Actually it’s not all that dangerous when it comes to youth culture fashion and quite understandable when you get a sense of market changes and new sources of influences and inspiration among this generation, but for many brands in the fashion industry today it’s not knowing these changes that have made things so dangerous. Look at Rocawear pulling out of MAGIC South Hall, Pacific Sunwear closing 154 d.e.m.o. stores, and Quiksilver losing grip on what was once their core consumers.

Redefinition has come about not all that quickly, quite frankly but rather as a reaction among the marketplace itself that’s full of mash-up influences and styles -from Nu-Rave to skate-fixed gear bike, from American Apparel gym-class heroes to hip-house. The reason is because when it comes to global youth culture and fashion, one of the primary differences today vs. just 5 years ago are that trends come from the bottom-up, from the streets, music, the ability to take pieces from different eras, recreate, for yourself, rather than dictated from fashion houses and designers, or the traditional top-down philosophy. This is also one reason why “masstige” (high-end designers creating inexpensive collections for the “masses” in collaborations with various retailers such as H&M, The Gap, Target, Topshop, and the like) has increasingly become more popular. Young people tend to pick up their ideas for fashion from each other, from utilitarian means, from vintage/thrift, technology, aspects of sports, music, to define their own “old-new” eras based both out of necessity (stuff from the thrift is usually cheap and quite individual when combined with other inexpensive items from H&M). This also makes grassroots marketing for fashion brands via social networks, new media in general, and word-of-mouth the best approaches to reaching this new generation—and accounts for the major increase in the last 6 months for shopping among 13-30-year-olds from online retailers (see Fashion Retail section of the Spring Study 2008 for top retailers).

When it comes to their spending patterns, youth culture today exhibit a greater amount of consumer control, like an inverse pyramid, which has always challenged traditional advertising and marketing in general -especially in fashion. Secondly, the youth market in North America, while having more than $165 billion in spending power, is relatively “poor” when it comes to making purchasing choices influenced by high-end premium brands featured in top fashion magazines. In addition more young people are moving online for shopping -even for younger demographics who don’t have access to their own credit cards yet. Their DIY sensibilities often result in making fashion their own, using personal creativity such as cutting trimming, adding buttons, stitches, stencils. However consumer control in youth culture is increasing and more noticeable in the last 3 years as young people continue to make decisions based on increased access to communication tools, online shopping, cell phones/texting/images, influences from the street -and then spreading ideas quickly often virally (through word-of-mouth as well as social online networks and YouTube) through their friends.

Association with specific lifestyles is important in determining fashion trends in youth culture because through association comes identity and aspirations. This is where many brands classified for example as urbanwear or streetwear have missed the transition in the last 3 years. What was once considered cool, i.e. Rocawear, Ecko, Southpole, and Sean John, have dropped considerably in terms of preferences among this marketplace. New stories from WWD and even The New York Times have addressed the morphing of fashion definitions. And as we’ve reported in our story “The Evolution of Urban Streetwear Brands: North America vs. Europe vs. Japan,” what was once considered streetwear, urbanwear, and contemporary, have changed as the market has changed with some brands such as 10 Deep, Creative Recreation in terms of footwear, and even Stussy moving into newly self-defined categories such as upper street fashion, or as they say in Europe, “urban superior” or “upper urbanwear.” Still others are moving back to old definitions such as Baby Phat, Hellz Bellz, or even Akademiks to simply being called “contemporary.” (However god-forbid anyone move so far back as to being called the antiquated classification for youthful, hip women’s fashion as “juniors.”)

Street-skate and moto-inspired apparel brands that have made the transition into a cross section of categories (as well as across ethnicities) such as Famous Stars & Straps, WeSC, Volcom, Vans, Hollister, Hurley are the ones that resonate relatively high in terms of preferences, because many young people associate them with a range of profiles including street sportstyle, music-inspired, even street contemporary, whereas brands that were once capturing huge parts of marketshare, defined mostly by action sports, particularly surfing, including Quiksilver, Billabong, and Roxy, have slumped. They simply can’t shake the surf profile, now matter how many collaborations they do with Metallica (Billabong’s boardshorts), get past the tweens (Roxy), or on the flipside, become hip again to a younger demographic (Quiksilver).

What’s really driving the market now in terms of preferences, are the no-brand brands such as American Apparel, and even music-inspired/merch band brands or retailers such as Hot Topic. This middle category, which also includes H&M, Forever 21, and Uniqlo, crosses into many profiles mainly by being a staple or foundation piece much like Carhartt and Dickies were 3 years ago -but also by falling outside of classification itself, which ironically threatens to spawn its own cult because of it.

When considering the old-school definition of urbanwear, many such categorized brands have had to redefine themselves and some didn’t see this coming. For example, what’s interesting about Rocawear, Ecko, LRG, in the top 30 for brand preferences in our Spring Study 2008, is that they indicate some strength of urban brands in youth culture but only to a certain point: While there’s a lot of hype regarding youth culture following urban markets, particularly African-American urban markets, in reality such brands are not necessarily the most preferred in youth culture overall because there’s still an extremely large percentage of the marketplace that simply doesn’t relate -or mixes up hip-hop influences with punk, indie, techno, and emo. As we wrote about in our Hispanic Youth Culture Study, the Hispanic cultural demographic is the 2nd largest demographic in America, and fastest-growing new youth marketplace, rather than African-American or Asian (which is 3rd overall). In addition, urban has many meanings to many types of people in America who come from many different cultural backgrounds, unlike the version of “urban” in the outer-ring of Paris (“suburban”-urban) or urban Berlin and London or urban Tokyo. So for example, Dickies or Famous Stars & Straps may be considered urban brands too many types of people and LRG may be considered skateboarding-inspired and not urban, to others.

Interestingly, while many fashion brands used to be the leaders in overall youth culture markets by setting standards including new trends, many are now struggling to figure out next steps, including classifications, not to mention which trade shows to participate in (if any), and keeping up with consumer preferences. Meanwhile, the new leaders are coming from other industries such as music and technology. Looking at the business of fashion through the eyes of these industries has provided new sources for getting fresh leads in direction.