The Trend Forecast

RM: This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

RM: We are a culture, Fascinated with style. There always seems to be some gaa, or awards ceremony where people are talking about what everyone is wearing.

AT: And it seems like it’s always fashion week somewhere, am I right?

RM: Avery Trufelman; living every week like it’s fashion week.

AT: And there are street-style blogs, and festival fashion round ups, and then out of the sidewalks, and the catwalks, a style emerges. And then it comes time for the mass market to “get the look.” which might mean graphic t-shirts are hot right now, or cobalt blue or minimalism, or platform sneakers.

RM: And you might be saying to yourself, “trends are for trendy people. I follow nerd stuff, like podcasts! I don’t follow trends!”

SP: They might say that, but they do, they’re lying (laughs)

AT: Professor Sarah Petit, calling everyone’s bluff, kind of.

SP: They’re not outright lying, they just don’t realize what they’re doing.

AT: Professor Petit is coordinator of The Fabric Styling Program, at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

RM: You might not realize it, but subconsciously, you can kind of tell when styles are shifting.

SP: You may not think that what you have on is dated, but this other thing suddenly may look new to you. And it’s all over all the windows, it’s all over all the racks, and you probably would get influenced by that. Don’t you think so?

AT: Whether or not you consciously notice it, trend cycle is circling all around you; and it’s moving fast. It’s not like we just have a Spring fashion season, and a Fall fashion season. There’s now a steady turnover of styes.

SP: If you go to certain stores, like H&M, they change their line like, every two weeks because Avery, how many clothes do any of us really need? They have to get us to throw our clothes out, so that we buy new things. This creates manufacturing, this creates sales, and it makes the monetary retail world go round.

RM: And it’s not just clothes, it’s our homewear, our linens, our car, whatever. Our tastes are constantly made to change.

SP: Color is that kind of change. Like chartreuse, may come in every 5 years or so; purple can be big one year, and then it takes about 5 years to come around again.

AT: Most trends are cyclical. The question is about timing. About when it’s time for a trend to come back around again. And to get their timing right, a lot of designers, and retailers, and fashion students turn to one major company.

SP: People use WGSN, yes, as a school we have access to WGSN.

AT: WGSN.

RM: Which sounds more like the name of a radio station.

AT: It is indeed, a radio station in Tennessee, but that is not the WGSN we’re talking about. WGSN is the company that might have determined what you are wearing, right now.

RM: And I’d never heard of it.

SO: A lot of people haven’t actually. It’s a little bit of an industry secret in a way.

AT: This is Sarah Owen, a forecaster at WGSN. Which is a global trend forecasting agency. There are other trend forecasters and trend forecasting companies, but WGSN is the MOST influential.

SO: We have been around for 18 years, we’re in over 94 countries, in terms of clients, um, and around 6,00 companies subscribe to us.

AT: And um, what does WGSN stand for?

SO: This is where I’m not sure, because it used to be Worth Global Style Network.

RM: Worth as in Mark Worth, who founded the company in 1997. But after he sold WGSN, it was called World Global Style Network. But mostly it’s just called WGSN.

SO: So I think it’s kind of become an acronym that doesn’t really have a meaning.

AT: Part publishing platform, part fashion house, part research company, and what they provide is a comprehensive website behind an extremely deep paywall. Like tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the company and the subscription level. But pretty much every major manufacturer, design studio and major marketing company subscribes to it.

SO: And we have clients across all industries, not just retail in the fashion space. Um, so a few of our clients range from fashion companies such as Nike, and Coach, and H&M, to um, food & beverage companies like Starbucks, to TV networks like NBC & Nickelodeon. So it’s quite varied.

RM: WGSN reports on all kinds of trends, including behavior patterns, consumption patterns, and advertising predictions. But the majority of their users are coming at it from the design side.

AT: So if you are a designer, colorist, or merchandiser, you’d consult WGN to figure out what colors will be in, and what styles are ahead… And whether designers heed this advice or not, it’s considered essential to at least know what WGSN is saying. Because they’re commenting on trends they notice in a really in depth way.

SO: So there’s level of analysis that you just can’t find, and people actually just don’t have the time to do it themselves.

