Five Brands That Have Rebranded to Capture the Zillennial Market

Images courtesy of thenewyorktimes.com, Coach, and Birkenstock, respectively

It’s no secret that 2020 was a tough year for the fashion industry, but there were also some bright spots. A handful of brands have made it through the turbulence and are navigating a rebrand and successfully engaging with “zillennials.” According to Urban Dictionary, “A zillennial is a micro generational overlap of people born ‘three years before the end of millennials and/or three years after the start of Generation Z. So, essentially anyone born between 1992 and 1998.”

Fashion Reverie identified five brands that seem to have captured this group’s interest:  Abercrombie & Fitch, Birkenstock, Coach, Doc Martens, and Hood by Air. We turned to a group of six zillennials, and a celebrity and pop culture expert to find out if they felt these brands were indeed appealing, and if so, why? Our group of zillennials weighed-in on the brand that interested them, respectively.

We’d be remiss to not include the role celebrity has to play and interviewed journalist and celebrity/pop culture expert and fashionreverie.com celebrity style editor, to get her point of view about how celebrity plays to this latest generation of consumers  Lastly, this article examines profitability, the final arbiter of whether a brand is successful or not. Fashion Reverie checked-in with Morgan Stanley to see how well the brands in our group fared in 2020 and what they predict for 2021 and beyond.

Abercrombie & Fitch Bruce Weber images courtesy of Abercrombie & Fitch

Abercrombie & Fitch

David T. Abercrombie founded the company in 1892. The first store was based in Manhattan and sold fishing and hunting gear. In 1904, Attorney, Ezra Fitch, purchased a large share of the company and renamed it Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F). It really came into its own in the 1990’s, under then-CEO Mike Jeffries, who modernized the brand, by hiring star fashion photographer Bruce Weber. Together, they conceived of and created an idealized summer camp environment and a fun-filled hedonistic college life with image campaigns that decorated the stores’ interiors.

Weber was the perfect fit, as he was known for telling stories through photographs for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. A&F was a favorite with tweens all-over the world who bought into Weber’s sexy fantasy. The stores created a club like environment, with dark paneled walls, house fragrances, and attractive models to lure customers in. Moose heads on the walls were a clever nod to the brand’s early heritage. The teen fans grew up and moved-on to more grown-up brands such as Zara.

Another factor in the brand’s downturn was parents getting turned-off by the brand’s sexualized imagery and numerous reports of body shaming. These attitudes worked against A&F and diminished the company’s luster; profits fell-off. Jeffries was ousted in 2014 after one too many comments such as, “In every school, there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Abercrombie &Fitch spring 2021 campaign courtesy of insidehook.com

Zillennial weigh-in: Juliette, 23 and Annabel, 21

Sisters Juliette and Annabel* helped us hone-in on the rebranded Abercrombie & Fitch label. Both were raised by this author in affluent Fairfield County, CT. Juliette, who now works in marketing, was a former A&F middle-school fan. She easily fit into the clothes that were geared to girls with tiny size 0-4 frames. Juliette explains the renewed interest in the brand. “My age group of girls have grown-up and are looking for cute pieces. Abercrombie recruits aggressively at my alma matter, Miami University. Some of the Miami University sorority girls have been recruited by A&F and you can see their style influence in the clothes.”

Juliette’s sister, Annabel, is a business major at Mary Washington University. She has the typical college girl’s wardrobe of Lululemon mixed in with logo tees and sweatshirts. She and her friends turn to Abercrombie when looking for business casual or for going-out wear. Says Annabel, “I didn’t start wearing it again until 2020 when I just happened to walk into the store because they were having a sale. I liked it in middle school but couldn’t wear much of it because I was chubby as a kid and it wasn’t really size inclusive. Their style has really matured though, and the quality is really good for cheaper clothes. It’s about being comfortable, and they’ve made their jeans, that are hot now, size inclusive. Abercrombie has made it onto the list of stores I go into to buy.”

