This post is part of Fusion's Teen Month series, a month-long dive into the lives, loves, and language of teenagers.
Earlier this month, Quiksilver, a surfing brand that was ubiquitous in the ’90s, announced it was filing for bankruptcy.
It was the latest sign that lots of stores people in their late-20s to early-40s used to shop at in their youth are disappearing. The following teen-oriented retailers have announced major store closings since the start of 2014:
- Wet Seal: 338
- Aeropostale: up to 255
- Gap: 175
- Delia's: 92
- Abercrombie & Fitch: 60-70
- American Apparel: “Unspecified”
So, what gives? There is, of course, the general decline of brick and mortar retail, at the expense of online shopping. But that’s not the full story.
Since the recession, teens have become more budget conscious, spending less money on clothes and shopping less frequently, according to a presentation on teen shopping habits by the investment bank Piper Jaffray. They’ve also become much more selective about the brands they buy.
“Wallet share [has shifted] from possession-based expressions to share-worthy experiences,” analysts said in the presentation. They provided two handy charts reflecting this shift.
Christian Davies, executive creative director at brand and retail consultancy Fitch Inc, agreed.
"Teens today are voting with their dollars for brands which are exhibiting a higher purpose beyond just selling,” he said in an email. “They are giving these brands not just their time but their loyalty. And their emotional connection to these brands extends beyond the store.”
So what, and where, are they buying?
Evita Nuh, a 16-year-old who runs a fashion and lifestyle blog called Jelly Jelly Beans, told me that the thriving brands are those that lean on celebrities to push their wares.
“If you can make it look like the coolest thing in town, it will make the brand the coolest in town,” she said. “If it's good enough for Natasha Poly, Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin and more to wear it…it's certainly good enough for any teenagers around the world.”
That’s one reason Forever 21 has emerged on top, 30 years after it was launched by two devout Christian Korean immigrants. The youth-oriented fast-fashion retailer has mastered the celebrity placement tactic, Nuh said.
“I have no idea do if [celebrities] really love it, or if F21 has a really great PR person.”
You can see the rise of Forever 21 in this overall market share data from research group Euromonitor.
Forever 21 is the second-most-preferred brand among both upper and middle-income teens, according to Piper Jaffray’s survey. However, teen fashion is now a fragmented marketplace: no brand but Nike got more than 7 percent of first-place votes.
H&M has also had success collaborating with famous labels to create affordable looks, while Urban Outfitters and American Eagle have been able to stay on top of trends—especially the kinds of looks you now see at music festivals, Nuh said. This was also backed up by Piper Jaffray’s survey, which listed those brands as “uptrending” among upper-income teen girls.
Nuh said sneakers and sports brands like Nike are “hits nowadays,” partly thanks to their collaborations with athletes and other high-profile individuals.
Emma Orlow, a 21-year-old New York-based writer who started a fashion blog as a teen, said sites like Etsy are also taking teen market share.
Even as more shopping has moved online, and despite their dwindling physical presence on the American landscape, malls are still highly relevant to American teenagers for socializing and checking out new styles, Orlow said. Piper data also show that having a brick and mortar store remains important to teen shoppers.
“Malls still are super important to teen culture as physical spaces you can go to hangout without parents,” Orlow said.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.