The Future of Fashion Forecasting

Following NJAL’s conversation with trend watching icon Li Edelkoort, NJAL taps a trend forecaster at work to analyse the future of forecasting and scrutinise both its relevance and future in today’s society. It’s time to discern exactly why this niche industry has become the crux of the fashion industry at large, and whether trend forecasting is a friend or foe of independent design talent.

Forecasting is used in almost every area of business today. Accurate analysis of consumer trends is vital in informing brand direction and development, in the creation of relevant products and services and ultimately in ensuring their success. Most notably associated with the fashion industry, trend forecasting is still a relative newcomer but has fast become one of the most important weapons in a retailer’s competitive armoury. In a fast moving and crowded marketplace, identifying ‘what’s hot and what’s not’ is crucial in staying one step ahead of the competition.

The role of a forecaster is to analyse the movement of the market, look for patterns in consumer behaviour and find the ‘red thread’ that unifies a collection of sometimes seemingly disparate ideas that will form the basis of the ‘next big thing’. In order to pinpoint a trend, a forecaster must gather and absorb as much information from as many sources as possible and collate it into a coherent, viable story. Taking an interest in all aspects of culture from the creative arts, media and travel to underground subculture movements and developments in science and technology is key for any trendspotter. Combined with statistical market research and observation of socio-economic shifts, these sources also give an insight into what the next emerging trend may be and show the direction and potential reaction of consumer culture.

Once a trend emerges, its course can be charted from early adoption to cessation and following this lifecycle helps to predict future formation patterns and potential time spans. When a fashion trend has been identified it can then be used to inform specific areas such as silhouette, colour, materials and components so that every aspect of a design is covered with supporting research and validation obtained at trade fairs, catwalk shows and the current retail landscape.

The ‘next big thing’ may not work for everyone so the key is extracting brand-relevant elements or discovering a micro trend that complements a core product, ethos or range of values. For example, a project for an established US based footwear label took inspiration from the urban birding scene, offering a fresh perspective on urban and outdoor products while remaining relevant to the heritage and identity of the brand. 

As the pace of fashion has increased, the speed of the trend cycle has also accelerated and the demand for trend information has risen. Catwalk shows streaming live, the ability for consumers to 'shop the look' before the model has even left the runway and retail sectors obsession with reducing turn-around times has created a necessity within forecasting to constantly supply fresh trend direction.

This has not only led to a major growth in the forecasting industry but also seen it change in a very short space of time. Advances in technology have seen the industry graduate from a niche area producing print format reports a handful of times a year to online services with the ability to publish and update new material quickly and the practical appeal of information that can be accessed from any location, day or night. As of 2011 the forecasting industry was valued at $36bn and growing, spawning an ever-increasing number of agencies catering to a global audience.

The capabilities of the Internet and the opportunities therein have also bought the founding forecasting services a new set of challenges. The growth of social media is a valuable promotional tool with which to raise a company’s profile, and in the case of forecasters, a platform with which to entice potential clients with titbits of information. However the popularity of fashion blogging and the growing number of freelance forecasters and smaller agencies has been both friend and foe for those currently dominating the scene.

This new medium has made the once closely guarded world of trend information and analysis more accessible to all levels of the market and to consumers themselves. Bloggers are a great source of inspiration to other forecasters but many are now employed by, or act as consultants, to brands who feel that they may have their finger more firmly on the fashion pulse or a more in-depth knowledge of their own demographic, often at the expense of their long-standing counterparts.

For established companies who rely on subscriptions to generate revenue, the challenge has been to compete with this new generation, not only in terms of cost, but also in terms of being seen as leaders in up-to-the-minute and relevant trend information. However, the increase in accessibility has greatly raised the profile of forecasting and its role within fashion. This heightened awareness is a key element in the expansion of the industry as more and more companies view signing up to such services as an essential part in the race to keep up with the demands of a more trend savvy consumer.

This reliance on trends and trend forecasting, and fashion’s need for immediacy is itself creating potential long-term problems for both forecasters and the industry as a whole. The mass-market retail sector is increasingly seen as more reactive than innovative and despite the number of agencies now operating, many major companies are obtaining information from the same place, causing the high street in particular to become overburdened with facsimile products.

A cautious retail sector, afraid of taking chances or going against current market consensus is affecting the forecaster’s ability to offer and encourage radically new ideas or conceptual ways of thinking. The speed of the fashion cycle has also caused a shift in favour of highly profitable but short-term, micro trends, allowing less opportunity for meaningful long-term analysis.

The issue of plagiarism is also pertinent and one criticism levelled at forecasters is that they act as a conduit for larger retailers to create identikit copies of other designers’ work. This only serves to alienate independent designers, making them less likely to engage with the forecasters and forecasting services who look to them not only as a source of inspiration but also as potential future clients. All this raises the question of industry sustainability. As the brands that rely on forecasting to stay ahead of the game find themselves no longer distinguishable from the competition it undermines, the notion that trend forecasting can be an inspirational and creative resource becomes questionable.

However, forecasters themselves are by no means immune to emerging trends and these issues are being addressed by a new wave of agencies seeking to redress the balance between commerciality and creativity. Marc Worth formally of WGSN has created Stylus, a service that provides a limited number of clients with information spanning all creative genres combined with a more journalistic approach. Companies such as the interiors focused Trend Bible are returning to the idea of inspirational visuals in a biannual print format which solves the growing problem of clients being constantly bombarded with contradictory information.

While the current emphasis remains on catering to the fast-fashion market, a bespoke approach that tailors trends to meet client needs is potentially a much more viable long-term prospect that benefits not only trend forecasting but the fashion industry in general. Forecasters that can focus on offering guidance to ensure companies and designers navigate trends successfully while giving them the confidence to interpret them in their own way helps to enhance the USP of the client. This not only gives brands a new way to compete in the marketplace, but also begins to reverse the carbon copy culture that is pervading fashion.

While there is room for both points of view at present, if forecasters can position themselves as an inspirational resource with the ability to create and innovate, trends and trend analysis will remain the future of fashion.