The Trends issue: Forecasting

What exactlydoes the job of a trend forecaster involve, and how do they go about predicting the next big thing?

At the time of writing, current womenswear trends on the ASOS website include: Tropical prints, tie dye, polka dots, pastels, gingham, florals and bold stripes. Each one is a Spring/Summer 2014 ‘micro trend’, according to ASOS, and they sit alongside other areas of the site which introduce ‘Key Pieces’, ‘Street Style’, or suggest ‘What To Wear To…’ – attire for seaside trips, bank holidays and barbecues. Yet these descriptions aren’t without significance – the majority of the trends grouped on asos.com are likely to be the product of detailed research and analysis, the end result of an assurance that whether it’s novelty prints, large logo-wear or floral patterns, it will very much be ‘in’ by the time it hits the site. What customers see isn’t merely the whim of the person who puts the bundled outfits together (‘click here to get the look’ etc), but the product of ‘trend forecasting’, a rather mysterious art which has maintained a highly influential role in the fashion industry for several years.

As ASOS proves, anything from ‘Ladylike’ to ‘Normcore’ (really) can become a trend, but their emergence is down to a clocking of movements and influences gauged months, even years before, that have trickled down to inform what clothes will appear on the high street and online. Stocking everything from G-Star to Whistles, ASOS will want to be sure of what pieces will sell across the board during a given season, so largely looks to trends from a retailer’s point of view rather than a designer or maker. And it’s now one of many brands requiring that trend forecasting’s more speculative approach, based partly on intuition, instinct and feel, to be backed up by data harvested from shops, catwalks, blogs and social media.

Since 2012, ASOS has used a trend and data service called Editd, a relative newcomer to the forecasting industry. Alongside the biggest player, WGSN – which formed in 1997 and now owns one-time rivals Stylesight and MPDClick – Editd is one of a handful of services which help fashion houses determine what to design and retailers to decide what to buy and sell. “From photography to graffiti, art inspired the SS14 catwalks: Introduce brush stroke splashes, pop-art prints and bold colours to your wardrobe now,” runs the intro to the ‘art prints’ section on asos.com. It’s persuasive, beguiling stuff – the link back to the catwalk in particular – and for big brands there’s a lot riding on these kinds of claims.

But what exactly is a trend – and why does the fashion industry rely so heavily on an awareness of them? Geraldine Wharry, an independent trend consultant who creates reports for fashion brands and lectures on forecasting at The Cass School of Design, explains. “A macro trend is a prediction, a future scenario delivered through creative intelligence, comprehensive research and analysis,” she says. “It’s identified through the analyses of socio-cultural movements, in order to project a short, medium or long-term impact on the direction of fashion. For something to be considered a trend, there has to be a pattern of behaviour,” she adds, “but there also has to be a projection into the future based on current analyses of where wants and needs will evolve.”

Wharry’s job involves a wide range of research which she distills down to a series of “carefully edited messages,” she explains. “Each image I use for my clients has an individual meaning, and as a mood board they create a trend message, which is often accompanied by key words and text.” Day-to-day, this means archiving a trawl of digital images. Wharry uses Adobe Bridge to organise her work alongside Pinterest’s ‘secret’ board for clients (to keep track of image sources), making some of her research available via its public boards and her own Trend Atelier blog. “I have a digital library of thousands of images which I’ve collected for years as a forecaster and fashion designer,” she says. “Often highlighting links with historical items can enhance or add depth to the future scenarios we’re proposing to our clients. In that sense there’s an anthropological aspect to trend forecasting.”

From Armani to Gap, large retailers are dependent upon the kind of information trend forecasting can provide and have helped it to grow into a multibillion-pound industry. The type of analysis on offer is essentially split between examining either ‘close-to-season’ or ‘macro’ trends, says Wharry. The former are more commercial “one-year forecasts with an emphasis on product direction and actionable trends. For these we analyse fashion editorials, catwalks, street photography and current exhibitions,” she says. “Macro trends, on the other hand, are big ideas, predictions made two to four years ahead with a focus on future thinking. Here we follow thought-leaders, emerging designers, scientific advancements, socio-economics, manufacturing, and tech, as well as socio-cultural movements” in order to predict the direction that fashion may take over the longer-term.

Interviewed in 2011, Isham Sardouk, senior vice president of trend forecasting at Stylesight explained the particulars of the scheduling process. “We work 18 months ahead across several markets such as men, women, children and interiors, and our job is to provide food for thought,” he told Emma Barnett in the Telegraph. “There is a 16 to 18 month lead time with retailers and so the majority of our forecasts are not for the fast-track fashion decisions but for the longer-term decisions, although we do provide short term forecasts too. We are not doing the designers’ jobs for them,” he continued. “We trust our client to use our content to adapt our message and make it their own.”

