The Thing About Trend Forecasting
Unpacking the art of trend forecasting, the reporting of trends, and the translation of ideas from concept to reality, niche to mass, and present to future in fashion retail
Unpacking the art of trend forecasting, the reporting of trends, and the translation of ideas from concept to reality, niche to mass, and present to future in fashion retail
A version of this report was created for a client in September 2022, whose goal was to build their own trend and concept design team in-house. The first part of the brief requested an exploration of successful trend development systems, while the second focused on the structure of a trend forecasting team, its practices, and the wider teams this role collaborates with.
I focus on the latter in this piece.
I decided to publish this work as a way of joining the conversation around trend forecasting, as I discovered that trend forecasting as a profession was being re-examined by emerging thought leaders in independent media and academic journals, is the headlining topic of a vote-able SXSW panel in 2024, and is the subject of numerous TikToks and YouTube deep-dives.
This report was edited in September 2023 to take into consideration updated references.
Fashion trend forecasting is big business. From its early days in the 90s* as a somewhat avante garde, conceptual approach to design and corporate creative processes, it has evolved to become more of a niche department that sits in the wider retail, design or marketing industries. It’s no longer led by fashion designers – Martin Margiela famously started this way, putting together trend books for design houses. Li Edelkoort of Trend Union, widely known as the founding mother of trend forecasting, started in the industry as a designer and merchandise coordinator. The early mood-board days of tumblr, along with online image sharing and forum culture on The Fashion Spot democratised the trend forecaster role as the internet gave full access to sought after imagery such as catwalks and global streetstyle. This popularised trend forecasting and the lucrative role of Creative Director.
The bios of trend forecasters typically consist of a series of hyphenated titles, as the role requires a combination of technical, creative, and strategic skills, among others. Often, trend forecasters opt for ‘creative curator’ or simply ‘creative director’ instead, which is used to bucket anything to do with a creative decision in a business. While the practice and responsibility of initial design direction typically falls on the Design Director, as businesses require more than creativity to succeed, the role of Design Director is now being designated to trend forecasters.
With algorithms and machine learning, it's become easier to identify trends, and data scientists are beginning to emerge as key players in the work of trend forecasting. Marketers, through their touch points with trends, business acumen, and growth tactics, are also leaning into creative decision making via branding and merchandising. Ana Andjelic has transitioned her marketing background this way, and is now the Chief Brand Officer at Esprit. Design teams are no longer only answering to business owners and design directors, building seasonal collections around trend concepts. They must also align with overarching marketing directions and design within product outlines created by retail data teams and advertising executives.
As the success of trends can be verified with data and trend predictions confirmed digitally, the work of the trend forecaster has grown to adapt to these new sources of information. In some ways, it has made the trend forecaster role to be less about taste-making and holds them accountable for their predictions.
Today, trend forecasting is increasingly being driven by Futurists, Cultural Writers, Strategists and yes, TikTokers.
These roles focus on macro messages supported by anthropological factors and incorporate scientific and technological trends. This work is shared through public speaking engagements, in a consultancy capacity, and published in high-value white papers intended for c-suite executives. Trend information is then presented to internal fashion teams and converted into quarterly KPIs and overarching business objectives.
Future first, fashion second. Content creators and influencers are also leaning into professional content, sharing their trend forecasts across social media in video form.
Beyond Crystal Balls: The Evolving Landscape of Trend Forecasting
In an ever-changing world driven by technological advancements and cultural shifts, trend forecasting has emerged as a critical tool for businesses and individuals alike. Traditionally, trend forecasting relied on intuition, experience, and data analysis to predict upcoming trends. However, as we venture further into the 21st century, the future of trend forecasting is set to undergo a dramatic transformation. This think piece explores the key trends and innovations that will shape the future of trend forecasting, paving the way for more accurate, dynamic, and socially responsible predictions.
Recent developments in the Metaverse and AI have created a demand for trend forecasting to incorporate these new technologies, target new audiences and serve new business objectives. Like many creative roles, the integration of AI in trend forecasting demonstrates potential in bridging the gap between a trend forecaster’s subjective perspective and hard data. Furthermore, AI can serve as an editor for trend forecasts and can enhance, confirm, and validate trend reports - we can look ahead to this as an emerging third wave in trend forecasting.
If we were to zoom out, there are now 2 ends of trend forecasting: analytical trend forecasting that is speculative, academic and cultural, and creative/conceptual trend forecasting which is more about the influences that impact ideas, aesthetics and the style of trends.
