Is Anonymity the New Luxury? Gen Z Says Yes

There’s a particularly relatable sketch in Bo Burnham’s pandemic Netflix special Inside called “Welcome to the Internet” that begins with a sing-song-y verse: “Welcome to the internet / Have a look around / Anything that brain of yours can think of can be found / We’ve got mountains of content / Some better, some worse / If none of it’s of interest to you, you’d be the first.”

It gets more sinister (watch it here) as Burnham satirizes both the internet’s endless scroll of information and our inability to make much use of it. But on a lighter note, that opening verse is an uncanny description of my online browsing habits and those of my fashion-minded friends. Anything that brain of yours can think of can be found, indeed. These days, you can just as easily locate a Prada skirt from spring 1992, a five-figure vintage Rolex, or a pair of sneakers you just saw on the street. And if you think you can’t find what you want, you can hire a “sourcer” at Threads Styling to sweep the globe until it’s yours.

All to say: The thrill of the hunt is still there, kind of, but much of the mystery is gone. Anyone with a WiFi connection can do the once-laborious, now-instantaneous work of tracking down whatever their heart desires, be it a pricey tote or a skirt by a designer they just discovered 30 seconds ago on Instagram. I’ve made purchases almost as quickly.

The ease of getting what we want—coupled with the overexposure we’re subjected to on social media, where algorithms repeatedly serve us items we (and the people we follow) like—could explain why stylish women are going the other way: seeking pieces that no one else has and can’t be easily Googled. Maybe it’s a beaded necklace picked up on vacation, or an incredible dress found in a consignment shop without a label. Who’s it by? Honestly, I have no idea. Is that not the ultimate sign of good taste, wearing something with no brand association or clout? In a recent newsletter, Leandra Medine put it this way: “Lately, I have been thinking that not knowing is a new kind of luxury.”

The RealReal’s 2021 Resale Report has data to back this up. The consignment site ranks its most sought-after items, tracks demand for specific designers and categories (luxury watches and jewelry are on the rise), and observes broader themes in consumer behavior (last year, it noted a shift away from “seasonal” shopping as we stocked up on cozy #WFH knits in the middle of summer). In its latest report, TRR broke down its five most popular “high-value” brands (i.e., with items over $1,000), and the list includes a curious deviation. Chanel is #1, and in second place is… no one.

Demand for what The RealReal calls “unbranded jewelry,” like these earrings and this necklace, beat out other familiar luxury labels for the #2 spot. This ranking isn’t specific to jewelry, either: People are actually buying more no-name bracelets, chains, and cocktail rings than the latest It bags from It brands.

It’s surprising and, to this jewelry lover, deeply fascinating. One reason so many women collect jewelry, branded or not, is because it’s personal, timeless, and generally anonymous, unless it’s a super-recognizable design. Jewelry lends interest to an outfit while being less conspicuous than some clothes or accessories (unless you’re blinged out in diamonds, that is). Plus, it’s meant to last forever and be lovingly passed to the next generation.

Here’s what’s really significant about “unbranded jewelry” being huge on TRR: This is a site where designer names are often the entire point. “Brands typically drive everything for us, and this is that one area where that is no longer the case,” Sasha Skoda, The RealReal’s director of women’s fashion and fine jewelry, explains. “Every single year, our Resale Report has been about logomania, and this is literally the opposite of that.”

<cite class="credit">Photo: Courtesy of The RealReal</cite>
Photo: Courtesy of The RealReal

In our age of over-information and all-access, what’s more luxurious than owning something no one else can get—at least not easily? Skoda chalks it up to the individualist spirit of Gen Z and millennial shoppers: “People are having fun with fashion, they’re less logo-driven, and they just want pieces that speak to them and feel good,” she says. “There’s been so much talk about looking for items that spark joy, and I think this ‘trend’ in unbranded jewelry really reflects that. It’s for the love of the piece, and nothing more.”

Skoda also says it’s an extension of the vintage boom The RealReal has observed of late, with more young customers buying pre-2000s clothing their friends aren’t likely to have. “To tell someone ‘It’s vintage’ when they ask about your dress—that’s kind of a badge of honor,” she says. “We’re seeing this broader shift into more vintage and one-of-a-kind, and less of a need for logos and current-season pieces.”

To call this a “trend” could make it seem fleeting; to me, it represents a broader shift in our values, with personal style and originality prized more than It items. Kate Nightingale, the founder of Style Psychology, a firm that specializes in consumer behavior and experiences, says the change was in motion long before the pandemic: “In Western countries especially, we were in [an era] of personal growth, where people were beginning to care more about experiences and spending time with loved ones,” she says. “During the pandemic, that intensified. It forced us to reevaluate what was meaningful in our lives, and people started valuing wellness, spirituality, charity, sustainability… What we own became more meaningful and profound, too. Instead of, ‘do I have the latest bag?’ we asked ourselves, ‘How does this bag make me feel? What charity did I support when I bought it? Have I done something positive for the environment? What did I do with my old bag, did I sell it or donate it?’ The bag is becoming a symbol of social value,” she concludes—not just a symbol of clout or acceptance.

More surprising were Nightingale’s remarks about how one-of-a-kind, no-name pieces reflect our fundamental need for control. “Even before the pandemic, there was a sense of wanting more control in our lives—controlling how our data was being used, what we shared on social media,” she explains. (We may think we have control over our digital personas, but in reality, we’ve given most of it up.) “The desire for something that’s one-of-a-kind, anonymous, or, better yet, personalized is an expression of control, in a way. A sense of control is a basic need and it’s key to our overall safety, and the pandemic shook that up. It became important to regain some control, and buying pieces that no one else has, or that are entirely exclusive—this creates an illusion of safety in our minds.”

It’s also possible that fashion consumers are just getting savvier. The pivot to “stealth luxury” was underway pre-2020, with brands easing into a quieter, more minimalist aesthetic and designers across the board thinking about longevity and timelessness. “The people who buy the flashy logos tend to be ego-driven,” Nightingale says. “Whereas people who buy the not-identifiable items—the pieces you might only recognize if you’re in the know—they’re simply not as concerned with showing their status.”

Gen Z and millennial customers may be catching on to that, regardless of their actual “social status.” Money and prestige are no longer essential to influence, and most young shoppers are just as concerned with their values as they are with excellent fashion. Plus, anyone can buy a logo these days, especially as resale and thrift become more and more accessible. Unique personal style, on the other hand, is much harder to come by. You can’t get it in a single purchase; it comes down to knowing yourself, being confident about your choices, and pushing your creativity. And that’s what feels really aspirational.

Originally Appeared on Vogue