This is the third and final report in our US Back-to-School series for 2018. Here, we review fashion trends and apparel spending expectations that will shape demand for clothing and footwear this back-to-school season.

  • Fashion trends this season include distressed and embroidered denim, expressive graphics, patterns and florals, and metallics. 
  • Shoppers plan to spend the majority of their back-to-school budgets on apparel. An estimated $251 average per-shopper clothing spend is expected to be flat year over year. At $149, average spending on footwear is expected to be up year over year.
  • More and more schools are requiring students to wear uniforms. The percentage of US children wearing uniforms to school is up 1.1 percentage points over last year to 26.1%, according to survey data from Prosper Insights & Analytics. A growing number of retailers are selling school uniforms in response to increased demand.


Back-to-school is big business and apparel forms the core of this market. Back-to-school spending in the US is forecast to reach $82.8 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) annual back-to-school survey. As we discussed in our first report of this series, the NRF expects to see average back-to-school spending of $685 per household, and clothing and footwear make up well over half of that total:

  • 35% on clothing
  • 27% on electronics
  • 20% on footwear
  • 18% on school supplies

In this report, we explore this year’s fashion trends: Students are looking for outfits that express their individuality, and this is evident in this year’s style trends. We then discuss trends in average spending for back-to-school clothing and footwear, and look at demand for uniforms, a category that is seeing increased competition among retailers. 

We begin by discussing four styles set to rock the hallways this fall, as well as shopping forecasts in uniforms and apparel.

Fashion Trends for Back-to-School 2018

1. Denim Patterns

Denim garments, a classic school-day staple, are being reinvented and embellished in ways that add style to simple items. Patchwork denim is gaining traction, akin to the trend of mixing patterns. Pictured below, 7 For All Mankind has a bomber jacket made of denim in multiple colorways, demonstrating out-of-the-box denim designs in style. Distressed jeans remain popular. In boys’ clothing, jeans with tears are trending. J. Crew offers boys’ jeans that combine patchwork and rip trends, pictured below. Trends in girls’ distressed denim is shifting downward. A style gaining traction, fringed hems can be dressed up or down by occasion. These pants complement any shoe from sneakers to wedges.

Design details revamp classic denim styles in various garments. We expect denim jackets to come back out again this season as temperatures drop. Students often adorn these versatile pieces with patches, pins and embroidery. Below, model Karlie Kloss is featured in Vogue wearing a denim jacket with customized patching. This trend is not exclusive to jackets. Brands with skills in design intricacy enhance their basic denim offerings with overlaid patterns. Below, a Free People denim skirt is adorned with floral embroidery that makes a simple garment a statement piece. Stella McCartney’s star-patterning enlivens a pair of classic blue denim jeans.

2. Graphics Give Voice

Enabling a sense of voice and identity, graphic prints are popular amongst students. The designs on these T-shirts run the gamut from nostalgic content to popular brands. Shirts with dated references are often distressed to look authentic, like the Chaser brand Tom Petty T-shirt below. These pair well with distressed denim, creating a laid-back look while demonstrating one’s interests. Another throwback, the Urban Outfitters’ 1994 World Cup T-shirt below also aligns with an expression of sportiness through apparel.

The now-familiar athleisure trend plays a large part in back-to-school style. Students want to be comfortable in and out of the classroom, and more functional apparel ensures that they have this option. Brands that combine sportswear’s versatility with style and luxury are set for success this back-to-school season. Below, a Lululemon girl’s graphic T-shirt bears an interesting design as well as a popular athletic brand name. Established athletic brands like Nike and Adidas have boomed with this trend, and their logos alone are fashion statements.

3. Prints and Florals Boom

Printed patterns are welcomed in numbers this season. Muted and neutral colors pair smoothly with other colors and patterns. Floral patterns are set to be prominent this season. Below on the left, a striped-pattern shirt in black and white neutral colors sharpens an outfit with a busy floral skirt. The muted blue of the outfit on the right provides an apt base for floral patterns without creating conflict with the red patterned skirt. The singular bright red garment creates an outfit focal point, flanked by a shirt and shoes patterned in muted tones. 

