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During the 2010s, Consumers Made Big Demands of the Apparel Industry

December 19, 2019, 7:00 PM UTC

The last decade has been a wild ride for apparel retailers. Consumers have been as bold about their choices as they were in selecting some 1970s fashions but, during the 2010s, it was less about the clothing styles and much much more about how and where apparel is sold.

At the start of the decade, the powerhouse generation of the millennials, then in their teens and twenties, wanted cheap chic fashions. Things have changed. Now aging into their thirties, these digital natives have gone soul-searching for more inclusive, sustainable, and “authentic” brands. As the U.S.’s largest living consumer demographic (they edged out the boomers this year), millennials continue to trigger massive change in how, when, and why we shop. “We have gone from shopping for an item to having a shopping experience,” said Vidya Mani, a professor at UVA’s Darden School of Business. “Customers click, browse, buy. And none of these have to be at the store.”

And retailers old and, mostly, new are responding to the demand for sustainable fashion. Roughly a decade ago, “Thrift Shop” was just a Macklemore tune, not a trendy and responsible way to shop. Companies including ThredUp, Poshmark, Vestiaire Collective, Tradesy, and The RealReal all hopped online to peddle pre-owned goodies.

What’s in store

With all the upheaval in the retail business model, actual models—and what they wore on the catwalk—became beside the point. Whether it was Netflix-and-chill or an average workday, consumers endorsed a uniform of all things soft and stretchy. (Sales of high heels, handbags, ties, and business suits all declined this decade.)

But there was nostalgia too, lots of it. Heritage brands—L.L. Bean duck boots, Sperry boat shoes, Levi’s jeans, Converse Chuck Taylor’s—all wrote bestselling new chapters. Fashion retailers realized they couldn’t dictate trends, and learned to listen (and those who remained tone-deaf paid the price. R.I.P.: American Apparel and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show). Speaking of closures, doors have been shutting all over the place. Roughly 9,000 store closures (a record high) were announced this year, according to Coresight Research. Finally, in the decade’s biggest it’s about time, retailers including J.Crew, Nike, Nordstrom, and Neiman Marcus finally began to offer clothing for women who wear size 14 or bigger (68% of the U.S. population, at last count).

The takeaway

Over the last decade, consumers have made their demands clear. Here’s what they will—and won’t—tolerate…

We won’t pay more.

The average price of a garment has dropped about 13% down to $20.14 in recent years, according to Keith Jelinek, managing director of Emeryville, Calif.-based Berkeley Research Group. Teens, once mall stalwarts, prefer to put the babysitting money into cellphones and Starbucks.

We will be influenced

Instagram launched in 2010 and the iPhone camera (born 2007) got more powerful with each iteration. Girls with a flair for filters outmaneuvered traditional fashion glossies, upending millions in traditional advertising and marketing spend. By the end of the decade, blogging had lost steam, and Pinterest had also fallen behind Instagram for fashion inspiration. Influencers including the Kardashian-Jenners, Aimee Song, and Danielle Bernstein called the shots and created fashion collections.

Wrecking the planet isn’t in fashion…

Amid growing awareness that the fashion industry is one of the planet’s biggest polluters, fast-fashion started looking like a bad bargain. It’s not just climate-protesting teenagers decrying waste. “Consumer awareness of the environmental impact of apparel is starting to be felt at both ends of the value spectrum—fast fashion with its questions of wastefulness in ‘disposable’ clothing, and in luxury with backlash against brands literally setting clothes on fire,” said Nikki Baird, vice president of retail innovation for Atlanta-based Aptos, a retail software company with clients ranging from L.L. Bean to Louis Vuitton.

…but taking a political stand is.

A decade ago, retailers didn’t take sides.  But in December 2017—when it could have been touting holiday merch—Patagonia put up a stark black page with the words “The President Stole Your Land” to protest the Trump Administration’s reduction of two national parks in Utah. (No mere marketing stunt, the retailer also sued.)  Dick’s Sporting Goods removed guns from its stores after the 2018 Parkland, Fla. school shooting.  Nike supported Colin Kaepernick’s protest of racial injustice. In each case, supporters drove up sales after companies took a stand. “Now more than ever, what you wear makes a statement about who you are and who you align yourself with,” said Roxana Zadeh, senior director at digital agency January Digital, which counts DVF, Fenty beauty, and Vineyard Vines as clients.

Give us something new and interesting.

The decade started with recession, store closings, and malls that grew eerily quiet. Smart developers scurried to reposition properties to be part of the “experience economy” populated with restaurants, spas, and services.  Pop-up stores created temporary buzz . But, still, in-store shopping was an increasingly tough sell this decade—nothing beat Amazon’s prime convenience.

Though we may not want to own at all.

Who knows what the next decade will bring? Rent the Runway, launched in 2009, outfitted closets with a revolving door. Fashionistas may never look back. A spokeswoman said RTR Unlimited, the monthly membership for no-limits outfit swapping, is more than 70% of the business. URBN brands, Bloomingdale’s, and others have launched rental services this year. Consumers are “thinking more about circular fashion, whether that is recycling, resale, or rental,” noted Baird. “If you project that forward, you’re talking about consumers buying less fashion in the future… [a]ssuming they’re willing to own it at all.”

In other words, buckle up, here come the Twenties. The 2020s, that is.

More on the changes in retail:

—The legacy brands that couldn’t keep up  
—E-commerce moves at the speed of I want it now  
—Find out how Instagram upended the beauty industry
—Why the future is now in consumer electronics 
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