Skip to content

The rise of the “divided closet”

And why young people's shopping habits might end up saving the fashion industry.

Gen Z might end up saving the fashion industry, but it won't look like the fashion industry we know right now. This cohort of young people, born between the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2010s, loves clothes as much as their predecessors, but an interesting new survey conducted by the UK's Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce (RSA) reveals that they have different ideas about how they want the industry to look and operate.

The survey found that Gen Z'ers understand the importance of sustainability, durability, and ethics, and want these reflected in the clothes they buy. In the words of Jeff Groom, author of “Marketing to Get Z,” they are discerning: “[They’ve] grown up with more access to information from more sources than ever before. Inequality, climate change and LGBTQ+ rights are topics they’ve heard about for years.” For this reason, fashion for them is less about fitting in with specific brand names and styles, and more about reflecting a personal identity.

Young shoppers are more willing to think outside the box when it comes to cycling clothes through their closets, hence the title of this post. A “divided closet” is one whose contents don't all come from a single brick-and-mortar store, but rather a variety of sources – secondhand shops, clothing rental companies, online swap sites, upcycled retailers. This has already been reflected during the coronavirus pandemic, when retail stores were closed and everyone needing new clothes was forced to look elsewhere for them. The Guardian reports,

“Before the pandemic two-thirds of clothing was purchased in stores, but the 18+ group had already found alternatives to bricks and mortar (their sophisticated modes of consumption often outpacing what the high street could offer) shopping through online resale sites such as Poshmark, Grailed, Vestiaire Collective and clothing rental sites, all of which have seen a sales boost during lockdown.”

The big difference is that these young people want to feel as if they're contributing meaningfully to the world in some way, and fashion is a way to do that. Kati Chitrakorn, a marketing editor at Vogue Business, said, “Being able to ‘do something’ – upcycling, customising or reusing rather than discarding – lets younger people feel like they’re part of a movement, and that mindset has been popular even prior to the pandemic.”

Similarly, the pandemic has shown people that they can make do with fewer purchases and make those last longer. Twenty-eight percent of people are “recycling or reusing more clothes than normal” and 35 percent of women say they plan to buy fewer clothes once the lockdown ends. Half of people surveyed “think the industry should do whatever it takes to become more environmentally sustainable” and should strive for more domestic production.

This “values-oriented shopping” will push the fashion industry to make changes it has refused to make up until now. Brands will no longer be allowed to get away with cheap, non-traceable production overseas on the same scale as before because the up-and-coming generation of shoppers doesn't want that. The willingness of these young creative shoppers to do things differently could be the key to the industry's rebirth and subsequent survival.

You can download the RSA report here.