Accordingly, the information that forecaster’s provide is seen as vital for design and buying teams to keep abreast of fashion’s ever-changing movements and stay competitive in business. Larger brands, says Wharry, “rely on trend forecasts as an investment to secure their future when, for example, one wrong colour decision can mean huge losses. Trend reports give fashion companies the confidence to build their collections and to be prepared in an ever-changing retail environment, taking the guesswork out of the equation through research and data provided by experts who are constantly monitoring fashion.”

While this comprehensive approach sounds good for business, “guesswork” is often the place where risk, unpredictability and innovation thrives. With that aspect of the process removed, aren’t the larger brands inevitably going to reflect each other’s collections within a kind of fashion feedback loop? “The interesting challenge is how to remain innovative within the need to be on trend,” says Wharry. “This is where macro trend reports are important, as they look to the future and encourage innovation. Innovative ideas have greatly impacted the commercial success of companies throughout history, so even though macro trend reports can sometimes seem farfetched, they often form the foundation for financial profits.” In some cases, as Wharry suggests, an understanding of what ‘might’ happen in the future can help to stimulate new ideas rather than just continue to mirror existing ones.

And this is part of the forecaster’s nuanced skill; picking up on the wider trends within society and culture, which in turn spark off the smaller shifts and movements – the places where creativity looks to make its mark. “Most of the time people only think about short-term trends; Lady Gaga’s hair colour, for example. But these last one summer and are gone,” says Cécile Poignant, editor and curator of Trend Union’s online resource, Trend Tablet. “What we try to do with Trend Tablet is focus on long-term trends, things evolving little by little, sometimes over ten or 15 years.” For Poignant, the trends that her team of contributors write about are often much wider than fashion, referencing anything from food, to science and technology, but they have the potential to influence the work of a receptive designer. And while Trend Union provides the “explanation” and analysis behind the emergence of particular trends as part of its paid-for service, Poignant says, Trend Tablet is free and more about sharing interesting work with its audience. “The aim with Trend Tablet is to try to show people that the world is changing,” she says. “Trends are not about nail colours, or the shape of a skirt, but ‘everything’ around you: How you take care of your home; your car; the way you travel; the way you eat – it’s a global view of trends.”

Yet while many, if not most, high street fashion brands make use of trend forecasting (Topman’s design team use the services as a tool alongside their own extensive trends research, for example), the majority of smaller designers and stockists do not – and this dichotomy reveals something of the relationship between the catwalk and the highstreet. For example, once the catwalk designs of a particular season have been collated by forecasters, observations concerning colours, fabrics and styles will be passed onto their mainstream clients, who in turn filter elements into their next season’s collections, and so on. For many smaller independents, this simply doesn’t happen in the same way.

For them the point is to separate themselves from the notion of following any particular trend in the first place – with the emergence of ‘unbranded’ brands, this has become something of a trend in itself, of course.

Design duo Antoni & Alison remain sceptical of the forecasting process. “Trends aren’t actually ‘predictive’ as they’re sourced from already existing work and then put into groups, repackaged and sold on,” says Alison Roberts. “Trying to predict never really works; it’s counter productive. But we do have our own ‘language’ within the work and the knowledge that certain things work better than others.”

“It has always seemed so old fashioned and uncreative,” adds Antoni Burakowski. “Unfortunately design in fashion is all put under the same title of ‘Fashion’ but really there are some companies that are there to just make ‘stuff’ and some, like us, who try and design ‘new’ from scratch. Trend forecasting, we always thought, was originally aimed at high street brands so that these big organisations could, for instance, dye a million metres of fabric purple and not worry that it might be a terrible mistake; the trend forecasting company had told them it was OK.”

A quick look at two independent fashion brands’ websites – one well established, one founded four years ago – does reveal something of a resistance to the trends industry. “Nigel Cabourn has worked in the fashion industry for over forty years, but his clothing has little in common with most people’s concept of the word ‘fashion’. He is influenced not by trends but a longstanding passion for vintage clothing, fabric and details,” runs the biography of one of the UK’s most respected designers; while on Percival menswear’s site (est. 2010), the company states that they hope the name “will become synonymous with timeless styling and clever detailing over a trend-led consciousness.”

