Who Sets The Trends?

Three years ago, the only people who wore camel coats were football commentators and caretakers. But now they are everywhere, from the Céline catwalk to the pages of The Sartorialist blog, and they’re the last word in chic.

How did this happen?

How does a thing become a thing? Who decides? It’s hard enough to keep a finger on the pulse – imagine trying to find the heartbeat of a movement that hasn’t even been born yet. Yet it happens. In fashion, music, even food. One day, something just feels right. And a trend is born.

Once upon a time, the trickle-down of trends was easy to trace: from haute couture to high street, new fashions were handed down like the Ten Commandants, tracing a route neatly summed up by Meryl Streep’s character, Miranda Priestly, in The Devil Wears Prada: “You’re blithely unaware of the fact, in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then, I think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn’t it, who quickly showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it filtered down through the department stores and trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.”

But in a process that began as far back as the ’60s (as London’s Carnaby Street girls upset the grande dames of fashion) and that has come to full bloom now with the proliferation of social media, street-style blogs, and the live streaming of even the most exclusive shows, we can no longer see a trend coming just by looking at what’s on the catwalk. So where are people getting their ideas? Never mind the Next Big Things: What’s the one after that?

Fashion designers still set trends

What’s also true – though more mysterious – is that, in any one season, enough designers will decide, apparently independently of one another, that a certain cut, colour, length or style is the look of the moment to push it directly to the top of the trends list. How does that happen? “We all design according to what we see around us,” explains UK designer Jonathan Saunders. “It might just be a feeling that happens between each season,” adds Peter Jensen, a Danish-born, London-based designer, who is seemingly as bemused by couturiers’ apparent collective inspirations as we are. “One time, I wanted to do something very 1970s. We showed that collection in New York and by the end of all the fashion weeks, I realised 1970s was the trend.”

As well as vague talk of moods and feelings, there are more practical reasons why a particular trend might suddenly stalk catwalks in four different fashion capitals. “The similarities you see between many designers are due to the textile industry,” says Elizabeth Chon, head of global trends at Maybelline New York. “The yarn industry has to forecast colours even further out than the fashion houses and a lot of designers shop from the same fabric, thread and trim manufacturers.”

“Our colour forecaster teams work up to two years ahead of the seasons,” says Sue Evans, senior editor at WGSN, a subscription service for designers and retailers. “They’re working on colours for spring/summer 2016 right now. Our think-tank editors are also researching consumer attitudes, up to two years ahead – those colour palettes and consumer trends are then developed into macro-trends, which are worked on about 18 months ahead of the season.”

In other words, somebody already knows what you’ll be wearing in a year’s time – not the precise print, but in terms of shape, colour and fabric. And they know this because fabric manufacturers have been given their orders, which influences what a designer can do, explaining the seasonal confluence of ideas at the shows. This explains why so many apparently “original” ideas can seem similar. But there’s another element to trend creation that is not about the designer’s creative genius, but about his or her ability to put what they have seen going on around them on a large public platform. And the people they’re watching are the innovators.

Patterns in fashion, beauty and culture can be explained with diffusion research, the study of how ideas gain footing and become commonplace. With the introduction of new concepts, be it shoes or cereals, consumers fit into four categories: innovators; early adopters; the early majority; and the late majority. Each feeds off the previous group, each influenced by someone who bought in the Next Big Thing before them – except the innovators, who divined what was cool all by themselves.

“Everyone agrees that copying other people isn’t cool,” says Nick Southgate, a former advertising executive and lecturer in “How To Be Cool” at The School of Life in London. “Yet following trends is just that. There’s a hope if you copy the right people, soon enough you’ll be cool, but the cool thing is to lead, not follow.”

By that token, one might think anyone can create a trend, but forecasters agree it’s only a specific type of individual who can determine a movement. “Spotting trends really happens when you look at the individuals who are doing things drastically,” says Chon. “They’re almost ostracising the masses – the trend only becomes mainstream when you take what is different and make it ‘wearable’ and ‘friendly’ for everyone.”

Why street style matters

Regular passers-by might look askance at the hipsters on the bus, but it’s from the weird and wonderful styles of small sections of society that designers often draw their inspiration. It’s true of any major look: remember the doubt when we parted from our bootcuts for the new “skinny” jeans, or the hesitation you felt before applying the first swipe of bold red lipstick? Now you can buy drainpipe denim in Coles and every contestant on The X Factor is working a statement lip.

Actually, lipstick gives us another clue about how to spot a trend in the making. It’s all about money.

“Strong lips as a trend started about three years ago and will probably continue for a couple more,” states Nicole Masson, vice president of product development at M.A.C Cosmetics. “Colour trends tend to blip in and out. But strong lips are influenced by weakening economies – you can get the look by buying one lipstick versus the four eyeshadows needed to make a contoured eye.”

During tough times, everything comes down to money and trends are crucial to retailers hoping to entice shoppers to part with their rapidly devaluing cash. Theories abound as to whether skirts get shorter or colours get brighter during a financial crisis, but recent woes have taught us when times get tough, shoppers dictate their own terms. “The economy makes the consumer more cautious about trying new trends,” agrees Evans, “which, in turn, slows the trend cycle, so items stay for longer. Look at how long Breton sweaters have been ‘current’ – two years?”

Trends are like bubbles floating to the surface – there’s plenty of time to catch them before they pop. Witness, for example, Mad Men fever. The first series started in 2007. While we coveted Joan Holloway’s figure and drooled over Don Draper, the designers got just as hooked and, by 2010, cinched waists, wiggle dresses and curvy silhouettes exploded all over the catwalks, with the show’s vintage aesthetic still exerting its force for spring/summer 2012.

You can also be active in researching trends. “I look at social media sites,” says Laura Lukanz, BBC Radio 1Xtra’s music manager in the UK, who oversees the station’s playlists and bookings. It’s her job to know what will be big tomorrow, today. “They’re now a major source for new music. I look at what is building on the underground – within that you have new styles breaking through or niche genres becoming popular.”

But for a trend to really take off, it will have to be appealing to a large number. Anything too divisive is likely to stay on the margins. “I have to consider the commerciality of a trend before I determine which ones to back,” says Liberty London’s womanswear buyer Stephanie Jones. “There will always be trends my fashion-forward customers will buy into early, but it’s a tough balance to get right. I’m a sucker for a jumpsuit, but a few years ago I backed the trend too early.”

Then again, if you want to be really cool, none of this should matter a jot to you. If you’re an innovator, it’s your job to do the opposite to everyone else and instigate the trends that everyone else will end up following. But, of course, you already knew that, didn’t you?

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