Fashion Week rocked last week, once again setting New York abuzz as the setting for the celebration of chic that sets the standard for global style. This elegant event and all of its pageantry takes place not far from Madison Avenue, the epicenter of image and home to the creative minds that translate haute couture into everyday style for the masses.
Fashion Avenue and Madison Avenue have always fit each other like a sexy dress. One inspires with breathtaking design, while the other ignites the interest that sparks fads. As business tandems go, this has always been a pretty hot ensemble. But we live in times where more than just hemlines are changing, and their relationship is about to be put to the test.
At the heart of the matter is the concept of youth and how it will be expressed going forward. Fashion and Advertising love to celebrate youth because they’re in business to sell things that people want to buy. For the last 50 years, most of those buyers have been the Baby Boomers, and during that time, this massive generation populated an age group that was a perfect fit with Fashion and Advertising’s definition of youth.
As the Boomers searched for the meaning of life, businesses found meaning in their magnitude. Their sheer size – the largest generation our country had ever seen – would go on to amplify the impact of their choices. We have the Boomers to thank for one of the most enduring fashion classics ever: blue jeans. Soon after James Dean and Marlon Brando sported “dungarees” in Rebel Without a Cause, and The Wild Ones, the Boomers adopted them as their proletariat uniform of youthful rebellion, and a timeless fashion icon was born. At 78 million strong, the Boomers are “Marketing’s Most Valuable Generation” with both the size and the money to power fad after fad. The Fashion and Advertising businesses thrived by embracing them.
Now in 2014 the party has taken on a new look. This is the year that the last of the Baby Boomers will turn 50, and age out of the 18-49 sweet spot that has defined success for so many years. Between now and 2030, the 18-49 segment is expected to grow by 12%, while the 50+ segment will expand by7 34%. What’s more, 50+ consumers will have disposable income that’s 29% greater than Gen X. The demographics of the past have changed forever.
A migration of this magnitude does not happen overnight, but this one has been largely out of sight for years. It’s taken the tipping point of 2014 – when the last of the Boomers turn 50 – for the light bulb to come on. Fashion and Advertising are at risk of neglecting the consumers that they once celebrated as young. They are choosing to define them as old. Someone is about to become a fashion victim: either the Boomers for being style-snubbed or the fashionistas for ignoring them.
So, who better to weigh in on this than WWD (Women’s Wear Daily), long the Fashion industry’s most influential arbiter of style and common sense. A recent cover story spotlighted this topic with the headline: “BOOMERS - The Neglected Market - Ignore Them At Your Peril.” The WWD Special Report by Lisa Lockwood estimates the value of this opportunity at $21 billion a year… the amount that U.S. women 50+ spend on clothing. Add in men and ancillary businesses such as jewelry and cosmetics…and then add the rest of the world.
You get the point — with this much at stake, no one wants to be a fashion victim.
So, what now? It’s time for the smart folks on Fashion and Madison Avenues to think about victors, not victims. How can they embrace the value of the Boomer customer while also staying true to the youthful essence of Fashion? It’s become a matter of and/and, not either/or. A balanced choice is required.
Perhaps more than any other, the Fashion industry understands the art of balance. Popular styles are most often derived from a combination of classic and contemporary design elements -- always fashionable, yet still practical. If the fashionistas apply this sensibility to the aging consumer, success will certainly follow.
Over on Madison Avenue, the creative minds that interpret fashion for the masses are still worshipping youth. The awards-driven culture that permeates the business has ad agencies still clinging to the outdated bias that creativity is the province of youth. This is cool at Cannes, but on the runways of Paris true style is timeless.
In the end, style without substance cannot endure. For the major players in Fashion, that “substance” has been, and will continue to be, the Baby Boomers who are loving life and living longer. Fashion is a business, and there’s big money to be made in selling “little black dresses” to a really big audience.