Not So Vain: C.A.R.L.Y.s Love Crocs, Memes and Social Justice

Ah, marketing studies: no matter how much the world changes, they blossom year-round, hearty perennials on the withering vine that is the news cycle. They are a small source of much joy, particularly their ability to reveal to us subcultures, alternative lifestyles, and demographics, from the merely absurd (Toto-toilet loving millennial HENRYs, or “High Earner, Not Rich Yet”) to the gently fictional (normcore).

Today, a study called “Nine By Nine,” produced by a retail media research firm called Future Commerce and an email marketing platform called Klaviyo, introduces a new group of consumers—and an all-time acronym. Joining the prestigious ranks of HENRYs, DINKs (Double Income, No Kids), and the still-prominent Yuppies (Young Urban Professionals), are C.A.R.L.Y.s. Meet fashion’s biggest new thing: the “Can’t Afford Real Life Yet” generation.

“Wow,” you might be thinking, “sounds like me and everyone I know, probably for the rest of time, haha,” but in fact the study says C.A.R.L.Y.s are very specific group of Gen Zers—mostly under the age of 25—who love memes, adore irony and diversity in equal measure, and feel the world is a flawed place, but believe in their own capacity to change it. Life is like TikTok: ephemeral, forgettable snippets of cool. Accordingly, C.A.R.L.Y.s love flawed beauty, like celebrities who show their scars, both emotional and physical, and brands that celebrate imperfection. Their lives are tumultuous—they are the first generation to grow up with cyberbullying, after all—and they are remarkably open about their own emotions and wounds.

As far as actual objects are concerned, C.A.R.L.Y.s gravitate towards brands considered “The Anti-Design Design Club,” as Nine By Nine reports, which means they think ugly stuff is cute: Crocs are the footwear of choice, and they turn their blemishes into a feel-good flaw galaxy with acne-treating stickers by Starface. They love cozy-athleisure brand Madhappy, which puts happy-go-lucky graphics on boxy sweatshirts to promote positivity, and MSCHF, the app-based purveyor of random viral products. (You might remember MSCHF as the pranksters who sold a Nike AirMax whose cushion was filled with holy water from the River Jordan. They were called “Jesus Shoes.”) But more than anything, Nine By Nine claims, C.A.R.L.Y.s love the New York-based streetwear brand Kith, which the report calls the “king of brand collaborations with [a] vibrant social community.”

The great elucidators of the C.A.R.L.Y. launched the Nine By Nine study to ask: “What makes a brand meaningful?”—a great question for these often meaningless but heavily-branded times. Among the categories on offer: New Luxury, or brands who traffic in information and connoisseurship about brands and products rather than obsession with material quality and service, like StockX and Aimé Leon Dore; Local Heroes, who have developed deep relationships with the communities in which they’re based, like Chick-fil-A and Disney; and Community-Driven, who have created a kind of tribe around them, like Peloton and Outdoor Voices. That several of the brands listed have stumbled to deliver on their mission-driven promise over the past few months—Peloton and Outdoor Voices both come to mind—does not seem to phase the young consumers. (Perhaps more likely: it does not phase the marketing execs.)

Silliness aside, C.A.R.L.Y.s are in fact an enlightening revelation—a niche within the Gen Z generation that fashion designers and observers alike have struggled to understand. (See: the million explainers on Billie Eilish and TikTok that have punctuated the internet over the past 10 months.) Here is a group that finds meaning through stuff—but unlike their older cohorts, they want that stuff to actually mean something in their lives. Famous teenagers like Eilish, Dua Lipa, and Emma Gonzalez actually seem to enjoy being teenagers, even though it’s harder than it’s ever been before. Rather than playing dress up as adults, as their pop star, actor, and private citizen predecessors did, C.A.R.L.Y.s seem to enjoy the transient, quick-hit joys of a youth-driven consumer culture that’s not for adults to participate in or even understand—and they gravitate to the brands that understand that. The more you read about people born after 1995—as passionate about protesting for racial justice as they are skilled at creating elaborate viral dances—it suggests that being young right now means living a potently introspective but empowering life.

Perhaps C.A.R.L.Y.s will grow up and change the world, with their flawed brands helping along the way. But another study—god, it’s like I can’t stop reading these things!—reports that Americans are the least happy they’ve been in 50 years, and that makes me wonder whether some of these C.A.R.L.Y.s may grow up to be C.A.R.L.E.s. Even more gnawing: will anything ever free us from having to find meaning through brands?

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