By Mylena Vazquez
What happens when a progressive, mercurial, fashion-forward generation adopts traditional, steadfast prep school style?
Millennials, let’s rewind to March 2020: you were rolling your office chair into your car, testing out virtual backgrounds on Zoom, and adopting loungewear as the new business casual. It might have been a rough transition but, boy, did we take a quick liking to working from home.
But not everyone was rejoicing. Gen Z was missing proms and graduations; they were starting college classes online in their childhood bedrooms; they were missing out on forming friend groups in the dorms.
To fill the void, they logically turned to the internet.
Gen Z, the TikTok generation
Through Instagram, millennials brought about the rise of celebritization. With enough hard work and creativity, regular people could attract large followings and turn themselves into influencers, small celebrities in their own right. But Gen Z pushed that boundary. They adopted TikTok, where a single video could go viral and give you your 15 seconds of fame.
If you’ve ever scrolled through TikTok, you’ve probably seen a lot of very different kinds of people with vastly different looks, or “aesthetics.” Aesthetics, while visually distinct, are about more than just fashion. They’re beyond just subcultures or congregations of people with a shared interest. Aesthetics are identities, the embodiments of often very specific combinations of lifestyles, values, entertainment preferences, and, yes, style choices.
Gen Z’s idea of authenticity is unique in that they find authenticity in exploring and experimenting with identity. While millennials grew up with the fear of being labeled a “poser,” Gen Z is quick to adopt and drop different identities in pursuit of their truth. Unsurprisingly, a slew of aesthetics have sprung up as a result, from the most broad to the super-niche.
College from the couch
The Covid-19 pandemic caused chaos in the lives of Gen Z. They weren’t able to have the normal social interactions typical of their life stage. They couldn’t go to homecoming; they couldn’t attend a formal; they couldn’t dive headfirst into campus life. Instead, they sat in their parents’ living rooms staring at a screen and typing questions into a chat box.
It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the most popular aesthetics to spring from this era is the “old money” aesthetic, along with its cousins “light academia” and “dark academia.” Essentially, these aesthetics embody the classic, crisp, understated look of the prep school crowd, with staples like Oxford shirts, navy blazers, pleated trousers, Peter Pan collars, and leather loafers. Deprived of the college experience, Gen Z sought out a replacement.
Democratization vs. dilution
Gen Z has created so many aesthetics that there’s an entire encyclopedia devoted to covering them all. More significantly, because there are just so many, the influential power the individual tastemakers have over a large swath of their generation is limited. But this prolificness has also led to a democratization of the path to becoming an influencer. The advent of all these new aesthetics has given rise to a generation of micro-influencers who, rather than follow, create, collaborate, and innovate. Once on the margins, these micro-influencers have control of their specific culture and its crowd.
It’s hard to say how classic brands can engage with these “old money” communities in ways that feel authentic to them. After all, to be classic is to not jump on trends. But classic brands have a unique opportunity to draw in the next generation of shoppers at a time when they are already receptive. Classic brands should not just embrace micro-influencers of these aesthetic movements, but reframe their marketing to show them that they are not just selling a product—they are selling an identity.
How do you think classic brands should engage with adopters of the old money aesthetic?