Word on the Street: Morgan Stanley

ANF.N also includes Hollister. Analysts called the 120-store (A&F 74/Hollister 46) closure in 2020’s fourth quarter “a significant win.” Additionally, digital revenue grew 39% as compared to last year, partially attributed to COVID-related store closures. Analysts assign the industry view as “cautious,” as they are waiting to see if there will be additional store closures that will cut back on lease dollars spent. The other factor is if the rebrand continues to generate dollars at the remaining brick and mortar locations and on digital.

Image courtesy of Birkenstock

Birkenstock

Birkenstock was founded in 1774 by Johann Adam Birkenstock, a cobbler from Langen-Bergheim, Germany. The sandals are known for their contoured cork footbeds fashioned from jute and suede that conform to the wearer’s feet.

Images courtesy of Rick Owens and Birkenstock

While “Birks” have long been a staple of yoga enthusiasts, ballet dancers, and podiatrists, they didn’t become cool until after a series of high-profile collaborations put them on the fashion map. Designer Rick Owens’ first collaboration, which dropped in April 2017, was a range of pony hair sandals and socks that were so successful that there was a Rick Owens X Birkenstock Season 2, one for men and one for women, shown at Paris Fashion Week spring 2019. The latest collab was unveiled with pop-up shops at Le Bon Marché in Paris, at the I.T Group in Hong Kong, and China, and online at birkenstock.com/1774 in February 2019. Another collaboration with the edgy  bi-annual magazine 032c, squarely put the brand on hipsters’ buy-now shopping list. The editorial team worked with Birkenstock to customize the unisex Super Birki clog out of polyurethane and adapted it “for day and night, at work and at play.”

Zillennial weigh-in: Abby, 21

Abby Ensslen is a student at Albright College who will graduate in May 2021. She is a Fashion and Communications co-major interested in how fashion relates to body positivity. According to Abby, Birkenstocks are cool now because they’re coming out in so many different fabrics, patterns, heights and iterations beyond the traditional Arizona sandal. “Arizonas are the classics, the A-1 of the brand, but in doing a bit of research, I noticed that Birkenstock has a little collaboration with Central St. Martins (Birkenstock X CSM); I like that they showed-off students’ work.” She likes her pair of EVAs because they can go in the water and are still wearable after two or three years. Abby finds their clunky look appealing, but “in the coolest way – you could wear them with dresses, jeans, joggers, really anything.”

The Birkenstock X CSM sandals retail between $250-$510, as do the Birkenstock X Rick Owens’ and Birkenstock X 032c’s, which is significantly more than a standard leather pair that averages $150.

Images courtesy of harperzbaraar.com

Coach

Coach was founded in 1941, and has a long-standing reputation built on quality and craftsmanship. The brand approaches design with a modern vision, reimagining luxury for today. Coach products are available in approximately 55 countries. Since 2016, Coach has worked furiously at rebranding itself to appeal to the zillennial generation. The house’s Creative Director, Stuart Vevers, started a series of successful limited-edition collaborations with strategically chosen stars called “the Brand’s Global Face.” The first was an accessories collection with Selena Gomez that dropped in fall 2017. The bags featured Selena’s handwritten empowering personal motto “Not Perfect, Always Me,”  which resonated with her young fans and drew them to what they’d previously deemed a “mom-brand.”

The “Selena Grace bag” was a hit and Gomez came back for a second collab in spring 2018 that included clothing, as well as accessories. Next, came a team-up with Michael B. Jordan. The first 2019 collaboration between Vevers and Jordan was so well received that a second limited collaboration followed.  This latest line was inspired by Jordan’s love for Naruto, the Japanese action anime series. It featured sneakers, backpacks, boots, jackets, and coats. Prices started at $95 and topped-out at $2,500 and caused a stir on the blogosphere.

Images courtesy of coach.com

The most recent partnership is with Jennifer Lopez, who has been a Coach fan since the early 2000s, according to an interview with vogue.com. In her 2002 video for her song, “All I Have,” Lopez is packing her things at the apartment she and fictional boyfriend, LL Cool J share, and marches dramatically down a NYC street and out of his life with armloads of Coach CC bags and luggage. Lopez explained, “I just really wanted the Jennifer Lopez Hutton bag to feel like me—glam and cool.”

