Trends Not Trending

How Valuable is Trend Forecasting in the Post-Internet Age?

It is romantic to think that beautiful garments are spun from the creative imagination of the designer but in reality this is often far from the case. In an era of recession, commercial viability remains an unavoidable necessity for most designers. Trend forecasting agencies have become like secret weapons to many big brands but how valuable are they to emerging designers? What role does trend forecasting play in a post-internet age?

Fashion trend forecasting finds its nascent form in the sixties in Paris, surfacing as a means to predict trends in the industry. Back then the fashion world functioned as a closed-off and predominantly secretive industry, the power being far less evenly distributed as it is today. Trends were dictated by a small upper echelon of designers, hence why even a cursory glance at fashion history will reveal how one look tended to dominate almost an entire era of dressing. Up until the explosion of digital in the nineties, all trend forecasting happened in print and was a major publishing business. The technological boom, as we know, has brought about a hyper-connectedness and instantaneity that has blown open the fashion industry facilitating a shift in power from the hands of the fashion elite to the hands of the masses.

“When the internet took hold, the influencers changed. Bloggers, for example, now have just as much power as editors”, observes Cecile Poignant of the French forecasting agency Trend Tablet. The digital revolution has empowered people from all ends of the spectrum to take trend research into their own hands, with social media apps such as Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr making it easy for users to stay on top of trends by collating images and creating their own mood boards as a means to gather inspiration. Consequences of the Internet's immediacy for trend forecasting have been manifold. The most notable outcome being that instead of just a few trends emerging at one time, there are now multiple trends surfacing simultaneously and permeating within each other.

It is not just the trends themselves that have proliferated and diversified; markets and consumer criteria have rapidly evolved from traditional, static and demographic-based to more modern, dynamic and psychographical. Since trend forecasting is inextricably embedded within social and cultural frameworks, as communities have diversified and consumer patterns have become more complex, trend forecasting has become more convoluted. The need to navigate a nebulous and intricate mesh of trends and then communicate these in the right way to the right consumer places a huge demand on the trend forecaster. Geraldine Wharry, founder of UK-based trend forecasting agency Trend Atelier, asserts that trend forecasting is no longer an underground operation, “there’s no such thing as subculture anymore, things go viral and get thrust into the public eye so quickly. Trend forecasting used to be about tapping into things people didn’t know about, they could access information that wasn’t widely available and then show it to the world. Now they need to find added value somewhere else.”

So how can trend forecasting provide this value to fashion brands if all the information they need is already at their fingertips?

The question is a complicated one and it really depends on the scale of the brand. Tapping into the ‘zeitgeist’ by way of a trend forecasting agency like WGSN can cost fashion brands up to £16,500 in annual subscription fees. Needless to mention, this is an unaffordable sum for many fashion brands. Furthermore, the big forecasting agencies often present an overwhelming amount of information to smaller brands. Wharry explains that when a designer is “looking at so many trends at once, it might confuse them”, and “they need a more focused approach.” This is what Wharry offers at Trend Atelier, where she works with brands on a more personal level, helping them to solidify their image, materialise their vision into a product and help them communicate the DNA of their brand. For young, emerging brands a focus on storytelling rather than design dictation appears to make more sense.

"Young designers already have a very strong creative vision”, Poignant points out. “Trend forecasting in its most literal sense is meant for big business. Big brands with multiple lines and multiple designers working under one roof that need to find a common thread.” Wharry agrees that traditional trend reports do not have a huge amount of traction for smaller brands and start-ups. “Emerging brands have a vision, they just need direction, they need a critical eye.” As a trend forecaster with vast experience in the industry, Wharry has become “like an antenna”, she is exposed to so many trends including market trends and has a deeper level of understanding when it comes to long term and short term trends. In today’s oversaturated digital world, making sense of everything that’s out there is simply too much work for designers who have the running of their business to think about. For Wharry, it’s all about staying in the know. “They’re tapped in but they need to stay informed- not just about visual trends but knowing where the market is going, signing up to newsletters, reading magazines, going to the right exhibitions, finding out who the influencers are.”

This is why we have seen a more individualised, more experientially-orientated approach to trend forecasting emerge. Trend forecasting agencies such as Protein and The Future Laboratory are now hosting events with influential keynote speakers, giving people the chance to network and to feel charged and inspired. If big trend forecasting agencies have such high subscription fees and ultimately are still only operating on the intuition of a large team of forecasters, they are bound to lose customers who are looking for more certainty. This is where forecasting projects such as SoMatch plan to make a difference. SoMatch aims to create a tool which analyses millions of images from across the internet by extracting metadata related to the clothes present in the images (as well as the humans wearing them) to generate accurate and detailed statistics of clothing trends. Harnessing new technological innovations and advancements in data collection methods present infinite possibilities for the business of trend-forecasting. “In a few years, trend forecasting will be completely revolutionised by big data. Combining trend forecasting knowledge with big data to actually predict the future with conviction is the gold mine for trend forecasting”, Poignant says.

A second digital revolution will surely bring untold advancements to trend forecasting as we know it, as for the effects on the fashion industry as a whole, only time will tell.