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  • How is old America shaping the values of today’s youth?
  • How is old America shaping the values of today’s youth?
    Christopher Allison Photography, Creative Commons (2009) ©
CASE STUDY

Teen America: The Americana

From Coasties to K-Poppers, the US is home to a range of teen subcultures. In the fourth of a series exploring Gen Y and Z tribes, Andrea Graham Richeson examines the Americana – teens looking to mid-century America for their inspiration. Can they bring hand-crafted heritage into the 21st Century?

Location United States

Scope
What’s cooler than being cool? Being authentically American. From the southern rock soul fusion of the Alabama Shakes to American-made denim brand Imogene + Willie, a love for American heritage is being widely embraced. At the forefront of this trend are the Americana, a subculture of youth who take inspiration from the music, manufacturing, fashion and styling of the US’ golden era in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. This movement is reinvigorating denim sales and ushering in a renaissance of heritage brands.

While they may seem to share similarities with Brooklynite hipsters, the Americana are a distinct tribe with their own values and influences. One part Johnny Cash, one part cash-strapped, the blue collar, back-to-basics romanticism of the Americana movement is undoubtedly a reaction to the rapid tech advancements, global homogenisation and economic uncertainty witnessed by many young people today. A reversion to simpler times is indicative of a desire to build a collective identity that will endure. But can a culture built on American heritage and small batch craftsmanship survive in the maturing global marketplace?

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Who are they?
Dressed in matching embroidered black and blue nudie suits, Rourke and Patrick Feinberg stand on the stage, plucking away on their fiddle and mandolin. Singing songs of hard days, railroads, and loves lost, they whip up the audience with their fast-paced bluegrass music. Seniors and 20-somethings alike clap their hands and shout out loud as the brothers finish their set with a fever pitched flourish. Raised in Long Island, New York, the young Feinberg Brothers may not seem like your typical bluegrass musicians, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Brought up on the genre, the pair are part of the young Americana movement.

While other tribes look to New York, Los Angeles, London or even the Far East for inspiration, the Americana are instead watching creative communities in up-and-coming cities such as Austin, Nashville and Asheville. At the core of the subculture is well-made, unadorned craftsmanship. Whether through music, fashion, cooking, hand-crafting or other pursuits, the Americana value artisanal objects, heritage and authenticity. From their penchant for vintage goods and vinyl records to American-made heritage workwear and throwback haircuts, everything harkens back to the US’ mid-century past.

Despite its red, white and blue roots, the subculture surprisingly developed outside of the US. Americana’s rebirth can be traced to Japan and Europe, whose lasting fascination with cultural heroes like Elvis and brands like Red Wing Shoes helped reintroduce American tastemakers to their storied past. [1] Japanese designers Daiki Suzuki and Takashi Tateno were particularly instrumental in turning US military surplus, workwear and blue collar classics – like selvedge denim, wool pea coats and sturdy leather boots – into a global fashion phenomena. [2] Things made with a human touch and personal backstory invoke an authenticity that is highly coveted by this subculture.

The Americana want the hand-crafted quality of an era past The Americana want the hand-crafted quality of an era past
Colton Witt, Creative Commons (2012) ©

What do they do?
The Americana don’t just value craftsmanship, they aspire to be master crafters themselves. “The artisanal and hand-made trend is hard to miss; it’s everywhere,” writes Lauren Katz for Millennial Marketing. “Popular activities within this trend include canning, woodworking, gardening, brewing beer, knitting and thrifting – just to name a few. These pastimes and preferences strikingly resemble those of our grandparents, but are in fact hobbies dominated by a newer generation.” [3]

Etsy and Pinterest have been influential in this subculture’s lives and tastes, allowing them not only to purchase small batch hand-made goods from American artisans, but to also build and promote their own ‘American Made’ businesses. The US hand-made movement – valued at more than $29 billion annually – has nearly doubled in the last decade, with Gen Yers making up more than half of those creating their own goods and spending twice as much on them. [4][3]

This group also has a great passion for the Americana genre of music, which encompasses a stripped down blend of country, folk, blues, rock, soul and bluegrass. The genre has grown significantly over the past decade, and even has a high profile annual awards show hosted by The Americana Music Association.

The artisanal and hand-made trend is hard to miss; it’s everywhere. These pastimes and preferences strikingly resemble those of our grandparents, but are in fact hobbies dominated by a newer generation

Lauren Katz, writer for Millennial Marketing

The Americana are also aspiring musicians, leading to steady growth in the sales of acoustic guitars; sales rose for four consecutive years between 2009 and 2013, reaching 1.2 million total units sold in the US. [5] Even vinyl sales, whose format revival was dismissed as a passing fad, have continued to grow. Despite widespread adoption of streaming services, vinyl albums sales in the US have grown 260% since 2009. [6]

This subculture is keen on music, food and maker festivals; 32 million people attended at least one US music festival in 2014, 46% of whom were aged 18-34. These fans are not afraid to hit the road either, travelling an average of 903 miles to attend a festival. Festival-goers also spend more on music than the general population, splurging an average of $207 on live events and other music-related merchandise and services. [7]

American regional culinary traditions and old-fashioned libations have also seen renewed interest from young foodies and restaurateurs. Classic dishes like Yankee bean soup, Texas chili, New England clam bakes and southern comfort foods have become specialities at some of the most celebrated food trucks. [8]