RM: And to keep ahead of the trend cycle, WGSN predicts two years in advance.

SO: That’s as long as we can really look ahead without qualitative and quantitative analysis. Further out than that and it’s speculating. Guesstimation as you want to say.

AT: But honesty, I had a really hard time wrapping my head around WGSN and what they offer, until they let me take a peek at the site.

SO: It is a website behind a paywall.

AT: A really beautiful, sleek website. It almost looked like an upscale, online store, but then when you click a category, it looks more like a Pinterest page; just loaded with pictures.

SO: So we have catwalks, images, high resolution, all of those original imagery for street style, for trade shows, for denim.

AT: In addition to all the photography, of models, and festivals, and festival-goers, and beautiful stylish people, there are articles and reports organized by category.

SO: All the fashion categories from Accessories to Beauty. Footwear, Kidswear, Womenswear, Youth…

AT: Um, why does Denim get its own category?

SO: It’s a huge market. There’s a Denim Sr. Editor, Denim Director, two I think Denim Associate Editors.

AT: The editors are working on articles that not only find the trends, but explain them.

SO: Because we do work so far in advance, I did to a report close to two years ago that was called The New Young Contemporary

RM: This report Sarah did on the “New, Young Contemporary” was about the next generation of consumers. Gen Z.

SO: Gen Z is your teenager, um, she’s about to go back to school shopping, she’s still going to festivals, uh, she lives at home, she’s obviously a digital native…uh, multi-screen personality…

AT: And Sarah’s report found that Gen Z’s idols are fashion models, not movie actresses. And so these models are on Instagram and in magazines, wearing couture on the runways, and this makes the members of Gen Z want access to high fashion.

SO: This consumer-base has really been primed to be the next luxury consumer, and so that’s clearly come to um, fruition now. It seems super relevant, but two years ago it was still a testing idea with some retailers.

RM: And other researchers at WGSn are already preparing for the next wave of consumers, after Gen Z.

SO: Generation Alpha I think? They’re the newest ones under Gen Z.

RM: Welcome to irrelevancy Millennials!

AT: In addition to the report and the images, WGSN has this really fascinating component that makes it very, very different from a journalism site or a fashion blog. They have a database full of colors, patterns, and 71,000 original design templates, for design teams to just use, however they want.

SO: So there really is a lot that you can take as a designer; open it in illustrator or Photoshop and rework it however works for your customer. You’ll get embellishments and trims and you have prints and graphics, and clip art there as well.

RM: If you wanted to make say, a shirt, you could choose a template, maybe add a pocket or something. Select a color swatch or a pattern that WGSN says will be popular two years into the future and voila! There’s your design.

AT: Oh my God, so these are jeans for 2018. MY GOD!

RM: Whoa whoa whoa whoa….what do jeans of 2018 look like?

AT: Ehhhh, I kind of can’t tell you! Because WGSN is very protective of this information. And rightfully so, I mean, people pay a LOT of money for it. This precious intel makes it fast & easy for design teams to come up with new styles. Some would argue, too easy.

RM: Mark Worth himself, the founder of WGSN, sold the company in 2005. According to The Independent, Worth called his creation “a monster”, saying “Shoppers complain that everything on the high street looks the same, but is it any wonder? Instead of looking for inspiration brands are relying on templates, and because everyone uses the same templates, there’s no competitive edge.”

At: Whether it was an adherence to an ideology of creativity in competition, or just an opportunity to build another business and sell it off again for tons of money, Mark Worth started a rival forecasting company called Stylus. It’s a much smaller company with two offices, and about 400 clients. And it doesn’t have all the templates and ready-made designs.

SD: We don’t tend to have downloadable prints & patterns like that because fashion is just kind of one element of what we do.

AT: That’s Shannon Davenport, a forecaster at Stylus, in their New York office. Stylus is also a website behind a paywall, and they do a lot of custom trend reports, tailored to specific clients needs.

SD: So basically our clients get a login, and they can view all of the content. They have a client services person to help them, so if somebody says, um, “I’m doing a piece of research on the future of breakfast” our client services person goes in and says, “Here’s a really interesting piece of work we did about fluid lifestyle and people multi-tasking and this could effect the future of breakfast.

RM: The future of breakfast…..oh man.

