With Gen Z under lockdown, DIY fashion takes off

By guest author Lucy Maguire from Vogue Business

Restructuring, upcycling and customising garments is more popular than ever with young people. And brands might have a part to play.

Key takeaway:

Young people are increasingly interested in customising, upcycling and reconstructing clothes amid Covid-19, as shown by a spike in upcycling, resale and increased consumption of DIY clothing supplies.

The fashion industry may be temporarily shuttered in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, but many young consumers are keeping busy by making and selling their own clothes.

For designers, that might sound like bad news. But by tapping into the creative energies of a new generation, brands can build a new kind of customer relationship with potential for the long term.

Alexander McQueen, Dior and Ganni have pivoted their usual marketing in favour of Instagram tutorials or challenges, aimed at inspiring consumers to embroider, sketch or style home shoots. Going further to tap into Gen Z’s affinity for ethical, unique clothing, brands including A-Cold-Wall and Dickies are selling or giving away deadstock fabric or branded hardware to establish connection with a burgeoning audience that, in lockdown, is looking for hobbies.

The creative ecosystem of DIY fashion and resale serves Gen Z well, as a generation that prizes individuality, ethical concerns, and “access, over possession” when it comes to goods, per McKinsey. And they are looking for distraction and self-development at the moment in a time of personal and professional limbo, with 30 % taking up entirely new hobbies during the pandemic, more than any other generation, according to GlobalWebIndex.

“When you buy something, it’s not binding,” says 22-year-old Manchester-based Depop seller Sam Nowell (@samnowellstudios), who taught himself to sew on YouTube and now runs his own brand, creating pieces from a vast range of discarded everyday fabrics, from shower curtains to old towels. “Young people want that freshness. You can buy things, make them unique, then sell them on again without the impact on the environment; without throwing it away in the way fast fashion brands promote.” 

DIY fashion, accelerated by lockdown

As digital natives that have grown up in a hyperconnected world, young people today have needs that are not necessarily met by the traditional fashion cycle, says Dominic Rose, chief operating officer of social selling platform Depop. And they don’t like waste. “[With DIY clothing] they can wear something a couple of times, sell it, use the money to buy something else, customise it. You have got those two forces acting in parallel.”

Jeremy Salazar (@happyxloco) upcycles second-hand clothing, textiles and objects sourced from thrift shops in his local community in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I’ve seen all of the madness of how much stuff there already is. Why would I go buy new stuff when there is a giant pile of resources, like an ocean of textiles and clothes already made?”

Irish creator Daniel Walters (@sadsac) is one of Depop’s highest sellers, restructuring vintage garments to feature his cartoon patches and motifs. “In this generation there are lots of people like myself who are just creatives that see potential in the second-hand items and potential in themselves as artists.”

Activity on Depop is a good barometer of young people’s wants, as 90 % of its 15 million registered users in 126 countries are under 25, with a third of 18-25 year olds in the UK registered on the platform. Sellers on the online marketplace, which exists somewhere between e-commerce and social media, can curate their profiles in a visual grid of products, and shoppers can follow sellers of their choice or use the home page to find a mix of wares.

Under lockdown, its community is producing, upcycling and selling more than ever. The marketplace, where a large proportion of the almost 20 million items listed are customised, upcycled or reconstructed, has seen a 40 % increase in listings and 65 % uptick in sales for March compared with the same period in 2019, with traffic on the app up 74 %.

Making your own clothes was on the rise before Covid-19, says Rose, but the pandemic has accelerated the hobby. An easy entry point to DIY fashion, tie-dye has been declared a quarantine trend, proliferated by tutorials on Gen Z favourite platforms YouTube and TikTok. The hashtag #tiedye has been viewed 584 million times on TikTok to date and a tie-dye kit is one of the biggest selling art and crafts products on Amazon. On Depop there are currently more than 57,000 items with a #tiedye tag.