The latest hit is the Coach X Jennifer Lopez Hutton Shoulder Bag retailing for $495. The bag is based on “the Hutton,” one of Coach’s classics, with the popular turn lock closure. It’s a Jennifer Lopez Rockstar style bag, from the color block Pepto Bismol pink and burgundy, down to the gold chain and snakeskin trim. A quick stop to Coach store in the Tysons Corner Center  mall confirmed that the bag continues to be a fan favorite and best-seller.

Another clever move is the “Once Upon a Time” Disney X Coach collaboration that features the beloved Disney princesses. It’s a continuation of the Disney collaboration that started a few years back when Coach teamed up with Disney to create merchandise honoring Snow White, and a special collection of Mickey Mouse illustrations by the late Keith Haring.

“Martha”is a part-time sales associate who works at a Coach brick and mortar location in the mid-Atlantic region. She confirmed that the Disney X Coach collaboration is a smash hit. In fact, it was sold out in-store in two days and was sold out online before then. Disney fans flocked to Coach to snap up the card holders, wallets, totes, hangtags and backpacks. Martha describes the new backpacks as “very fresh and very new. The neon yellows and mustards are really appealing to zillennials. The designs are definitely catering to this age group.” Most popular princess? Tiana, and her green zip around wallet.

Coach is hedging its bets, and still maintaining the other more classic designs for older customers who have been longtime supporters. These classics are featured in the spring 2021 “Coach Forever” video campaign that tells a story of inclusivity and community. The messaging and celebrities target the zillennials. In the video, Coach Ambassador Ricky Thompson, a comedian and Internet personality, is joined by model Kaia Gerber, Cole Sprouse, Megan Thee Stallion, and Paloma Elsesser in the uplifting short film.

Image courtesy of Coach

Zillennial weigh-in: Jocelyn, 24

Jocelyn lives in Brooklyn and works as the Marketing and Communications Coordinator for the Food Bank of NYC, the City’s largest anti-poverty organization. Like Juliette and Annabel, Jocelyn grew-up in Fairfield County’s “Gold Coast.” The 2016 Coach X Coachella collaboration put the brand on her radar. Prior to that, her knowledge of the brand was limited to a nice non-logo stitched leather bag from the 1970s or 80s her mother found for her at vintage shop in Vermont; she carried the bag all through high school. Jocelyn recalls, “The card inside said it’s made in the Garment District, which appeals to my commitment to sustainability.” Like many of her counterparts growing up in Fairfield County, she did not identify with the Reed Krakoff period where many of the bags in the local mall were covered with logos. Jocelyn continues, “I just got in an argument with a friend who bought one of those bags when we were thrifting, even after I told her, ‘no, don’t get it, it’s ugly.’” As to Coach’s spring 2021 collabs, Jocelyn opines, “Uncharacteristically, I like the Megan Thee Stallion bag. I like the suede and the pebbled leather that gives it a western look and even the C which could be a horseshoe. These are cute enough that I would think about it.”

The Celebrity Angle

Pop culture expert Tijana Ibrahimovic firmly believes that zillenials are influenced by celebrities. “Celebrity does matter to this generation. Zillennials and millennials are the ones who push the celebrity to the max. When it comes to a celebrity pushing a brand, a perfect example of doing it right is Coach. They read the room accurately. This current generation is looking at celebs to deliver the right message such as inclusivity and celebrities appearing as regular people. This is what the Zs care about. Coach showed celebs as casual and no one’s dressing up. Consumers need clothes like this.”

Word on the Street: Morgan Stanley

Coach is part of Tapestry Inc. (TPR.N) that also includes Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman. Although the long-term view of the overall company is rated as “cautious,” the equity analysts single Coach out as the star of the three brands. They attribute this to “better than expected digital sales in Coach North America, higher wholesale and greater China revenue.”

 Add in fewer discount/off-price sales to the picture and the result is that analysts remain confident about Coach for the remainder of 2021. The final word is that “in the handbag category tailwinds appear supportive.”