Furthermore, Percival’s Luke Stenzhorn and Olivia Hegarty see an awareness of trends as something inherent to the way the designer already thinks. “As a designer you acquire an ability to assess patterns in contemporary culture and automatically predict, with normally very little effort, what the next logical step is,” they say. “Those patterns might be seen in design culture within a given field, related to a hierarchy of innovators – ie in fashion, a certain catwalk design will trickle down to the high-street. But the trend forecaster (or designer) will also be aware of other cultural influences, say, important movements in sub-culture, in music, in technology, in TV, in discourse.” Equally, Percival’s avoidance of a “trend-led consciousness” is also made “in an effort to make sure the customer doesn’t feel out of sync with the world for wearing their garment season after season,” they add. “We want people to get the best out of purchases – and we build them to last.”

For William Kroll, founder of clothing and produce brand Tender Co., the notion of replacing his collections with each seasonal addition might eclipse a sense of the company’s evolution – and isn’t necessarily in the best interests of his customers. He cites designers such as Margaret Howell and the aforementioned Cabourn as continuing to follow a particular path over several years, outside of the course of fashion trends. “I like to think that my own aesthetic won’t change massively – that the people who like my stuff now will probably still like it in five years’ time,” he says. “And from a consumer’s point of view, where it gets a bit confusing is when you’re showing images for ‘next’ season, you’re selling ‘this’ season, and what’s actually selling is the stuff that’s discounted from ‘last’ season. The reason we don’t sell new season clothing on our website but sell the previous seasons’, old samples and repeats, is to reinforce the idea that there’s no built-in obsolescence; these garments are meant to be enjoyable whatever season you bought them in.”

Like Percival, Kroll sees how a designer’s eye inevitably involves noticing trends, but also that there is a practical purpose to forecasting for the much larger companies. “Everybody’s using trend forecasting [in a way] as I feel like I’m aware of what’s going on and other designers are aware of what’s going on for them,” he says. “You notice there’s a sort of synergy and that there are cross-influences, but a trend forecaster is looking at this full-time and packaging it all up for the larger producers. I might put out 15 things a season, while a big brand or designer is putting out 15 things a day, and so actually that’s a really helpful service, it’s not that it’s necessarily cheating the system.”

Over the last few years, the way in which consumers interact with their favourite fashion brands has changed dramatically with the advance of social media. Catwalk shows can be beamed live to desktops and tablets, images shared on Twitter or Facebook, and opinions formed without the staple of magazines or websites to filter the new looks, colours and fabrics out into public consciousness. In this sense, social media has become a significant factor in determining the formation of trends – and its existence has brought with it a new stream of information for brands to tap into.

“Among all the creativity and experimentation, what makes the landscape of trend forecasting even more complex is that, with the advent of Google and image tagging, we now have access to an unsurpassed amount of data tracking,” says Wharry. “Data analysis is really changing the face of trend forecasting, and that’s an amazing asset for companies looking to react fast and intelligently to demand – bridging the gap between instinct and data.” Editd claims its service puts key pricing data in front of clients – ASOS is now fully signed up, though if its recent profit warnings are anything to go by, the information has been far from a holy grail.

Perhaps data isn’t everything? “Along with the great advancements that data is bringing, it remains important to use human experts who have the intuition and the vision to spot a trend an algorithm cannot predict,” says Wharry.

“Sometimes a single design can trigger a trend on the market; a trend sometimes emerges out of the blue as a sudden reaction against the present.” For Poignant, the important thing is that she trusts her gut instinct – and that her clients do too. “Of course it’s important to look at figures,” she says, “but you might miss what’s happening. You sometimes have to invent things that aren’t on the market. With just figures, the iPhone wouldn’t have happened.”

Influence and inspiration are an integral part of design and the links between ideas within the fashion world are often clearly visible. The danger is that a self-fulfilling cycle of influence looks to only support itself, and the bigger players who can survive its processes. In trend forecasting, perhaps the future, as Wharry implies, will see more of a mix between a forecaster’s intuitive approach and data gathering.

Designers will naturally continue to be aware of trends, too, even if some are harder to detect than others. “People read the same blogs, see the same movies; it definitely does feed into itself,” says Kroll. “That’s where I diverge from this idea that fashion springs up from nothing created by some genius designer, is copied by everybody, and then they come up with something else new six months later.” 1


Geraldine Wharry’s Trend Atelier blog is at trendatelier.tumblr.com; her site is geraldinewharry.com. Trend Tablet can be found at trendtablet.com. The Cass School’s five week course, Introduction to Fashion Trend Forecasting, starts October 4. See thecass.com/short-courses

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