Where students are getting their clothes this year.
By clicking one of our links you're supporting our labs and our independence, as we may earn a small share of revenue. Recommendations are separate from any business incentives.
The first few weeks of August always make me think of the start of the school year. Or, to be more specific, this time of year makes me reminisce about my long-held conviction that this year would be the year to turn everything around for me, academically, socially, and everything in between. The best way I could think to accomplish this was with my wardrobe, so I’d make a pilgrimage to Tyson’s Corner Mall in McLean, Virginia to find the finest Peter Pan-collared poly-blend frock and crocheted tights Urban Outfitters had to offer. (I was, as you may suspect, a theater kid.)
But that was (gulp) nearly a decade ago. And recently, I found myself wondering if the back-to-school mall excursions of yore are becoming a little less common. Sure, Urban Outfitters still appears to be doing a roaring trade among my peers, but is YouTuber merch and Brandy Melville—the crop top-heavy, one-size-fits-all clothing brand unavoidable on TikTok, a short-form video-sharing app beloved by teens—overtaking traditional shopping venues among the youths? I didn’t know, but I endeavored to find out where the kids are buying their clothes these days. I texted and DMed all the teens in my life, plus those referred by my kind coworkers and friends. Along the way, I found that an old aphorism holds true: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Of all the stores mentioned by the teens I spoke to, the one that came up most often is American Eagle. (This checks out numbers-wise, too—its sales are growing, which is difficult to do with a young customer base.) Molly, a rising senior in high school in Arlington, VA, says she likes American Eagle because it’s “not quite cheap but not nearly as expensive as a lot of other fashion companies.”
While she’s drawn to the brand because of its clothes—she likes AE’s jeans, leggings, shirts, and hoodies—she also appreciates seeing diversity in its ads, which include people of all sizes, races, and abilities. The fact that the brand stopped using Photoshop in 2014 doesn’t hurt, either.
“They make a genuine effort to make everyone feel included,” she says. “I feel like they are a trustworthy company that I can give my money to.”
“Two big factors determine where I go back-to-school clothes shopping,” says Kimi, a rising senior in high school in Vienna, VA. “Convenience and price.”
If she’s after convenience, she’ll head to the mall—it’s right down the road from her house—and shop at stores like Urban Outfitters, American Eagle, Francesca’s, Forever 21, and PacSun. If she’s looking for deals, she’ll shop sales online or go to the outlets. (If it’s the latter, she says, it “means my parents are coming and probably paying.”) Online and at outlets, she’ll stay consistent with PacSun and American Eagle, and add on Nike and J. Crew or J. Crew Factory.
Kimi also points out that a lot of her classmates have retail jobs, which means they wear the merchandise the stores they work in have to offer. “If they work for a specific company they will probably wear a lot of their apparel,” she says. “My friend works at Superdry and all his clothing is from there.”
People might get decked out in their fanciest clothes on the first day of school, but comfort is key for the rest of the year. This is why Miranda, a rising senior in high school, likes to get her clothes from Victoria’s Secret, American Eagle, and Aerie, American Eagle’s loungewear line. (Yes, VS isn’t just synonymous with push-up bras anymore.)
“I like being comfortable in my clothes if I am going to be at school all day,” she says. “Victoria’s Secret has sweatshirts and leggings that are comfy and cute and Aerie has cozy sweaters and basic T-shirts that can be worn with any jeans or leggings.”
No matter what year you are in college, there are times when you need to look put-together, and times when it’s fine to look like you just rolled out of bed and put on whatever (because that’s what you did). Ali, a rising sophomore at Bard College, likes Madewell and Everlane when she’s pursuing a more mature look, though she relied on Forever 21 and H&M when she was younger.
“I did a lot of Forever 21, H&M, and all that in middle school and early high school then started going to Madewell, Topshop, and Everlane in sophomore and junior year,” she says. “Also, a lot of people I know thrift. I don’t, but it is a big deal if you can find Calvin [Klein] jeans and stuff like that that are ‘classics.’”
Shop Calvin Klein Jeans here (If you can’t find them at a thrift store)
Jacob, a rising sophomore at the University of Oregon, says that most of his day-to-day clothes are thrifted from places like Goodwill or bought new on the cheap from stores like H&M and Target. But now he has an on-campus job, which means he has some spare cash to explore high-end resale sites and apps like Grailed and Depop. When browsing through either app, he’ll look for pieces from Carhartt, Columbia, and The North Face.
“Thrift shops are really hit or miss, but the look that I’m usually looking for is something vintage,” he says. “Most of these brands provide a minimalistic look that won’t bring attention to me, yet are still stylish.”
There can be a lot of pressure to keep up with fashion in high school and college—which is tough for many people who don’t have unlimited funds to do so. Shane is a rising sophomore at Emerson College who likes fashion but also likes saving money, so he shops at Kohl’s for his apparel. “I like shopping at Kohls for back to school stuff,” he says. “I like their clothes and it’s so much cheaper than a trendy store like Urban Outfitters.”
Nashley, a rising senior in high school in Attleboro, MA, also loves to shop at Kohl’s for clothes. She says they last her a long time and she loves all the deals and prices, especially the clearance section. In fact, Kohl’s merchandise seems to be perpetually on sale and the site offers a million coupons via its online newsletter, so be sure to sign up for that before you go shopping.
Express is a casual-classic brand usually associated with office-appropriate basics. But Rebecca, a rising junior in high school in Vienna, VA, also likes it for back-to-school shopping, mainly because it’s at the local mall, so it’s accessible. She also likes Express because it carries apparel she can wear for formal occasions, as well as day-to-day school essentials like jeans and cool-looking tops.
Michael, a rising junior at Penn State, is an outdoorsy guy. I know this because he is my brother, and also because he was out of cell range hiking the Pacific Crest Trail when I first tried to text him about this article. When I was finally able to track him down, he confirmed that he, like many other trail-minded people, uses REI as his one-stop shop for hiking and school clothes.
“I love it because they have good-looking clothes that last,” he says. Michael favors Patagonia jackets and sporty khakis, because he can take them from the mountains to a lecture hall (or vice versa).
Hollister is a West Coast surf bum-inspired store you may have seen (and smelled) at your local mall. And it’s a go-to for Nina, a rising high school senior in Virginia. She likes to buy shorts from Hollister, which come in a wide variety of fabrics and cuts, like frayed short-shorts, bike shorts, and longer shorts that can be worn to school.
If you are not a teen, but still responsible for helping one procure a back-to-school wardrobe, try Amazon. The mega-retailer carries many of the brands students mentioned by the teens I spoke to, such as Nike, Patagonia, Carhartt, The North Face, and Columbia. Best of all? With a flexible return policy (well, most of the time), you can send anything back that doesn’t work for you or the teen in your life.
Prices are accurate at the time this article was published, but may change over time.