Fountain of Youth

by Elise Diamantini

These industry leaders share their secrets of success

The lines between urban, surf, skate and street have blurred, replacing a once-segmented young menʼs business with a broader youth culture market. This highly sought-after demographic is one that many try to reach but few can. These young guys are smart, fashion-conscious, tech-savvy consumers who will only buy from brands and retailers they trust and believe to be authentic. We talked to a mix of retailers, brands and trade shows in the youth culture market about how they got him, what heʼs buying and how they keep him coming back.

The Panel:

Greg Selkoe, Karmaloop
Aaron Levant, Agenda
Durand Guion, Macyʼs
Alfred Chang, PacSun
Scott Sasso, 10 Deep
Shaun Neff, Neff

How’s business?

Greg SelkoeGreg Selkoe, Karmaloop: Business is great. We’re seeing a resurgence in streetwear, not that it went away, but it was mixing with the Americana contemporary look for a few seasons, making it difficult to tell the difference between streetwear and contemporary. Now it’s a more edgy look: there’s a return to sneaker culture, graphic T-shirts, animal and loud prints. There’s always a reaction to whatever the last style was, so guys who were wearing khaki pants, boat shoes and shawl-collar sweaters are rebelling against it now. Our denim business was way down and now it’s back up because guys who were buying clean denim are now buying distressed and bleached styles again.

Alfred ChangAlfred Chang, PacSun: Despite a slight decrease in growth in the second quarter, we are optimistic that upcoming partnerships and on-trend merchandise will increase growth on this side of the business. The PacSun NYC pop-up shop was a tremendous success for us. With more than 10,000 sq. ft. of retail space, the pop-up store offered us the chance to showcase the best of our industry at one of the world’s most influential fashion and shopping destinations. We were also able to build in distinct merchandising assortments that featured many of our key brand partners including Nike SB, Hurley, Vans, Diamond Supply Co., Modern Amusement and Beats by Dr. Dre. The response to the store from media and the public was overwhelmingly positive, and we got great feedback on the design, selection and branded partner offerings. As we move into 2014, we’ll be incorporating many of these pop-up shop elements into our retail stores around the country.

What’s new for spring 2014?

Selkoe: We’re going to see more mismatched prints, patterns, bright camos and floral prints. We’re at the beginning of a new trend cycle and I think it will really take hold for spring. Socks are another strong category (different patterns and colors), and guys are wearing shorts with socks pulled up to their calves.

Durand GuionDurand Guion, Macy’s: Fashion, trend, color, pattern. [The palette] used to be pretty neutral; you’d see plaids and an occasional skinny jean…but taking a snapshot from the Agenda show, wow! It’s where a lot of the excitement was during trade show season: now we’re seeing florals, the new interpretation of numbered jerseys, camo and tie dye.

Chang: We expect to see a continued interest in emerging brands in 2014, a huge category that has done very well with our male customers in the last year. We’ll also see the reemergence of “surf” with new brands, styles and a totally different vibe from where it’s previously been. Guys’ bottoms will include exciting new silhouettes and styles in both shorts and chinos.

Aaron LevantAaron Levant, Agenda: When I first started in the industry, there was usually a dominating, overarching design trend [each season]. Now there are so many micro trends, all happening at once, representing different subcultures, and ultimately creating their own microcosm. Whether surf, street, lifestyle or skate, there is one common denominator: how quickly trends come and go. With the popularity of social media channels, Instagram being a key example, trends have a three- to six-month life expectancy, compared to when trends had the ability to build momentum and expire after a three-year life cycle.

How has this market evolved?

Scott SassoScott Sasso, 10 Deep: It evolves the same way it always has: through the rejection of what happened yesterday. For the forward part of the market, high-end aspirational streetwear is starting to lose its appeal and there is an anti-high fashion movement growing. The street/goth thing still has a lot of growth ahead of it too.

Guion: This market has evolved through the infusion of color and pattern. Happening across the millennial market is a return to logos. As we get further into a world of fast fashion and as we see it expand across the country, I think people are still looking for authenticity. And people who invest in certain brands want to get credit for how much they spent or where they bought it.

