Stuck at home and short of jobs during the pandemic, Gen Zs have quickly sown the seeds of a new fashion system. Their core values? Sustainability, collaboration and individuality.
Take London-based designer Olivia Blakeman, who started making jewellery from broken necklaces and vintage charms in 2020. She had graduated into a bleak job market and wanted to generate donations for Black Lives Matter. She still donates 10 per cent of profits to charity, but has since evolved her hobby into a business, Planet B, by collaborating with other Gen Zs. Her long-term goal is to develop a marketplace for sustainable and ethical products made by a community of independent creatives.
The bulk of Gen Z entrepreneurs started small on Depop, Instagram and TikTok, sharing with millions of followers not only their products, but also their fluctuating fortunes as small business owners. As the world slowly emerges from lockdowns and restrictions ease, some have managed to evolve their side-hustles into fully fledged businesses, with implications for the broader fashion ecosystem. It’s big business: on Depop alone, the seller community turned over $650 million in secondhand and own brand items in 2020, according to the company.
Many have gone into business to fill gaps that they perceive as consumers themselves and to serve people similar to themselves. Their strategies pose all sorts of questions, not least about whether the mainstream fashion industry is failing to meet the next generation.
Mira Al-Momani, who handles social media and content creation for jewellery and lifestyle brand Anissa Kermiche, says her Instagram and TikTok followings grew exponentially when her personal style videos showcasing independent designers took off. She now plans to open a multibrand e-commerce platform, Nima Store, selling exclusive pieces designed in collaboration with emerging brands. Rather than drop-shipping and charging commission, Al-Momani will purchase stock outright, allowing designers to receive the benefits straightaway. “The most important thing to Gen Z is thoughtfulness,” she says of the business model.
Among Depop users, 90 per cent have made changes to be more sustainable in their daily lives, such as repairing clothes (60 per cent), reducing fashion consumption (70 per cent) or recycling more (75 per cent), according to a Bain & Company report on Gen Z Depop users by partner Federica Levato. For Al-Momani, purchasing from Gen Z-owned brands was often a gateway into the broader sustainable fashion space. Her own interest was piqued after she bought a bespoke deadstock corset from a fellow Gen Z seller at the start of lockdown and shared the collaborative process on Instagram.
Community first, commerce second
Social media is integral to Gen Z businesses, but brand owners are not necessarily using it to drive sales. Very few opt for paid advertising, preferring to build a relatable and authentic social media persona that eventually becomes the base of a brand identity. This helps generate customer loyalty and trust, says Isabella Vrana, a Depop top seller who now has three full-time employees and a studio in East London, and says profits have more than doubled each year. On Instagram, she mixes brand imagery and vintage drop previews with personal photos and behind-the-scenes business content. “People like it when they aren’t always being sold something,” she says.
Sorcha Mondon, who started her secondhand jewellery business, named The Phat Cherub, in the lull between undergraduate and masters degrees, operates her business entirely through Instagram. Every week, she takes to Instagram Stories for a QVC-style segment, named Sorcha’s Sunday Service, with one of her followers (they’re known as “cherubinas”). “It started in lockdown when I think people were craving structure and connection,” she explains. “My sales on those days are significantly better than standard photo uploads and it’s allowed me to build great relationships with my customers.” Mondon says the business has been profitable from the first few months, and sells enough to pay her London rent.
Others are less comfortable with the founder-centric approach expected of them. Keziah Acquaye changed her company’s name from Kez Made It to KMI Studios to relieve some of the pressure. Asal Tehrani, whose brand Susamusa has been worn by model Bella Hadid and social media personality Addison Rae, says her photos have much higher engagement when she appears in them, but she takes comments much less personally when she hires models to be the face of the brand.
Digital discovery combined with IRL experiences
As lockdowns have lifted, pop-ups have become a mainstay of the Gen Z fashion scene. Adaptive retail chain Sook Spaces hosts Gen Zs in the UK, from London to Manchester and Edinburgh, allowing them to book pop-ups by the day in its modular and customisable shops. Many have made an instant and exceptional impact, bringing to a standstill parts of prime shopping locations such as London’s Oxford Street, with long queues and police supervision necessary. “The big brands we work with plan months ahead, but Gen Zs work on a super fast turnaround, then move on,” says founder John Hoyle. “Where older clients might struggle with the technology, Gen Zs grasp it straight away.”
Musician Mya Nicole runs 2o2st, a bimonthly pop-up space in London’s Soho offering Gen Z entrepreneurs — including Planet B and Senja by Maddie — affordable slots in a building her family has owned for over 70 years. Some brands opt for solo pop-ups: Suki Gems ran tooth gemming stations; while Octavia Banks holds marbling workshops turning customers’ creations into her signature printed tops. The pop-ups are advertised entirely through vendors’ social media accounts, with footfall averaging 350 to 500 each time. Depop also hosts pop-ups for selected sellers, including one in Selfridges in 2019.
Artists and Fleas — a chain of physical markets that has operated in the US since 2003 — expanded its offering in April 2021 to include a Gen Z-focused iteration called Regeneration. For a rolling weekly fee of $280, vendors can hire a stand in Brooklyn, pre-fitted with everything they need to sell their vintage and upcycled wares for the weekend. Instagram-native entrepreneur Emma Rogue is a Regeneration alumna, who has since opened a permanent New York store for her brand, Rogue. Macey Hall, creative producer for Instagram’s @shop account, says Rogue is a good example of how Gen Z entrepreneurs are evolving their offering beyond the social media platform, using IRL pop-ups to drive community and sales in tandem with Instagram’s new Shop features.