UK-based fabric dye company Dylon has seen an increase in customers who want to dye clothes at home over the last year and has pivoted its messaging from use cases like reviving faded jeans to more creative upcycling practices, says senior brand manager Rebecca Bland. Home dye sales in a range of colours are up 10 per cent on last year and now amid lockdown, the company is seeing a 12 per cent increase in sales volume compared with sales pre-Covid-

Dylon’s consumers are predominantly aged 30-50, but the new customers are mainly those aged 18-25, according to Bland, showing boosted interest from Gen Z. This month, Dylon partnered with sustainable menswear designer Christopher Raeburn to provide a series of upcycling tutorials, teaching consumers how to rework staple garments they have in their wardrobe like old T-shirts or jeans, using Dylon dye.

Collaboration via shared resources

Beyond tutorials, brands can get involved by providing practical resources for DIY fashion, says Ben Harms, head of insights and strategy at youth creative agency Archrival. “How much product are we all sitting on right now? We can take some of this stuff and empower a movement of young people,” he says.

Some brands have already begun. Workwear brand Dickies sent its Dickies Girl collection to the design duo Zig Zag Goods for them to rework pieces on Instagram Live at the beginning of April. The reception to the live customisation workshop was positive, says Amanda Adam, one half of Zig Zag Goods, with a number of young people reaching out about techniques after the session, giving both Dickies and the designers access to new audiences and also inspiring other young people to customise their clothes.

“We’ve had more people than ever messaging asking what paint we use and how we do things,” says Adam. They stocked up on fabrics and supplies and are using lockdown to create and shoot their reworked garments without distractions. For Dickies, it shows they understand their younger community and their need for unique clothes.

Footwear brand Caterpillar launched its Raider Sport trainer in early March by sending pairs to 50 Depop sellers to customise and sell on their profiles (including Walters), before the original trainers went on sale on the brand site. To further the collaborative messaging, Caterpillar will donate profits from the Depop sales to the Youth Urban Art Foundation, helping disadvantaged youth engage with the creativity.

As an early adopter in the luxury sphere, contemporary menswear brand A-Cold-Wall is allowing consumers to make their own A-Cold-Wall clothes with its Service Point 1 initiative. Aimed at “reforming engagement between brand and individual”, the brand is selling branded hardware, from zippers to badges so that those less able to afford A-Cold-Wall pieces can tailor their own branded clothes at home. The hardware retails for £20-30 on the SP-1 site, and 75 per cent of the items sold out within the first week, according to the brand.

“That totally taps into the spirit of Gen Z,” says Harms on the project, “to step into that space is awesome. That’s a story piece that Z will remember forever, and the young people who made their own, they will never get rid of that.”

A use for unused inventory

As inventory mounts up across the world amid store closures, deadstock is going to be an issue. “I think it’s a good time to take all of these assets and resources and tools and give them over to young creatives; give them the opportunity to help tell your story in a unique way,” Harms says.

Dutch designer Duran 

Young creators at home could help brands breathe life into past-season garments or textiles. “If bigger brands or designers were able to say, ‘Hey, I like what you’re making, I’ll send you a bag of fabric scraps’, I can work with it and that’d be really cool,” says Salazar.

Dutch designer Duran Lantink has established his business model around this idea. Upcycling and restructuring luxury garments into one-of-a-kind pieces, he produces collections in collaboration with fashion boutiques like London’s Browns and LA’s H.Lorenzo, taking deadstock from previous seasons and reworking the pieces into new capsule collections to be sold.

He thinks now is the perfect time for more retailers and brands to give over their deadstock to young creatives, but it’s not without challenges and red tape. “Now is the right time to change,” Lantink says. “It’s the perfect way of reinventing a business model that doesn’t really work, that has never worked.”

Future insights:

Young audiences don’t just want to buy more clothes. They want the opportunity to create unique pieces, upcycle from their own wardrobes and resell rather than discard. Brands can plug into this by providing tutorials or selling practical tools to help them make clothes.

DIY fashion isn’t out of brands’ handsthey can inspire product launches that appeal to young people. Brands like Dickies and Caterpillar are working with young creatives to customise newly launched products. This can reach new audiences on platforms like Depop and make items more appealing to young shoppers who want unique and customisable clothes.

The DIY movement presents an opportunity for brands to deal with deadstock. Partnering with young people to customise, upcycle and sell unsold inventory could help brands and stores to shift goods in a sustainable and creative way.