Had Groucho Marx been a Millennial, his famous adage “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member” would read a little more like “I don’t want to be admitted to any club that will accept me the way I’m dressed.” Millennials everywhere are turning up their noses this fall to the informally dressed, seeking out venues like exclusive private clubs and retailers that help them fake it until they make it.
There are many reasons why aspirational Millennials have focused their attention on private clubs, but the most direct explanation is their lack of net worth that is fueling their lifestyles. A 2011 Pew Report found the median net worth for householders under 35 to have dropped by 68% from 1984 to 2009. Let’s repeat that: Millennial net worth has dropped 68% since their parents were their age. This lack of assets and capital has manifested itself as the emotional need to project success. In June, 16-year-old New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde released “Royals,” a sad ballad describing the ever-present feeling of falling short of wealth: “And I’m not proud of my address. In the torn up town, no post code envy. But every song’s like: Gold teeth, Grey Goose… We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.” The message was well received; in August, Lorde topped the Billboard Alternative Songs chart in the United States.
Millennials, socioeconomic-spectrum-wide, are looking to associate with traditional markers of success. The private club is one way in which some of us, without cars, adequate savings, or even a place of our own (forget real estate—outside of our childhood home) may get closer to the personal success of our parents. Millennial trend forecaster Wilson Standish says it’s about staying motivated despite fiscal and professional realities, “Using these different markers is a way to show progress, because progress is so important to Millennials, that hitting all of these nodes can make them feel like they’re on the right path. It’s a clear-cut sign that they’re moving ahead in life.”
The New Club Kid
The Facebook generation is asking for a face book or Social Register that directs them to certain contacts. Private clubs are blossoming with new membership interests. In May 2013, New York Magazine published “The Everything Guide to Private Clubs,” profiling a new set of private clubs of all kinds for those that were “dissatisfied with the old-world trappings of the Harvard Club.” Nationally, there many
alternative options to the traditional Ivy-or-otherwise league of private clubs for Millennials looking to meet someone closer to their social circle and interests, i.e., art theory salons.
Dressing for Admission: Her
Fall runways and accessories collections have underlined the dressing-up/private club vibe for Millennial women with an icon thought to be fashionably extinct — pearls. An August Off Duty section of the Wall Street Journal placed pearls less in the context of a twin-set, but more in the haute couture company of the Alexander McQueen fall runway. Millennial woman who, pre-Recession/music festival-bound, would have never touched a set of pearls, are re-contextualizing the pearl, trying to obscure its saccharin past. Pearls have been added to the jewelry collections of Christian Dior by Raf Simmons, and to smaller, avant-garde collections such as Miami’s Nektar de Stagni, who adds replica shark teeth to her pearl necklace sets and smiley-faces to her pearl bracelets. Other designers have a much more intense idea in mind: a current rule of thumb is never around the neck or ears, but lining every piece of your clothing in a modern Elizabethan way.
Another club-ready comeback is the short pump, thanks to high-end (Valentino) and midlevel (Sam Edelman) collections alike. It may have been the 35th anniversary of the Salvatore Farragamo’s Vara mid-heel or the last gasp of the 5-inch stacked platform, but the shorter, more club appropriate heel has never felt so fresh. And with fall iterations from Prada and Cole Haan, we are likely to see short for the long haul.
Dressing for Admission: Him
While Millennial women’s move toward club dressing is more piecemeal, Millennial men have flipped the switch, turning en masse to suiting and cleaning up their informal personas. Locations like New York’s Freemans give provide barbers, suiting, and a secretive restaurant location all in one place. For suiting only, the Millennial man can either turn to off-the-rack solutions from J. Crew (such as their Liquor Store men’s retail shop) or Suitsupply; or go online for one of the affordable made-to-measure online options such as Indochino or Epaulet. There really has never been a better time to be a young man in search of a well-made suit. Millennial trend forecaster Wilson Standish taps in to the power of the suit, “I wear a suit to put myself in the mind frame that I’m trying to access.” Think it and it will come, if you dress the part.
On the casual, more country or yacht side of the private club stratosphere, a new summer favorite was Swims, the Tods of boating shoes. Buyer beware, with the proliferation of boat shoes, many private or high end clubs no longer accept boat shoes, and have included them in their sneaker category of items to be turned away. In that same country or yacht club niche, the Everlane French terry sweatshirt adds a level or sophistication to those who may not have been admitted yet (club sweatshirts are a right of passage).
Join the Club
To gauge their way to success; to aspire to traditional markers of success; to network for their big break; or even just to dress for the occasion, Millennials are tuning into private clubs. There are so many implications for this behavior and opportunities, long and short term, to align your brand with this desire to edit down the clutter and upgrade social circles. Privatizing social networking initiatives and incentivizing core participants are ways to engage this desire for a private club. Personalizing outreach, from email marketing to event invitations, will mirror the kind of service Millennials are hoping to be treated to, regardless of the entry point. Even in event or in workplace design, helping Millennials feel that they are having private conversations, or have been selected to be a part of a smaller elite circle (based on performance, obviously), will trigger this aspiration and will help retain Millennial employees, and further their commitment to the group.
The earning potential of Millennials may be precarious at the moment, but their drive to succeed and their resilience is unquestionable. It may not be too far off to see younger members warming to the idea of actually paying dues to gain access to the club set. And while to some, this may seem déjà vu ode to the Great Generation (the grandparents of the Millennials), having skipped their own Boomer parents’ generation, Millennials feel this to be a natural extension of their social networking pedigree. This time around, Millennial entrepreneurs may develop their own private clubs with their own rules, opening up a whole new opportunity for retailers in terms of merchandising to this generation. Marketing initiatives directed at this mindset will redefine the customization, and personalization Millennial consumers have come to expect. Play to our sense of style and clubify your marketing initiatives, your catalogues and collections, and the spaces of your stores that can host private discussion to make it feel valuable, and both exclusive and inclusive at the same time. It’s a fine balancing act. But that’s what Millennials are.