Mixing patterns opens the door for overly busy outfits, but proper color selection can solve this. In addition to the reliability of neutral and muted tones, color pairings are essential to making an outfit with mixes of patterns work. Animal skin is another trending pattern this year. In the Topshop outfit below, the black lined prints on the top and skirt are complementary, and the neutral white background of the shirt offsets the bright orange on the skirt. The complementary colors in the Anthropologie dress below create harmony between the multiple patterns on the scarf-printed fabric.

4. Subtle Metallic Makes a Strong Presence

Aside from their pattern-pairing potential, muted and neutral colors provide good bases for metallic garments and accessories. The dress and sweater below are subtly metallic. With pieces that require a substantial amount of material, bold metallic coloring can end up being overwhelming. These light metallic coatings on muted colors make simple garments elegant.

Metallics can also be incorporated as accents, rather than focuses, of an outfit. Below, a shiny silver leather skirt invigorates a neutral-toned outfit. The sequined hearts on this Zara sweater add style to a comfortable garment, making the practical fun.

Apparel and Uniform Spending 

Apparel: Footwear Likely to Drive Growth

Back-to-school shoppers expect to spend just under $251 each on clothing and accessories, according to a July survey by Prosper Insights & Analytics. This is broadly flat with the average estimated spend last year. 

Shoe sales are growing more strongly, with estimated per-shopper spend up 7% year over year, per Prosper. Sneakers have proven popular for the past few years. With the sustained popularity of the athleisure trend, they will be an important part of back-to-school style again this year. 

Uniforms Are a Growing Market

More and more schools are requiring students to wear uniforms. The percentage of children wearing uniforms to school is up 1.1 percentage points over last year to 26.1%, according to Prosper. This marks the second-highest report in the survey’s history (2015 was the highest, at 28.1%). 

Jumping in line to attract those new uniform shoppers, a growing number of retailers are offering uniforms. Below, we outline how some of the largest US retailers are pushing into the uniform market.

  • Amazon offers school uniform items through its private-label brands, including Amazon Essentials, which offers girls’ uniform skirts and jumpers for only $12 and $14, respectively. For consumers willing to spend a little more, the company also has a large selection of other brands’ uniforms, from The Children’s Place to Nautica. 
  • Walmart offers an even cheaper selection of school uniforms through its kids’ private-label brand Wonder Nation. Wonder Nation sells boys’ and girls’ tops and bottoms all for under $10 a piece, and looks to compete directly with Amazon Essentials’ offerings.
  • Target has equally cheap school uniform offerings, with shorts, skirts and pants for boys and girls all available for around $10. To further boost sales in the final month of back-to-school shopping, the company is now offering 20% off almost all uniform items. 

Along with these major retail players’ discount back to school offerings, other brands are competing for a share of the mid- to up-scale uniform market. Lands’ End, for instance, offers a wider range of products than Amazon’s private-label brands, Walmart or Target include in their uniform collections. In addition to the basics (shirts, pants and skirts) which the brand offers for about $35 each, Lands’ End also sells ties, sweaters and vests to provide the complete back-to-school uniform ensemble.

Meanwhile, department stores and discount apparel retailers continue to compete with Walmart, Target and Amazon to retain a share of the lower-price uniform market. Old Navy has been able to undercut the prices of each of these three major retailers, offering uniform pieces for under $5 in many categories. JCPenny and Macy’s also offer heavily discounted uniforms from brands such as Nautica and IZOD. 

Key Takeaways

  • Apparel trends this year include distressed and embellished denim, graphics, prints and florals, and metallics.
  • Per-shopper clothing spending is likely to be roughly flat year over year, but shoppers plan to spend more on shoes.
  • School uniforms have seen growth, as more parents report their children’s schools requiring uniforms. More and more retailers are providing uniform solutions.

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