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What’s Next for Denim Culture?

Gen Z’s stance on political and social topics greatly influences the brands and companies they support. “This generation is not light and lazy on issues,” Pascal Montfort, founder of REC Trends Marketing, said. “We believe this generation is mature and understands better than anyone topics like equality and ecologically.”

During a series of seminars at Denim Première Vision last month, Montfort shared insights about Gen Z and how denim brands can effectively design for and communicate to this emerging generation of consumers.

Values matter

Consumers’ attitude toward sustainable fashion is changing. It’s a lifestyle. “Being eco-friendly is not a brand value, it is a given. It is normal for the new consumer. It is the minimum that they want from you. They want your product to be eco-friendly but they want to adopt that with fun and style,” Montfort said. Gen Z believes the responsibility for making sustainable fashion for the same or less price as traditional fashion falls on the shoulders of the brands. “They think, ‘The brand has to find the solution for me.’ It’s important to get that because that’s the way the consumer is thinking today,” he added.

Gender is no longer a question. Feminism is not a new ideal, but Montfort pointed out that males are as feminist as women now—and that is new. “This is a confident generation and gender is an old-school vision,” Montfort said. Expect to see more concepts like H&M’s unisex denim collection to support this movement. “You won’t sell the maximum pieces of that product, but it says a lot about the modernity of your brand and that you know what’s going on today,” he said.

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And size is not an issue. “Gen Z believes it’s old-fashion to think there’s only one size and only one recommendation. They believe it is important to take care of all sizes,” Montfort said. Brands like Monki, Forever 21 and Warp + Weft are embracing this idea, too, with all-inclusive sizing and marketing that showcases curvy bodies. “The look isn’t Kate Moss bodies anymore—all types of bodies are beautiful now,” he added.

Campaigns that encourage individuals to say what they think and live with an open heart and mind resonate with Gen Z. “It’s not about me, it’s about us,” Montfort said about Gen Z’s mentality. “This generation is very prideful. They don’t mind looking not like a normal baby face model,” Montfort explained, adding that brands like Diesel and Adidas are featuring models with uni-brows, imperfect smiles or scars. “Differences give them power,” he said.

Communicating to Gen Z requires storylines that are contemporary and lifestyle-oriented. The more serious the message, the more humor and aesthetic is required. “They are really positive and always happy,” he said, adding that it is part of the reason why luxury brands are having a difficult time communicating with young consumers. “They don’t connect with high-end brands or luxury because they use grumpy models,” he explained.

Need to reach Gen Z? Try dancing. Montfort singled out Gap as a brand that is telling joyful stories chock-full of celebrities and ordinary people cutting loose. French brand Ami also released campaigns showing Gen Z dancing. “Dancing is part of these messages. It’s nothing fancy, but it is relatable,” he added.

Reviving retail

While the future of retail may be in shoppable videos and virtual reality, these technologies are still in the very early stages. Montfort says there’s still room for traditional retailers to make an impactful impression. “This generation totally changed the way to buy and to sell products. This generation doesn’t care about having a room full of products. They just want the right item at the right time,” he said.

However, don’t rely on Gen Z to go shopping or window shopping. Those are outdated ideas from the ’80s and ’90s, Montfort quipped. In order to get the next generation of consumers into stores, he says retailers must add value to the experience. “So many retailers complain that consumers are not going to their stores because they’re buying online. Well, do something. Do something special,” he urged. For example, Uniqlo has a sales staff dedicated to denim at its Los Angeles store. The brand is also debuting vending machines in airports for last minute denim buys.

Simple in-store displays no longer cut it either. Montfort named Acne Studios as a good example of a brand that draws in consumers with a gallery-like environment. Dover Street Market in London is also a good source for inspiration. “The [Dover Street] team really focuses on the display and everything has to be perfect and surprising. You never spend less than a half hour in the store because you want to see everything and touch everything. You cannot get that experience in a digital store,” he said.

Future fashion

“Soon our fashion will not only be clothes, it will be many, many other things,” Montfort said. Innovation may begin in the athletic sector, with items like Nike’s smart jerseys, which connects to an app and provides the wearer with details about their favorite team and players, but Montfort believes wearable technology and designs that support smart devices are on the horizon for denim.

Mass market brands like Muji and British designer Christian Cowen have already adapted jean pockets to hold smartphones. Meanwhile, Montfort says Levi’s collaboration with Google’s Project Jacquard is just a drop in the bucket of what’s to come in wearable technology. The key, he said, is to use technology to create a better experience for the consumer.

However, Montfort believes innovation won’t replace fashion. “Creativity is not over at all. There’s a new creative generation that loves denim. And many love denim the most,” he said.

Creativity is coming from two areas—the high-end market and anti-fashion designers. For Spring ’18 luxury brand Chanel mixed denim with a more classical DNA. Dior recreated workwear for Fall ’17. Meanwhile, Balenciaga added cargo pocket jeans. Avant-garde designers like Faustine Steinmetz are elevating denim with diamanté crystals, acid wash and recycled denim. Japanese label White Mountaineering is blending denim and sportswear. Lacoste is doing denim track suits for Spring ’18 as well.

Or, brands are partnering with unlikely collaborators. From Supreme x Louis Vuitton and Levi’s collaboration with Sacai, to Puma’s long-term partnership with Rihanna, it is normal today for a brand to collaborate with another a brand or public figure. “It’s a strong value, not a trend,” Montfort said about brands’ collaborative nature. He added that these collaborations allow brands as traditional as Levi’s to dabble in new looks.

“This generation is mixing sportswear and denim all together—a denim jacket with track suit, a football scarf with a jean coat,” Montfort said, noting that the next generation of designers are vying for newness, not nostalgia. In fact, nostalgia is a meaningless term to Gen Z. “This generation has no nostalgia from the past subcultures. They take things from the past and do it their own way. You see this is patches and the use of punk logos,” he said.

Instead, brands are seeking opportunities to relaunch iconic pieces from their collections with a fresh twist that speaks to the contemporary consumer. For example, Kenzo’s Spring ’18 “Memento” collection features the brand’s iconic Japanese-inspired silhouettes updated in denim. Montfort said the collection is example of how “tradition can match with innovation.”

Even Gen Z’s taste for ’90s denim labels like Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein isn’t nostalgic—Montfort says they just like the aesthetic of the decade. “The people born around 1990 to 1995 are crazy about what was cool during this time,” he said. That influence is even cropping up in new music videos modeled after flashy ’90s hip-hop videos by rappers like Puff Daddy and Mase.

“Denim culture doesn’t mean rock ‘n’ roll to [Gen Z]. There’s no link there in their mind,” Montfort said, noting that Rihanna, Justin Bieber, A$AP Rocky and Frank Ocean have made denim their uniforms. “It’s hip-hop that is more inspiring than rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. And ironically, they’re wearing the same basic 5-pocket styles other subcultures wear. “The style didn’t change, but the universe behind it did,” Montfort added.