Young diners are feasting on old American favourites like shrimp and grits Young diners are feasting on old American favourites like shrimp and grits
Megg, Creative Commons (2012) ©

What they love and where they shop
The Americana movement is equally embraced by men and women. Its influence on women’s fashion can be seen everywhere; boyfriend jeans, flannel or denim shirts, and leather moto jackets have become the embodiment of rebel girl cool. Yet despite America’s love for denim, shifts in consumer preferences – including the rise of athleisure – have recently led to weaker sales of jeans. [9]

However, a study conducted by the NPD Group found that Gen Y, who make up the largest part of the denim market at 28%, are showing renewed interest. Popular denim styles among 18- to 35-year-olds (chambray shirts, boyfriend jeans, etc.) helped boost sales by 2% in 2015, with global revenue from jeans expected to rise from $115 billion this year to $122 billion by 2016. [10][11] What’s more, Gen Y are showing greater interest in luxury and premium denim brands that use organic cotton and are made in the USA. Research from fashion analytics firm Editd found that US women’s premium and luxury jean sales increased 9% in 2015. [12]

Supporting companies and individuals who share the same values in creating things – whether it is a pair of selvedge denim, or a leather journal cover – it should be made well, and made to last

Ryan Berger, owner of the Simple Threads blog

The Americana penchant for US-made goods has turned them on to heritage brands that were once the workwear staples of their grandparents. Consequently, brands like Woolrich and Pendleton have enjoyed reinvigorated sales. [13] Ryan Berger, who runs the Simple Threads blog, sums up the appeal of buying American crafted goods: “Most manufacturers and consumers have drifted away from these standards due to cost of production, and the cost of the end product. Simple Threads is for those who haven’t. Supporting companies and individuals who share the same values in creating things – whether it is a pair of selvedge denim, or a leather journal cover – it should be made well, and made to last.” [14]

From Salvation Army stores to curated vintage shops like Buffalo Exchange, there are more thrift stores in the US than ever before, with a combined annual revenue of $16 billion. [15] A favourite haunt for young Americana enthusiasts, thrift stores appeal to their retro sensibilities, offering a wide selection of highly sought after classic items like mid-century furniture, antiques, vintage clothing, and vinyl records. The growth of second-hand retailer Buffalo Exchange has been fuelled by their proximity to college campuses, whose student populations are attracted to its inherent eco-conscious and ethical shopping benefits, and, perhaps more importantly, conspicuous originality. [16]

Imogene + Willie has gained fans among seekers of high quality, US-made denim Imogene + Willie has gained fans among seekers of high quality, US-made denim
Zady (2014) ©

Insights and opportunities
As a relatively young country compared to other nations, the romanticism for mid-century America is indicative of a search for cultural identity in a rapidly changing world. The Americana’s eagerness to identify with iconic heroes like Johnny Cash, Steve McQueen, and Loretta Lynn might not be just for their cool factor, but because they represent a social and economic struggle that still resonates with young people today. They value honesty and authenticity above all, and respond positively to people and brands with relatable and timeless stories.

The maker movement will likely continue to grow for this very reason. Gen Y have shown that they are willing to pay more for hand-crafted, high quality products that support the creative efforts of their fellow citizens. The US may never return to the glory days of ‘Made in America’ manufacturing, but signs suggest that as maker movement matures, and consumer-level tools become more affordable, mom and pop makers may become significant contributors and influencers within the American economy.

Businesses that successfully connect with the Americana tend to focus on what makes their products and brand story authentic, while honestly portraying their value and quality. The Americana are not easily wowed by flashy attempts to grab their attention, nor are they particularly impressed with status driven goods. They appreciate high quality products that are made with good intentions. It’s not enough to provide them with a good product or service. They want to know that what they’re buying is not just benefiting themselves, but also helping their fellow countrymen. 

Andrea Graham Richeson is a New York-based writer and consumer anthropologist studying why people love what they love. She specialises in youth culture, gaming, fandoms, social media, and new media. She is the founder of Youth Tribes.

Sources
1. 'American heritage brands make a comeback', The Los Angeles Times (November 2008)
2. 'How Japan copied American culture and made it better', Smithsonian Magazine (April 2014)
3. 'Etsy and Pinterest allow Millennials to leave their 'Maker’s Mark'', Millennial Marketing (2015)
4. 'Martha Stewart: Meet USA's new entrepreneurs', USA Today (October 2013)
5. 'The 2014 NAMM Global Report', NAMM (2014)
6. 'Thanks to strong sales, vinyl albums are off and spinning', Nielsen (April 2015)
7. 'For music fans, the summer is all a stage', Nielsen (April 2015)
8. 'The search for America’s best food cities', The Washington Post (September 2015)
9. 'Denim is in real danger of going out of fashion', NBC News (August 2014)
10. 'Denim industry encouraged by Millennials, reports NPD', The NPD Group (July 2015)
11. 'Denim sales in 2015: boyfriend vs. skinny?', CNBC (February 2015)
12. 'Report: premium denim market grows despite discounts', Rivet (March 2015)
13. 'From Levi's to L.L.Bean, American heritage brands are enjoying a renaissance', Fashionista (June 2015)
14. 'The inspiration', Simple Threads
15. 'Used merchandise stores industry profile', First Research (August 2015)
16. 'Millennials thrift instead of buying new', The G Brief (September 2015)

Author
Andrea Graham Richeson