By Carlo Versano

American teens are going back to the mall.

Even as e-commerce explodes, and digitally native brands appear to control nearly every segment of retail, legacy mall brands like American Eagle ($AEO) are finding that their most important customers ー teenagers ー are gravitating to an old-fashioned in-store experience.

"Unlike millennials, the majority of Gen Z kids would rather shop in a physical store," said Chad Kessler, American Eagle's global brand president. "We're seeing a return to wanting to interact with people."

The retailer has found a way to court these customers in a new campaign that, as Kessler explained, takes cues from both the digital and physical worlds. The AE x ME Share Your Style campaign asks American Eagle customers to snap selfies of themselves in AE garb ー whether in their bedrooms or a store fitting room ー and post to social media with the #AExME hashtag. The brand then combs through the photos and curates a selection for its ad campaign.

The company is effectively giving over creative control to its customers, Kessler said. "It's the customer taking ownership of the brand."

The campaign reflects the way in which many younger consumers now shop: they'll browse social media, build an emotional connection with a brand, then head to the store to touch, try on, Instagram ー and then buy the product they first glimpsed online. And this strategy comes from a retailer that's no stranger to innovative marketing. American Eagle was among the first companies to recognize the desire for authenticity in advertising, launching its #AerieREAL lingerie campaign featuring unaltered photos of "real" women in 2014 ー all while Victoria's Secret was still parading supermodels down the runway (and losing market share to AE in the process).

American Eagle is, above all, a jeans retailer, Kessler said. The marketing and styles are emblematic of what Gen Z wants in denim, which, he said, has lately been about "mom jeans" and "jeggings" with ever higher waistlines. While the brand tries not to chase trends ー "we're responding to what our customers search for" ー Kessler said he still pays attention to the zeitgeist. And right now, that includes ー yes ー the lamented return of the low-rise jean.

"Whatever our customer wants, we'll give them," he said.

For full interview click here.