Their purchasing choices — fueled by influencer culture and catered to by a new wave of ultra-fast-fashion retailers such as Fashion Nova, PrettyLittleThing and Missguided (responsible for a £1 bikini that sold out in Britain) — are as much about how an outfit will look on social media as in the real world.
Three Gen Z shoppers in America, Australia and Britain invited us into their homes to talk about what they buy, and why. All of them work after school or save money to pay for their own purchases.
‘I Browse Every Single Day’
Mia Grantham is a 16-year-old British high school student studying for her A-levels. She lives with her father and her younger sister, Annie, in Wilmslow, England, a town outside Manchester. Her bedroom is small but immaculately kept, with a bulb-lit dressing table and a pillow shaped like a speech bubble reading “You’ve Got This” on her bed.
Mia’s interest in clothes ramped up about 18 months ago, when she started getting an allowance and attracting followers on her social media accounts. She has more than 1,500 followers on Instagram, gets around 500 views per story on Snapchat and spends three hours per day on her iPhone XR (about five hours on weekends and during vacation).
Her favorite going-out look is a red dress. She owns 14 of them.
How often do you shop?
I browse every single day — at least once — on the Pretty Little Thing phone app. It’s my favorite, and I don’t look anywhere else, except if I see something on an Instagram influencer I like. My current favorite is Molly-Mae Hague, a star from the 2019 series of “Love Island.” She recently created an exclusive clothing range for PLT, which makes me like the brand even more. Normally I look at shopping apps at the end of the day before bed for about 10 to 15 minutes. But if there is an event coming up that I want a new outfit for, then I could browse for more than an hour. I don’t really go to bricks-and-mortar stores. If I do, I go to Primark. Sometimes H&M. Maybe once a month, probably less.
What kind of an event needs a new look?
It could literally just be a meal. Or a house party, or a friend’s birthday. It could also be school, where we have a dress code but not a uniform.
Why is Pretty Little Thing your favorite fashion brand?
I pay £8.99 as part of a yearly subscription, which gives me unlimited next-day delivery on anything I buy. I know all the delivery people really well now — they always know when I have plans on a Friday or Saturday night. I don’t buy from places like Boohoo.com or Missguided as I’d have to pay for delivery, which would be a waste of money. I buy something at least once a week, and my basket value can be anywhere from £5.99 up. Once it was £230. Last week I bought 11 items and sent back three. Seventy percent of the time I send some ordered items back.
How many pieces of clothing do you think you’ve bought in 2019?
Eighty? One hundred? Those are pieces I’ve kept.
What is your favorite piece that you’ve bought, and how many times have you worn it?
The ones I probably wear the most are gray leggings that cost £2.50. For going out, I bought a silky red dress with a cutout for a house party. It cost £12.50 from the PLT Shape collection, which is for people like me who have an hourglass figure. I’ve worn it out three times, which is a lot for me. Normally I just wear a dress once.
Why only once?
Because I’ll normally be in photos when I’m wearing it that are then posted on social media. I wouldn’t really want someone seeing me in a dress more than once. People might think I didn’t have style if I wore the same thing over and over. Style is about changing for whatever the situation you are in and for different events.
When do clothes become old for you?
Well, things like leggings that you just wear in private around the house you can keep for years. Dresses, when you’ve worn them: twice.
Is price important?
Of course. If I’m only going to wear something once or twice, I’m going to want to buy the cheapest possible.
What else do you look for?
Social media is a big consideration. I’m on Snapchat and Instagram, and occasionally Facebook. I take selfies for social media every single time I go out, first in my bedroom and post them online, and then always with friends or my boyfriend, Will, when I’m at the party. More people will see an outfit online than they probably will in real life. I’m on Snapchat the most because of its messenger function, then Instagram, where I have both a public and a private account and spend an hour per day.
For IRL, if I see an item I like, normally I’ll search for it on Depop before I buy it so I can see what a real person rather than a model looks like in it. People buy and sell fashion so quickly, I can usually find even the newest things on there. Most of my friends do that too.
What constitutes a more special purchase for you?
An Oh Polly! dress. I buy them for about £20 from Depop, though new they cost about £40 to £60. Those dresses I keep — I have three of them. Teenagers don’t mind buying secondhand clothes like some older people do: You can get good looks at a cheaper price, or directly swap one dress for another online. I tend to sell lots of the clothes I don’t want in big batches on Depop. It gives me the money to buy new things. I also sometimes take big bags to consignment stores in town, where they give you a bit of money for your clothes depending on how much you bring in.
Do you ever think about where those clothes go once you’ve given or thrown them away?
Do you ever look at where your clothes are made?
Yes. I’ve noticed quite a few are made in England, which shocked me. I thought they’d all be made in countries like China, India and Bangladesh. Also, we have been learning a bit in Sociology about how our clothes are made and the working conditions for people who make them. In some countries I know they don’t get very good wages. It’s part of globalization. I wouldn’t talk about it with my friends casually, but we do talk about it in the classroom.
