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Shein, Crocs and Columbia Get Gen Z’s Vote, Survey Says

Shein, Crocs and Columbia get the Gen Z vote.

L.E.K. Consulting surveyed roughly 4,000 U.S. shoppers between the ages of 14 and 55, using their product preferences to map its 2022 U.S. Footwear and Apparel Brand Heat Index.

“As Gen Z continues to age into greater spending power coupled with its fashion influence, apparel and footwear brands have focused attention their way,” Laura Brookhiser, L.E.K. partner and co-author of the survey report, wrote, adding, “brands and investors need to better understand their generational preferences to gain an upper hand.” While Gen Z, which L.E.K puts at 9 to 24 years old, might be driving the future of fashion, millennials are still a larger generation, and Gen Xers have higher average incomes, Brookhiser added.

While Gen Z is known for championing sustainability, its purchasing tells a different story. Shein, Fashion Nova and PrettyLittleThing dominate women shoppers’ spending on denim, T-shirts, sweaters and more. Specialty retail brands like Carhartt, Urban Outfitters, Zara and Forever 21 also scored high marks with Gen Z. Millennials documented their affinity for WeWoreWhat, contemporary luxury brand Sandro, and denim makers Levi’s and Acne Studios.

Male Gen Z consumers also favor Shein, in addition to Tommy Hilfiger, Carhartt, Uniqlo and Hollister. Meanwhile, Levi’s scored highest on average with men of all ages, and millennials pointed to Scotch & Soda, Polo Ralph Lauren and Mack Weldon as the brands they shop for casual clothing. Gen Xers put men’s shirting brand Untuckit as their No. 2 choice, while Peter Millar, Duluth Trading Co. and Faherty also made their list of favorites.

Sandals, slip-ons, flats and chukka boots are resonating with shoppers, with Crocs, Dr. Martens, Birkenstock and Timberland among the top five hottest brands for both Gen Z men and women, according to L.E.K.

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Overall, men demonstrate a preference for heritage brands like Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, direct-to-consumer sneakers from Greats, comfort footwear from Vionic and casual sandals and slip-ons from OluKai. Women pointed to Ugg, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger as top choices, but cited sustainable footwear brand Thousand Fell, DTC sandal maker TKees and Asos as important players. Gen X women favor Toms and Skechers.

Nike emerged as the top brand for sneakers, basketball shoes and cleats across all demographics. Adidas, Vans, Jordan Brand, Converse and Under Armour scored highest, on average, across all surveyed generations and genders. Nike also dominated the athletic apparel space, with the brand’s performance tops, athletic shorts, joggers, leggings and sports bras coming in first for men and women. Lululemon scored No. 2 overall with women and No. 7 with men.

Gen Z women ranked mid-tier British athleticwear brand Gymshark No. 3 on their list for active apparel, while millennial women pegged Vuori at No. 2. Gen X women touted Gap, Inc.-owned Athleta and Fabletics as Top 10 workout clothing brands. Gen Z and millennial men pointed to streetwear brand Supreme as their No. 5 and No. 4 pick, respectively, while Gen X saw Puma in similar standing. Startups like Tracksmith, Western Rise and Vissia also made the running.

Amid the recent outdoor boom, Columbia ranked highest for women’s all-terrain footwear like trail shoes and hiking boots. Brands like Bearpaw, Sorel and Merrell also ranked high for women of all ages. Gen Z men ranked Utah’s Black Diamond Equipment No. 1, while Gen X prefers boots from Arc’teryx.

The North Face, Patagonia and Columbia got respondents votes for adventure-ready jackets, fleeces and hiking gear, while women cited Fjällräven, Helly Hansen, Norrøna, Rab, Arc’teryx, Freefly and Rossignol as favorites. NRS, Snow Peak, Norrøna, AETHER, Oakley, Simms and Black Diamond resonated with men.

“Interestingly, Gen Z men… are less engaged or excited by many outdoor apparel brands relative to their Gen X and millennial counterparts,” L.E.K. partner Jon Weber said.

Gen Z men seem to be disinterested in dress shoes, preferring sneakers and other casual styles. Across ages, men shopping for styles like oxfords and loafers prefer Hugo Boss (No. 1) and Ferragamo (No. 2). Meanwhile, Aldo scored high with Gen Z men, millennials favor Stacy Adams, and Gen Xers prefer To Boot New York. Steve Madden, Michael Kors and Sam Edelman get top marks with women shopping for dressier styles. Coach, Kate Spade and Chinese Laundry also made it into all age cohorts’ top 10 lists.

Calvin Klein and Michael Kors topped both men’s and women’s lists for business casual and formal apparel such as suits and dresses. Gen Z women showed an affinity for dressy styles from ASTR the Label, MM LaFleur, Reformation and Bardot, while millennials prefer Kate Spade, Vince Camuto and Le Suit. Gen Xers named Tadashi Shoji, Bar III, Susanna Monaco and DVF as top choices—none of which appeared on the Top 10 lists for younger shoppers. Gen Z and Gen X men equally favor Ministry of Supply‘s tech-forward apparel.

“Every generation has its own distinct style preferences that can be seen across which brands are trending among each cohort,” L.E.K. partner Chris Randall. Competitive insights can help brands and retailers “devise which strategies are likely to be most impactful for their businesses.”

Developing strategic product development and marketing roadmaps “requires a sophisticated understanding of consumers, what they value and how they make decisions,” he added. “It’s critical to avoid falling into the trap of over-generalizing your target market.”

The Z Suite emerges

Meanwhile, a new college-aged brain trust will help retail crack the code on Gen Z.

The Z Suite emerged last week with more than two dozen students hand-picked from U.S. universities, including the University of Chicago, New York University, Parsons School of Design, Arizona State University and LIM College. Billed as “Gen Z thought leaders,” the 27-strong network joins the Retail Influencer Network, a collective of veteran industry experts assembled by New York City’s Berns Communication Group (BCG). The Z Suite will be available to help brands and retailers get inside the minds of a generation whose purchasing power is pegged at $150 billion and rising, according to Barkley, an ad agency based in Missouri.

Members in the network, run by co-chairs Carly Berns and Felicia Kane of BCG, will participate in panels, remote and in-person discussions, surveys and other opportunities where they can share their insights and perspectives with executives at companies focused on reaching the Gen Z consumer.

“For anyone interested in an authentic lens on how the most powerful generation will shape the values and economics of our planet over the next decade, access to The Z Suite is a must-have,” said Keval Desai, a Retail Influencer Network member and founder of Shakti, an early-stage VC firm with several Gen Z–oriented companies in its portfolio, including Queenly, Snack, The Lobby, Sparrow and Criya.

The network will add new members in the coming months before officially launching in September at a Retail Influencer Network event. Students are chosen for their interest in and knowledge around key hot-button topics, including sustainability, livestream shopping, the metaverse and more.

BCG founder and president Stacy Berns said the ascent of Gen Z is “shaping the retail, fashion, consumer and technology industries in profound ways.”

“We established The Z Suite to tap the knowledge of this important generation that is driving the future of retail and to provide these changemakers with a platform to amplify their collective voice and share their opinions and insights,” she added.