Babe Power is the fastest-selling female fragrance of 2017. It comes in an 80ml rose gold “can”, costs £28 and claims to smell of absinthe, moss and candy floss. It’s the honk of the candy floss that stays with you, though, clinging to your sleeve with resolve hours after application. The debut perfume from British brand Missguided, it describes its wearers as “babes!”. A more accurate description may be “anosmic”. Babe Power might smell of cake, but it is also the smell of modern girl power – and money. The first run of stock sold out in three hours.
Missguided launched as a clothing brand online in 2005, although it barely registered until earlier this year. A steady barrage of TV ads, tube posters and odd tie-ins later – such as handing out free cans of Lucozade to commuters – saw sales rise by 70% last year. In the past year, it expanded from a website to actual stores, opening its first concession in Manchester in late 2016 and a flagship branch at Westfield Stratford, in east London, later that year. Love Island contestants do in-store appearances. Model Jourdan Dunn has just designed a line and the brand collaborated with Barbie for a sold-out collection. The whole enterprise is now worth more than £200m, propelling its founder, Nitin Passi, a thirtysomething internet entrepreneur, into the Sunday Times Rich List.
You may have heard of the millennial pound and the pink (gay) pound – but this is the millennial-pink pound. A new demographic defined by a colour that has become ubiquitous in the past 12 months – as well as the politics of the age.
Missguided and others have tapped into a curious territory of twentysomething customers with an ethos that is new to the fashion industry. They see themselves as modern, independent, Insta-savvy would-be feminists – which is why Missguided’s greatest triumph is probably its slogan tees. The message of female empowerment might be a little muddied – a “free the nipple” vest uses a nipple ring attached to the T-shirt in lieu of an actual nipple – but, for young women, it straddles the difficult territory between fashion, feminism and social media.
At the Stratford store, millennial pink is a dominant theme, seen on everything from the stairs and the curtains in the changing rooms to the walls and even mannequins’ wigs. Cavernous and cluttered, this huge two-storey floorspace is filled with vinyl dresses, logo swimsuits and other paraphernalia. It’s an intimidating shop full of club-intensity music and unicorns. Today, a Frank Ocean remix plays loudly. In the centre, a giant pink flamingo looms over the swimwear section – to the left, above a sale rail, sit three gold pineapples. One T-shirt reads “Feminist AF”. On every wall, and every T-shirt, empowerment is writ large. Often in the ubiquitous Avante Garde font. The entire place is both designed to be documented on social media and inspired by the motifs of the medium.
Then there are the clothes. Slogan tees are one thing. Longline T-shirts with cyrillic slogans quite another. Off the catwalk, Russian street-wear is a leftfield trend and yet here Russian phrases are on T-shirts (roughly translated, they say “girl power”). Elsewhere, bra tops with Roman numerals on the straps echo the current season of Dior.
This filleting of high fashion into something mass, younger and wearable is smart, surprising – and deeply ironic. To wear it shows you get it.
Cod empowerment or not, its heart is in the right place. But the idea of millennial pink is a loaded concept itself. Birthed, arguably, by hip Swedish label Acne – with its shopping bags and hip androgynous clothes that made us rethink gender – this shade came to symbolise a period in which both men and women could wear pink. In the space of months, the colour has become a shortcut to self-awareness and brands and marketing companies have been quick to jump on that fact. Wear the millennial-pink T-shirt sold by Boohoo – another e-tailer based, like Missguided, in Manchester – and you’re a modern guy. The hue has quickly become so heavily co-opted that it barely carries its original meaning – rising, as it did when, in the age of Trump, a new generation of men and women suddenly saw a backwards turn in gender and identity politics.
Like the invention of the teenager in post-Depression USA, millennial-pink customers have been invented to sell stuff to. They are quantifiable, with their own style, social awareness and money to spend. The millennial pound is now stronger than the grey pound – 16- to 24-year-olds spend £826 per head a year on clothes compared to £565 for over-65s.
The commodification of socially enlightened young adults may be gross, but it provides rich pickings for brands such as Boohoo and Missguided. This year, companies have fallen over themselves chasing the pink pound. Boohoo’s “sponsorship” of Pride was a publicity colossus. Petah Marian, an editor at trend forecasting firm WGSN Insight, is rightly suspicious. “The level of corporate involvement in Pride this year would have meant that it would have been stranger if Boohoo hadn’t done something,” she says, noting that HSBC, Tesco, Skittles, Disney and Starbucks were among the names associated with the celebrations.
Back in the Missguided store in Stratford, it is hard to swallow your cynicism. Alongside the tween patois and rainbow T-shirts is an incredibly canny business model. It encourages e-receipts, presumably to track trending products and purchase history, while the tills are chocka with little extras to slip into your bag. The sizing is generous, too, which may encourage you to buy things you may not have done. It also whips up competition between shoppers – perusing certain items at the online store, the cursor tells you how many people are looking at or buying an item.
Many high-street brands send spies to the catwalk shows in order to sketch out trends, and quickly get them into shops within a few weeks. Missguided, meanwhile, drops 300 new products every week. These companies are competitive but also codependent, and collectively are starting to suffocate rivals such as New Look and Topshop. The issue with Boohoo et al is that they are still very young: “We don’t have a real sense of what their values as businesses are,” says Marian. They are moving faster than the media. The expectations of this generation have evolved faster than other retailers can handle.
Online shopping might be entrenched, but it is Instagram that sells the clothes. Almost 90% of 15- to 24-year-olds use social media, according to GlobalData research. In March 2017, 30% of Instagram users had either bought products advertised on it or used the app’s “shop now” button. A PR at a major high-street shop says that influencers wield far more power than the retail industry is “prepared to accept”. In one instance, she says, a summer dress worn by a handful of influencers on Instagram sold out – despite zero advertising. A bricks-and-mortar shop aimed at this demographic might seem a peculiar move, but these are shops built for social media.
While Missguided feels edgiest, Boohoo appears to be capturing the market. Last year, it bought the site Nasty Gal for $20m (£15.5m) after it fell into bankruptcy, and the company is now valued at £2.8bn – four times as much as Debenhams.
The curious twist in all this is the price. These brands are cheap, but not that cheap. Not Primark-£2-a-T-shirt cheap – but £18-for-a-swimsuit cheap. Dresses mainly cost between £10 and £50. They claim to make a lot of their products in the UK, a fact which you shouldn’t pooh-pooh given the economic and ethical benefits.
Meanwhile, Boohoo Premium launched earlier this year, selling £79 dresses. Insiders claim that this is simply the pattern of consumerism – once a customer-base has been established, they will return regardless of the fact that they can get a dress for the same price at a more traditional store such as Topshop. Asos, its main rival, still rules the game, although it is skewed towards household incomes of £40k or more.
Missguided opened with a pink monster truck installed in the entrance, angled to encourage you to lean against it and be photographed. Beside the changing room sits a vending machine of canned water called Mermaid Tears. The empowering quotes on the walls are in a font large enough to show up on social media posts. The whole place is designed to be documented. Despite my cynicism, like a sucker, I buy a swimsuit that is supposedly inspired by Love Island. Feminist AF.