What do you think of sustainable fashion?
It came on my radar three months ago, I’d say. I am hearing more and more about it because a lot of brands are now bringing out sustainable fashion capsule collections, where clothes are made out of recycled materials, for example. A lot look the same as the normal collection but cost a few pounds more. But if I’m honest, I do think: Why would I pay more, when I can get the same for less?
‘I Don’t Like to Repeat’
Andrea Vargas, an 18-year-old freshman at Hofstra University, loves hunting for sales. She looks for them on websites like PrettyLittleThings and Boohoo, as well as physical stores like H&M and Forever 21, where she can flip through the racks and, occasionally, find gems.
“I go shopping when the season sales are on,” she said one Saturday night at her family’s home in Farmingdale, N.Y. She commutes to school and spends most weekend nights out with friends: getting dinner, maybe going to a party or a concert. Her plan for this particular evening was to go to P.F. Chang’s with three girlfriends.
Her room is small, with wood floors and inspirational quotes in photo frames on her pale yellow walls. A Billie Eilish poster hangs opposite her bed. A guitar she made out of an old skateboard sits in a corner.
Scanning the clothes in her room, she began talking about how she got them. “The back-to-school sales, the fall sales, the summer sales,” she said. “I love sales.”
Her absolute favorite piece of clothing is a red plush jacket from Forever 21. She wears it relentlessly when the weather is right. “It’s just so cute,” Ms. Vargas said. “I feel like it dresses up an outfit.”
Ms. Vargas pays for her clothes herself, using money she earns by working at Target. The red jacket cost her around $40, and she said it was worth every penny. But, she said, “I feel like there’s no point in spending $40 on a T-shirt. I personally feel like if the quality of the shirt doesn’t match the price, it doesn’t make sense for me to buy it. If a jean jacket costs $60 and I can find it for $20, I’m going to buy it for $20. Especially since I’m in college, I need to buy all these books.”
Ms. Vargas guessed she had purchased between 100 and 200 items this year, including shoes and jewelry, and that her wardrobe comprises 500 or 600 total pieces. “I would say the majority of it is shirts,” she said. “They have to be graphic tees. I like a little quote on my shirt here and there. I have yet to buy new jeans. I like a lot of ripped jeans. I rarely buy shoes.”
She doesn’t generally check where her clothing is made, and she doesn’t feel guilty about how much of it she has. After she’s done wearing something, it can have a second life. “My mom is from El Salvador and my dad is from Nicaragua,” she said. “They’re not wealthy countries, so I like to give back to people who don’t have a lot. It’s hot there, so I can’t send long sleeves, but I try to send shorts that don’t fit me, things that are still presentable and wearable.”
She thinks the right amount of money to spend on clothes is $10 to $15 on tops, and $20-$40 on bottoms. For dresses, which are usually for a special occasion, she’ll go over $40. She estimates she wears each piece 15 times before ultimately donating it or selling it on Depop — but she also doesn’t want to be seen wearing the same thing every day on Instagram.
“If I have a shirt in one of my previous pictures I try not to take a picture again in it,” she said. “I don’t like to repeat.”
Ms. Vargas had invited her friends over to get ready. Alana Wilson, 18, said that Instagram plays a big role in her shopping life, too. The moon-and-stars earrings that sparkled beneath her hair were purchased off an Instagram ad. Almost all of her clothes are from Fashion Nova.
“If it’s cute, it’s from Fashion Nova,” Ms. Wilson said. “Any time I have money I’ll do a whole spree on Fashion Nova. I like it because a lot of IG models have it.”
Another friend, Sofia Barbetta, also 18, agreed. “I feel like I find most clothes I want to buy in Instagram ads,” she said. “I don’t even follow that many fashion pages, but I see an ad and I’m like, ‘That’s really cute.’”
She unlocked her phone to show some outfits she’d posted on VSCO, a photo-sharing app. “I went through a camo pants phase,” she said of one look. “This outfit, I got inspiration from Twitter.” Ms. Barbetta said she’d gotten very into Twitter lately. She started a Post Malone stan account several years ago, but lately it had become a place to post personal things.
An hour after Ms. Vargas began getting ready with her friends, she zipped herself into her outfit for the night: a pair of black platform military-style boots from Target, black and white houndstooth pants, and a black off-the-shoulder top from H&M.
“I got this outfit yesterday,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is the outfit I’m going to wear.’”
But first, her hair. Ms. Vargas propped her iPhone up in front of her and sat cross-legged in front of her mirror. She pulled Miss Jessie’s Jelly Soft Curls styler through her waves. “I wanted to get one of those vlogging cameras,” she said, “one of the Nikon ones.” For now, she uses her iPhone.