Image courtesy of pinterest.com

Dr. Martens

Zillennial weigh-in: Jocelyn, 24, Justin, 28.

Jocelyn discovered “Doc” Martens and started wearing her “Docs” in high school when she was going through a punk phase. She paid under $200 for her double stack Docs and loved the edge and punk attitude they afforded her. Although she’s well past her punk phase, she still has and wears them. As to the newer models, Jocelyn remarked, “I do love the sandals and want a pair. People are taking notes from Queer fashion trends—that DIY thing Ella Emhoff is doing, this is part of it.”

Justin works in real estate and marketing in upstate New York. He loves the brand’s advertising, even though it’s targeted to young adult women in their early 20s. “While I’m a couple of years older, who you hang out with is what you pay attention to. My girlfriend is 22 years old. I may not have looked at the ads before, but I do now. I pay attention to what the people I hang out with are talking about.”

Image courtesy of hypebeast.com

Word on the Street: Morgan Stanley

The analysts assigned Dr. Martens an equal weight evaluation. They believe that “Dr Martens is poised to grow fast, pay a dividend and yet delever (pay-off old debt and not take-on new debt) its balance sheet relatively rapidly. The analysts at MS are largely optimistic about Doctor Martens’ ability for continued growth up through 2024. While they consider the brand to be evergreen, they identify three potential problems:

  1. Could Dr. Martens (DM) resurgence prove to be a fad?
  2. The -50% e-commerce penetration DM is aiming for is quite a bit higher than that of other footwear brands and may be “overambitious.”
  3. If DM becomes less desirable, it may not be able to maintain its pricing power and may have to resort to discounting.

Image courtesy of theimpression.com

Hood by Air

Hood by Air (HBA)’s roots are in New York City.  When Shayne Oliver and Raul Lopez first introduced HBA in 2006, it struck a chord with young people and the media. Their avant-garde disruptive club-kid x pan-racial x high-fashion mix garnered a torrent of media attention and following with urban and suburban kids. HBA was on fire and culminated when Oliver won the LVMH Special Jury Prize in 2014 of 100,000 euros, and the Swarovski CFDA award for menswear in 2015. Although the brand was hot, the pricing was unattainable to many of its young fans. Despite the media attention and fanbase, according to a recent article in The Business of Fashion (BOF), sales were not enough to support the brand. The brand closed, and Oliver went on to work as Helmut Lang’s creative director from 2017-2019. Lopez went solo and founded Luar, another edgy streetwear brand.

For spring 2021, HBA’s campaign includes the iconic supermodel Naomi Campbell. 

Zillennial Weigh-In: Deirdre, 23

Deirdre is a special event makeup artist who works at an Ulta Beauty brick and mortar location in Virginia. She believes there are a lot of similarities between Hood by Air and Off-White and describes them as “high-end urban street wear.” Deirdre followed them while in high school, when she was “heavy into urban designer wear, when urban wear was so in.” She has not heard much at all about HBA since the relaunch on social media, where she goes to get her fashion information.

Edison Chen image courtesy of ssense.com

Although US zillennials such as Deirdre who embraced the HBA in its first iteration have moved-on, Edison Chen, a Los Angeles based streetwear entrepreneur, believes HBA can rise again. He is a minority investor who invested for the 2013 show and the business mind behind the comeback. Chen is taking a different approach to HBAs branding on this go round to reignite interest and sales. In an interview last November with BOF, Chen stated, “We’re gonna try to look at some culture penetrators, some new kids on the block to be able to mix our vibe so that it doesn’t seem unattainable or unwearable.” This translates to showing conceptual high-end pieces on the runways but offering less expensive pieces its young fans can afford, such as tee shirts and hoodies,. Chen’s initial focus are the Asian fashion weeks in Tokyo and Shanghai, expanding to European capitals from there. He will also work on direct to consumer sales partnering with Dover Street Market and Ssense for “bespoke activations” with periodic merchandise drops.

—Vivian Kelly

 

 

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