only 14 percent of our readers plan to spend more on streaming services, and many of our qualitative results spoke about a desire to “not waste time.”
Evan Mock, Skater and Artist
“I’m pretty stoked on just doing the things that I’ve always put off, such as archiving photos for my book into one folder and getting those ready to go to print. I’ve been designing a lot of clothes; I’m going to be doing this collection with RVCA. The whole inspiration behind it is vintage Hawaiian shirts… so I’ve been reading up on the whole vibe of that era — the sickest time for Hawaiian fashion.”
A New Minimalism
Twenty-five years ago, Dieter Rams published Less But Better, a definitive tome outlining Rams’ 10 principles of good design. “Back to purity, to simplicity” was the mantra. It echoes a sentiment the late Bill Cunningham shared with Fern Mallis in a 2014 92Y interview, in which the seminal fashion photographer surmises that what fashion companies should fear most is a modern consumer more concerned with dressing the “inside of their minds” than the outsides of their bodies.
That is to say, while conspicuous consumption might be waning, fashion and style as systems of knowledge remain strong.
The Immunized Shoppers we spoke to still pride themselves on cultural literacy, but thought leadership (rather than the spending power associated with those references) is what matters to them. Trend-wise, 54 percent of the readers we spoke to expressed a sudden aversion to large logo placements, while 33 percent find ostentatious “chunky” sneaker silhouettes less attractive now than before Covid-19. Of the aesthetic systems we polled readers on, “Minimalism” ranked highest in terms of its post-pandemic attractiveness.
Going back to Rams, it seems like today’s new minimalism is much less about a search for purity than a confident brand of pragmatism. As our survey shows, values such as quality (60 percent), durability (43 percent), and timeless brands (50 percent) have sprung up ahead of more easy-to-read fashion signifiers such as monograms. Outward validation, it seems, has taken a backseat to a more self-assured sense of taste.
Earlier this month, Architectural Digest featured Drake at home in his massive Toronto mansion — dubbed “The Embassy” — on their cover. The rapper’s decor boasted sprawling marble floors, a bespoke Imperial Bösendorfer piano made in collaboration with artist Takashi Murakami, and prominently displayed “Flayed Companion” art toys designed by KAWS. Three months ago, the story may have been heralded a peak display of “living one’s best life,” yet in the age of the Immunized Shopper, Drake’s marble-lined mansion was universally ridiculed as the Chernobyl of lavishly bad taste.
It doesn’t take much more than a peruse through Gal Gadot’s comments to see that celebrity culture has taken a nosedive in the quarantine era. Indeed, only 14 percent of our survey respondents still look to stylish celebrities to inform their purchases, and even less (5 percent) still drink the influencer Kool-Aid. Aligning with a more intrinsic appreciation of design and craftsmanship, resale value of items (8 percent) and the status they signal (10 percent) have similarly fallen out of favor with our audience. Rather, what’s now vaunted is an ability to last.
In the mid-aughts, the 2008 recession had a similar, yet also very different impact on the world of menswear. Similar to the views portrayed by our readers, logos all but disappeared. Style retreated to classic aesthetic tropes, from tailored suits to hard-wearing workwear. Men dressed for interviews they hoped to get, and bloggers began to look more like loggers, taking on beards, boots, and buffalo plaids. But while the clothes looked back to the “good old days,” the attitudes remained as modern as ever.
Our former sibling platform Selectism catered to the rise of these new premium labels and artisan brands when it was founded in 2008. But nearly a decade later, it became clear that streetwear and craft weren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, they were destined for a collision course.
“The truth is, our readers love both,” wrote Highsnobiety co-founder Jeff Carvalho when we made the conscious decision to merge Selectism into Highsnobiety in 2016. “In the beginning, the two sites were like opposing ends of a seesaw: One side (Highsnobiety) focused on identifying the surge in street fashion, while the other (Selectism) was a specialized platform for premium, heritage, and workwear brands. Yet over the years, as trends have changed, so too has the balance of the seesaw.”
Indeed, the parameters for quality and timelessness have expanded. The word “heritage” has evolved into “provenance,” a term that implies consistently great product and an unwavering brand vision. Because of that, labels like Bape and Supreme can comfortably thrive in the same conversation as Louis Vuitton and Gucci. As the once-niche streetwear and sneaker cultures continue to go mainstream, “return-to-roots” heritage dressing won’t manifest in the same way it did during the 2008 recession.
James Harris, co-host of Throwing Fits podcast
“The ‘buy less, buy better’ trope will always be there. What I’m a little cautious of is the reactionary measure towards one extreme just means everyone going to the other extreme. I really hope we don’t see motherfuckers looking like they’re dressed in the 1920s again, in saddle shoes and top hats. There is a middle ground where sneakers, streetwear, and other clothing can happily coexist.”
What we see in the rise of the Immunized Shopper is not a recession-era move toward purity, pessimism, and simplicity. Rather, what we see now is desire for fashion to engage with its audience beyond the level of appearance and necessity: something that strives toward knowledge, education, and appreciation. In times of crisis, comfort finds new ways to bloom seeds of hope.
What’s clear is our readers feel increasingly optimistic about their future despite the looming and lasting effects of Covid-19. Many cite the examples of brands like Louis Vuitton, Prada, Burberry, and Gucci as reinforcing their passion for the industry, galvanizing their connection to the global fashion complex. It echoes a sentiment shared by Virgil Abloh when he spoke at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 2017: “Don’t get trapped in the mentality of: Everything sucks, the world is coming to an end. That’s just an internal mechanism to chill.”
This is not a time to hit the self-destruct button for the audience members we heard from — rather, it’s a hard reboot. And many of the things our study heralds the decline of — conspicuous consumption, logo fever — were already on the way out.
No matter what the future holds, it is clear the next thing is currently being incubated by this brave, bold new generation of Immunized Shoppers, a generation of brand natives who will come out this crisis with even more finely honed bullshit detectors. Marketing to them will require more than just knowing the language — it will require the transparency in actions as well.
* About the research panel: n=400 66% male, 32% female, 2% non-binary 75% 18-34 41% North America, 44% Europe, 12% APAC, 3% ROW