AT: No but really, there are trends for breakfast. And Stylus will say to the client:

SD: Here what we saw, here’s something interesting from our packaging team about new on the go packaging. Which seems silly but that is really the kind of stuff that often you know, like, clients have to think about and wrap their heads around.

RM: Trend forecasting is not just about taste or esthetics, trends also take changes in lifestyle to account. So WGSN and Stylus also work with stats and projections, like this one:

SO: 40% of Americans will work from home by 2020 so I just start to like, throw some questions around my head. I’m like okay so if everyone’s working from home, are sweatpants back in style?

AT: That’s Sarah Owen again from WGSN. Turns out yes, sweatpants are back in the trend cycle. But like, cool looking sweatpants that you could also wear to a bar. Both WGSN and Stylus say there’s a rise in what they call the “Athleisure” style of clothing, which looks good at home o the couch or out a night.

SO: To me it’s connecting the dots, it’s pattern recognition, it’s um, taking those cues and pairing that with that data that will kind of inform the future…or create it, that’s our tagline.

AT: “Create Tomorrow” is actually written in HUGE neon letters in the WGSN office. Which is, I dunno, it’s kind of strange to see. It made me wonder if WGSN was catering to my tastes or actually creating them for me. They have such a strong influence in the industry, I can’t tell if they’re reporting trends, or dictating them.

SO: Yeah that’s always a hard one because like i said we do have some of the most um, influential and recognizable brands in the world using us so it’s like, did we create it or was it actually about to come to fruition.

AT: Shannon at Stylus told me that even paint companies and textile manufacturers were using their trend forecasting services to decide which fabrics & colors to make, which then informed the trends that Stylus puts out. At some point you just lose track of who is influencing whom.

RM: But ultimately the buck stops with us, the consumer.

SP: What’s the, the, thing…you can lead a horse to water or something but you can’t make him drink?

AT: Professor Sarah Petit again.

SP: You can show them things that are very far out, thing that you think they should buy, but if it’s something that’s not gonna work, they’re not gonna do it.

AT: For example, Professor Petit says there was a movement recently to bring back the miniskirt.

SP: They thought, “okay, it hasn’t been around a while, and for you know, the new generation of young kids, let’s try to reintroduce this.” It flopped totally. So if people really don’t want it, it’s going to flop. The consumer has a voice in this; and it’s a very active voice.

AT: And lately it there’s been a great refusal of sorts. A massive backlash against “fast fashion” and trends themselves.

SD: It’s interesting, we’ve come of this kind of phase in fashion of trends changing really fast.

RM: A lot of design today is focused on simplicity, minimalism, and quality.

SD: Even with fashion, which for a long time was super, super trend driven, that people are starting to think about basics. So more of having, you know, that great pair of jeans that they can wear with everything.

AT: But Shannon seemed remarkably calm as she told me about this change in the tides. She does not think the trend industry is doomed.

SD: So you know, it’s not like simplicity means that people are just completely not shopping, and you know everybody’s becoming anti-consumerism.

RM: God forbid!

SD: It’s just that the things that made people buy before, are changing.

AT: I was gonna say, the trend is that there are fewer trends but maybe that is also a trend?

SD: Yeah well I mean, there’s actually been a really interesting shift, but it’s not to say that it’s not going to shift again.

RM: It’s hard to say. But let’s just check back here in two years.

Comments (6)

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  1. C

    Super fascinating episode. I feel like I’ve seen mini skirts everywhere this season though. Those button down, slightly a-line and often in materials such as corderoy and suede are mini skirts, no?

  2. Heidi Whitus

    Was that quick little mention of “pattern recognition” in one of the interviews a sly reference to the William Gibson novel of the same name, which tells the story of a “cool hunter” named Cayce Pollard (who may have been loosely based on Dee Dee Gordon, profiled by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker [http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1997/03/17/the-coolhunt] 1997)?

  3. Frank Seipp

    A similar group is CMG, color marketing group. This episode contained one of the best “god forbid” to date.

  4. Krystal

    Sarah Owen leeches information from smaller bloggers and passes it off as her own thoughts and predictions.

  5. Since so many companies invest so heavily in these predictions, it seems like anything they say would turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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