• Retail Dive

How traditional teen apparel brands went out of style

Gen Z sets trends fast — and they won't hesitate to leave retailers who can't keep up in the dust..

There came a time when teens clad in low-rise jeans and T-shirts with giant logos from the likes of Express, Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch filled every high school classroom in America.

That point in time, however, is not 2021. As of spring, some of the most popular brands for young consumers back then are now ones teens say they no longer use, according to a survey from Piper Sandler.

Express, Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch were three of the top brands teens preferred in 2001, according to Piper Sandler. Gap and Abercrombie have, for nearly a decade, been ranked among brands male and female upper-income teens no longer wear. Though Express hasn't been on the undesired list in recent years, it hasn't been in the best standing either, with its ongoing store reduction and its third-place ranking in S&P Global Market Intelligence's "Most Vulnerable U.S. Retailers" list as of Aug. 16.

"It's not easy to stay in that position," said Hana Ben-Shabat, founder of research firm Gen Z Planet and author of the book "Gen Z 360: Preparing for the Inevitable change in Culture, Work, and Commerce." "You have a new generation, and you have a very different cultural context. Fashion can only exist in the cultural context that surrounds it."

Specialty brands, once considered a staple, are now staging a comeback in an attempt to lure the young consumer group that has ghosted them for trendier brands.

But the teens they're trying to attract now aren't the same ones they found popularity in, Ben-Shabat said.

"Gen Z, compared to other generations, are truly trendsetters," she said. "They, sometimes through their digital communities, create trends almost overnight."

Getting back in touch with the teen market

Over the years, key players such as Nike, American Eagle and PacSun have emerged as some of the most popular apparel brands for teens, according to Piper Sandler. Brands like Lululemon, Urban Outfitters and Shein have also gained traction in the teen market. As a result, some of the brands that lost market share have fine-tuned their image and product offerings to match the taste of younger consumers.

Gap launched a teen collection last year with sustainability as the collection's selling point, which taps into Gen Z's interest in making eco-friendly purchases. Despite years of decline, Gap recently found bright spots in its trajectory like its partnership with rapper Kanye West for a Yeezy Gap line, and in a year where consumers opted for comfortable clothing, Gap's hoodies found TikTok fame. The hashtag, #GapHoodie, currently has about 7.3 million views on the short-form video-sharing app.

After years of attempting to rebrand, Abercrombie & Fitch stores look much different from what they were back then. The stores are bright and its style has shifted away from its rebellious image. After years of being on the list of brands teens no longer use, Abercrombie didn't show up on that portion of Piper Sandler's fall 2021 survey.

"Certainly, with the more inclusive movement, the customer did not want to see objectified naked men and women. They wanted to see more people that represented who they are."

Kristin Kohler Burrows Senior Director, Alvarez & Marsal Consumer and Retail Group

In its heyday, Abercrombie & Fitch stores were dark, and photos of half-naked models would be plastered on shopping bags, posters and products. The distinct smell of perfume would permeate the space.

"You would walk by them even outside, and you could smell it," Kristin Kohler Burrows, senior director of Alvarez & Marsal Consumer and Retail Group, recalled. "I mean, they would purposely have the door open."

Abercrombie's reputation suffered in the past through lawsuits for discriminating against a job applicant who wore a hijab and a transgender employee's firing. Abercrombie also closed the book on its oversexualized marketing strategy in 2015.

"I think with Abercrombie, they really just lost touch in terms of who the teen boy and the teen girl were and are," Burrows said. "Certainly, with the more inclusive movement, the customer did not want to see objectified naked men and women. They wanted to see more people that represented who they are."

Gen Z is a more racially and ethnically diverse group than previous generations, with 25% identifying as Hispanic, 14% as Black, 6% as Asian and 5% classify as another race or two or more races, the Pew Research Center reported in 2019. A slight majority (52%) are non-Hispanic white, significantly less than the 61% of millennials who identified as non-Hispanic white in the early 2000s.