Selkoe: The market has gotten more sophisticated. When we launched Karmaloop we were selling underground streetwear brands and making them more accessible to the mass market. The internet has democratized fashion and I think that’s a good thing. There were barely any options for people outside of New York and Los Angeles and the internet gave people the ability to have a unique style. When we first started Karmaloop, I didn’t know if it would last, but it’s only gotten stronger.

Levant: It’s constantly evolving as new brands break into the marketplace, as frequently as every month. People who have jobs at the bigger brands are leaving, and starting new brands, reinvigorating and reinventing the landscape of the youth market. With the appetite of today’s generation on social media, there is a constant need to stay relevant, evolve and be on the forefront of trends. The youth market seems to move faster then any other subcategory, including the menswear market.

Shaun NeffShaun Neff, Neff: Today the skater also plays on the football team, listens to electronic music, and an occasional hip-hop song. As a brand, the old-school idea of being just a skate brand or just a surf company is over, and it’s tough to hype a broader audience. The youth market is changing faster and faster. With the power of social media and access to the world, trends are changing at a quicker pace more than ever, and kids are really moving to the next thing on a daily basis. This biggest change in our industry is as a brand, you have to be very multi-dimensional in your efforts and your reach.

What challenges does this market face?

Levant: Over the past few years, the challenge has been the consolidating retail landscape. The ratio of shrinking number of retailers compared to the growing number of brands makes it an increasingly competitive market. I remember reading a success story from 1989 to 1992, entering the market with the right product/trend and at the right time, writing $5 million at their first show, hitting $15 million in their first year of existence. It was not uncommon to hear stories like that in past, where brands hit the $100 million mark; now it’s comparable to the $20 million threshold. With that being said, there are great opportunities to hit “meteoric” overnight success. The influence of the music culture paired with social media plays a huge part in today’s ability to build a brand. We’ve witnessed brands come out of nowhere, given the right product, trend, timing and celebrity placement.

Selkoe: Anyone who’s trying to reach this demo has to stay relevant and constantly be on their toes. You can’t talk down to them or try to trick them—you have to be authentic.

Sasso: Keeping pace with the rate of change in tastes is a big obstacle for the market. Buyers need to be deeper in the trenches with the consumer to know what they’re going to want, and they need to have connections with the brands who will dictate what the consumer will want.

Neff: It‘s a constant challenge to stay on these guys’ radars and stay cool while continuing to grow your brand.

So how do you market/promote to this demo? What works?

Sasso: Social media is your friend.

Levant: Product placement in music and in the entertainment industry, I would say, is the single biggest influence for the majority of streetwear brands.

Selkoe: We’re doing a big spring music tour. We did one last spring with Kendrick Lamar and Steve Aoki called “The Verge Campus Tour” and we hit 27 schools. Steve Aoki is one of the biggest DJs in the world and Kendrick Lamar is the hottest guy in hip-hop right now. We’ll be announcing our artists for the spring ’14 tour soon and they’ll be equally as exciting as those artists.

Neff: I have a huge passion and love for music. When I started the brand I knew that having key influential personalities that the youth follows was a key to growing and staying relevant to our consumer. Our latest collabs have all been successful—Deadmau5, Mac Miller, 2 Chainz and Steve Aoki. They all play a huge role in the youth market and that’s precisely why we work with them. Their influence and creative input mixed with the Neff flavor creates collections that make both of our fan bases hyped. I’m always surprised to see how many kids follow their every move; it’s crazy.

Chang: On the men’s side, we’ve seen a lot of success with creative partnerships and collaborations. This year, PacSun has offered several exclusive style collabs from Hurley x Haze, Neff x 2 Chainz, Been Trill x Diamond and Volcom x Skullphone. These limited collections have generated buzz and sales, and help to showcase PacSun as a brand that offers exciting and artistic collections straight from today’s most talked-about tastemakers across the music, art, fashion and action sports industries.

Best-Selling Brands

10 Deep, Billionaire Boys Club, Brixton, Diamond Supply Co., Herschel, Neff, Obey, Poler Camping Stuff, Reebok, Staple, The Hundreds