A naïve fashion assistant fumbles into a room with a pen and notebook. During the run-through, she sees the stylist fretting over two belts that look almost identical. The assistant laughs quietly to herself over the general silliness of the situation. Suddenly aware that she’s caught the attention of everyone in the room, she attempts to compose herself, but it’s too late. They turn their heads, one by one, to the editor-in-chief, who speaks with such grave, artificial calm, and asks, “Something funny?” The assistant timidly admits that she’s still “new to this stuff,” then receives an impromptu lecture on the trickle-down nature of fashion trends, from the lofty Yves Saint Laurent to the tragic clearance bin where she, the editor is convinced, fished her now legendary lumpy blue sweater. And the rest is cinema history.
We often think of trends as spontaneous sparks of creativity, originating nowhere in particular, but somehow they pop up on the major runways within the space of just four weeks. Every creative thread that runs through New York and London suddenly becomes more intense as we reach the gilded city of Milan. In Paris, however, is where the fireworks really go off: the trends burst, everyone applauds, and the fast fashion retailers appropriate so-called luxury ideas faster than you can say “prêt-à-porter.” During the spring-summer 2012 collections in London, for example, Peter Pilotto and Mary Katrantzou presented marine-themed collections: Pilotto with his iridescent scaled dresses, and Katrantzou with her dazzling hyper-graphic aquarium prints, which for us was like looking through a fisheye lens into her mind. One week later, in Milan, Donatella Versace delighted her audience with pastel prints of seahorses, starfishes, and shells (though Lindsey Wixson’s falling over seemed to receive more press). And then, Paris: Givenchy took us to some twisted surfer’s paradise, shark tooth necklaces and all; the dresses at Alexander McQueen looked to be made of coral and sea sponge; and Karl Lagerfeld sent us through Neptune’s garden, as Florence Welch serenaded her swimmers with a live performance of “What The Water Gave Me”—while standing on a giant white clam. Botticelli would have wept.
So where do trends come from? And how do designers come up with the same ideas at the same time? Often it’s so coincidental that one could be led to believe that Karl’s army of cats, possibly hidden somewhere underneath the Grand Palais, are constantly on the prowl. Another point to consider is that many of the world’s leading fashion brands are majority-owned by the same conglomerates (which could explain why Chanel is still, after all these years, privately owned—the cats are top secret), so there’s constant meddling and mingling involved. What’s more likely, however, is that trend forecasting agencies are working their silent magic on the fashion industry, influencing product flow and consumer movement.
Trend forecasting has been around for decades, before the heyday of haute couture, before any of the industry’s current power people were even born. “Tobé and Associates Inc. is considered the fashion industry’s first trend forecasting agency,” writes British fashion journalist Tansy E. Hoskins in her book, Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion. “It was founded in 1927 in New York City by Tobé Coller Davis, whose weekly merchandising newsletter was distributed to department stores in Manhattan…In 1928, a group of women, including Vogue editor Edna Woolman Chase, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Arden and Tobé Coller Davis, founded The Fashion Group to promote the American fashion business. They instigated trends by issuing trend reports and advice to multiple fashion businesses. Trends, it was discovered, increased sales of ‘must-have’ items and were good for business.”
Modern trend forecasting agencies like WGSN and Stylesight, which recently merged, operate on the same principle, though their data-collecting and collating techniques are much more sophisticated. Before the merger, WGSN advertised a subscription cost of £16,500, with over 3,000 corporate users including Target and Puma, as well as 38,000 individual users across various design industries. The information they present is based on months of thorough research, not just investigating past consumer habits in localised shopping districts, but also major film screenings, fashion exhibitions, and cultural events in the realms of music, art, food, architecture, and even politics (all eyes on you, Michelle and Kate). As Andrea Bell, retail and consumer editor at WGSN, recently told The Business of Fashion, trend forecasters aim to provide a “global touch-pulse” for their clients, who pay good money to know what’s coming up next. Part creative archiving, part clairvoyance, trend forecasting helps growing brands tap into every part of existing culture to generate more than just fashion brands, but lifestyle brands. When fashion can be easily adapted by a customer—worked into their family, their hobbies, their home, their life—and, as a bonus, complements the art on their walls and the books on their shelves, a designer has struck gold.
With the popular role of fashion forecasting, however, comes the painful reminder that fashion doesn’t know how to (or, more accurately, refuses to) slow down. There’s always some element of restlessness and panic that drives the industry, and us as consumers, to the next big thing. The science behind trend forecasting is truly remarkable, and while I won’t pretend to understand how aesthetics and algorithms come together so elegantly, I can ponder the increasingly rapid pace at which this industry is moving. At its essence, trend forecasting is devastatingly simple: to determine what’s next, and to make sure that our big players are in on the plan. The trouble, then, is that our most influential and innovative designers are subconsciously moving in the same general direction in their work. Years ago, before I had immersed myself in “this stuff,” I was curious to see that Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (released December 2005) had influenced so many big European designers; in particular, John Galliano, who presented a glorious Japanese-inspired Dior haute couture collection in January 2007, only a year after the movie’s release. Galliano had his models made-up like geishas, wearing gowns with origami-inspired folds and blossom embroidery, and the finale: thousands of confetti butterflies descended from the ceiling in a not-so-subtle homage to Pinkerton and Cio-Cio San. People far and wide have lamented the lack of newness in fashion—everything has been created and commercialised in some form or another—and trend forecasting, they argue, perpetuates this tedious cycle wherein designers keep returning to the past.
More recently, with the concerns surrounding exploitative fast fashion supply chains, it has been suggested that forecasters expedite the lifecycle of trends to unstable measures. As forecasting agencies have the ability to predict trends up to two years in advance, it has been argued that a systematic reform would encourage retailers to put in orders months in advance, which would, in turn, allow factories to work to more sustainable and humane schedules. But as Natalie Singh, denim expert at WGSN, noted to Hoskins, reports are consumed and utilised by their clients almost immediately: “Companies are driven to keep selling, selling, selling! Bring the buyers! New things! More things! Try things! So the minute WGSN puts a report out about emerging trends and what is coming in 18 months, they jump on it. They’re not prepared to wait.” Also, earlier this month London-based writer Johanna Collins-Wood argued that luxury brands are wrong to ignore African consumers. If trend forecasting offers valuable information about hot spots for store openings, it’s disconcerting that “tribal” and “safari” trends remain so popular, while the entire African continent is being ignored by fashion’s powerhouses.
And now, we are presented with the classic chicken-egg dilemma. Which came first: the trend, or the consumer demand? Trends mirror social and cultural movements, but only when customers decide to spend their hard-earned money on trendy gear, whether in H&M or Prada (a Stylesight client, according to Hoskins) do they finally gain legitimacy. And what role do revered fashion magazines, from Vogue to the fictitious Runway (see above), play in the cycle? Well, it’s really quite simple: Fashion magazines rely on their advertisers, and advertisers need to sell things. After each season, the senior editors sit around a huge glass table, their Louboutins tapping on the marble floor, and conjure up a list of trends they’d like to showcase in the upcoming issues: geisha theme, safari theme, whatever. They send these lists to designers’ PR departments, who run a mad scramble to find anything that could potentially fit into the prescribed theme. And we, the faceless, nameless people who open up the pages of magazines, are presented with a story of the season’s hottest trends. Most of us can’t afford these clothes, of course, but we’re glad to settle for the cheaper alternative at Zara or H&M…from a pile of stuff.