Hours later she used it to Instagram a photo of her and her friends posing outside a restaurant in 50 degree weather. They had decided not to go to P.F. Chang’s after all, and were at Taste of Asia instead. None of them were wearing coats.
“Trust me we were freezing,” she declared in the caption. But they were all smiling.
‘I’m Dressing to Be Seen’
Nicole Lambert, 20, lives in Sydney, Australia, with her parents and is studying for an undergraduate degree in public relations and advertising at the University of New South Wales. She tutors students on weekdays and works a retail job on weekends.
When she has time off, she and her friends like to dress up and hit the festival circuit. On a recent evening, after spending the previous day dancing to EDM, she and her friend Helena Marshall got ready in her bedroom for a more relaxing dinner.
We’re not influencers — but …
When I’m dressing to go out, I’m dressing to be seen, which is weird to say because we’re not influencers. It sounds shallow, but I think in the back of your head you’re like: I probably should avoid wearing the same outfit twice.
At the end of the day, I prioritize the look versus the practicality. And that’s so unbelievable.
Working to be cute
My friend yesterday at this festival had a really cute Tiger Mist top with hearts all over it, but it had off-the-shoulder sleeves. I felt so bad for her the whole day, because she couldn’t put her arms up. But she got cute photos, so it was fine.
I know when you put something up on Instagram and it does well, you’re like, “Well, that was a good choice on my behalf.” I love it when people message, “Where did you get that from?” You know you’ve found something people can’t easily find.
I think about what I’m going to post for a decent amount of time. It’s a very curated version of your life. You want to look good in your photo, but have a funny caption so people know you’re down to earth and relatable.
That’s why we have private Instagrams, because it gets tiring. That’s where we feel fully free to post whatever. The tragedies of your life. The real me.
Keeping it private
On my main Instagram, people wouldn’t know I’m funny. Because I just overthink what I post: Will people get it? Are people actually going to laugh at that?
Sometimes I’ll get a weird feeling where I need to get off social media. I know some people delete their Instagram, like just the app. But that’s admitting to yourself that you have a problem.
Leaving shops empty-handed
I look for clothes at least once a week usually — either for an occasion, or just as something to do either online or in store. I shop 60 percent online, 40 percent in person. But 75 percent of the time, I’ll go to the shops, have a look around, and not find one thing because I think everything is the same.
I’m not afraid to put on something weird. I’m really big into animal print at the moment. Almost to the point where I’ll wear too much of it. I love my snake pants — and flares. Flares should never go out.
Princess Polly and Tiger Mist
For basics, 100 percent of my wardrobe is from Kookai. They’re always rotating really nice, classic things. I get a lot of stuff off Revolve, because there are so many different brands. You’ve got things there that you’re not going to see five people wearing once you’re out. From other online brands like Princess Polly, Tiger Mist. Sometimes it’s overwhelming how much stuff there is online. I could go on for hours.
Often, on Instagram, I’ll scroll through the Explore page, and people just tagging outfits. It’s so helpful because you just click onto the account, find the item. That’s how I find the little niche things.
Where were these dresses made?
If I feel so amazing in something, I’m probably not going to look too hard into the price. But I don’t like investing a lot of money for something you might not wear too much. I like PrettyLittleThing for crazy things for cheap, because they just do interesting little tops or little dresses, clubbing clothes. Do I look at the labels of clothes? Not really. In the back of my head, I assume that I know where the clothes are made: in China.
In terms of how much I would spend: average price of a dress, probably about $180 Australian dollars. Jeans, about $150. A good going out top, $50. I do like a nice pair of heels, so I’ve spent like $200 for a pair. But then again I’ve got ones for $50. In my wardrobe now, I’d say I have roughly 200 pieces.
Cycling the wardrobe overseas
I do a big spring clean every year and send boxes of clothes over to my family in the Philippines. One of my cousins has a market stall. So I assumed that maybe my stuff would end up there if they didn’t want to keep it for themselves.
I would say 30 percent of my wardrobe would get pulled out. Maybe 80 bits of clothes. It makes a good dent.
When I pull it all out and you see a big pile of clothes on your floor, you feel a bit sick. I’m glad that I can send it somewhere and it’s helping at least my family.
Supporting sustainability — or not
I want to support sustainable brands. But if it doesn’t work for me and what I’m doing in my lifestyle, I’m going to go with something else instead.
Timing is important. For what I wore to the Listen Out festival yesterday, I ordered on Tuesday morning, it came on Wednesday morning: literally in 24 hours. That means so much to me. I’m the least decisive person and the least patient person. When miniature bags were in, I was obsessed with this one from London. You could get your initials on it. But it said it could take 30 days and I was like, never mind. I got a cute one from Mango.
You’re pushing it after seven business days. If it’s a big order I don’t mind waiting for a week. But if it’s one thing, it’s like: Why?
Interviews have been edited for style and clarity.
By Elizabeth Paton, Taylor Lorenz and Isabella Kwai