A successful trend forecaster must embrace both spectrums and produce harmonious forecasts that integrate as many objective points of reference from the analytical side. Conversely, being well-versed in consumer insights and brand strategy is not enough; original ideas by creative individuals who tap into these insights are how brand integrity and loyalty are achieved.
I created a dataset of trend forecasting companies to compare their businesses. In my dataset, I distinguished their backgrounds, services, and the types of trend forecasting they specialize in, such as marketing, media/journalism, consumer insights, and design/merchandising. While many of the businesses offer a variety of services with teams and collaborators in both analytical and creative trend forecasting, the primary specialties of the firms or the expertise led by the founders determined the type of trend forecasting under which I categorized them. This information was gathered from the 'About' pages on their websites
There are also many marketing, media, and fashion companies that employ trend forecasters within their business. However, for the purposes of this exercise, I focus on companies that specialise in trend forecasting, and have it explicitly identified on their websites.
12 companies were founded before the year 2000.
16 companies were founded between 2000-2010.
14 companies between 2011-2021.
Other interesting companies to note, not included in the above data set:
Both legacy and independent fashion media companies have created internal ‘think tanks’ and consultant teams as a means of new revenue streams. These teams create high-value, future-focused reports that are differentiated as ‘premium’ content to warrant a higher price point or subscription, and are also presented at ticketed panels and speaker-led events. This work is parallel to that of a trend forecaster as it incorporates resources outside of fashion such as market and consumer insights, data, and social media trends. Dazed Media, Vogue Business, Glossy, HighSnobiety, and The Business of Fashion are some examples. They frequently speak to third party trend forecasters for articles and partner with marketing firms to utilise their internal data and create trend outlooks.
Protein Agency is a global brand consultancy specialising in consumer and cultural insights but does not produce trend forecasts themselves or explicitly spotlight trend forecasts. Similarly, NYC’s sparks & honey hires trend forecasters but describes itself as a ‘cultural insights’ company. ‘Global management consulting’ firm McKinsey produces macro-trend focused reports with case studies and solutions that targets the same objectives of trend forecasters, but leans on the skills of futurists, marketers, and data scientists than of the creative trend forecaster. Public Relations company Karla Otto has expanded their brand-building services to include insights and strategy under a collaborative umbrella called The Independents.
Social-media tech companies Pinterest, Instagram and TikTok release yearly trend reports based on user data. WeTransfer’s annual Ideas Report is a ‘roundup of insights from all over the globe about the unpredictable nature of creativity’.
Lyst, founded in 2010, describes itself as a ‘fashion technology company and premium shopping app’ and has a strong following for their quarterly Lyst Index reports. These reports are heavily referenced in fashion media and by fashion TikTokers as a point of discussion and online discourse.
Speaker and panel-generated events around futurism and trends at events like SXSW and Cannes Lion International Festival mark the trend forecaster’s calendar, and are typically attended by marketers over designers. The Mapping the Future series by department store Selfridges is an interesting example, and a reflection of the impact of current trend forecasting discourse in the fashion industry.
Thought leaders such as Matt Klein and Sean Monahan have found success in writing their trend theories and breakdowns via Substack subscriptions. Avery Trufelman’s podcast, Articles of Interest, and it's coinciding Substack is also one to watch, along with 'After School' by Casey Lewis for all things youth.
While many mid-to-large scale companies have trend forecasting teams within their business (or hire agencies to do so), Space10 was a unique setup. Space10 was a research and design lab supported by and dedicated to IKEA. Despite this, their website explains that they are an external entity and operates independently to IKEA. “Our work is not for the IKEA we know today, but for the IKEA we envision tomorrow.” It was announced in August 2023 that Space10 will permanently close and live on as a digital archive.
By examining these various businesses, we can recognize that new media platforms and technologies have played a crucial role in the evolution of trend forecasting practices. Furthermore, the collection of data through social media apps and in-app purchases is underpinning contemporary forecasting in a more accurate manner.
The viral nature of trends and the buzzy discourse it creates has impacted the sharing of trend forecasts to become a ‘Trend Broadcast’. Additionally, as social media replaces legacy fashion media sources as a touchpoint for consumers, many media roles have transitioned to include the creating of social media content and being akin to influencers themselves, as they share affiliate links and promote advertising partners in trend content. This is resulting in a niche, but growing community of trend-forecaster-slash-influencer content creators.
Trend broadcasts enable a much earlier ‘temperature check’ of trends by consumers, and has the potential be capitalised on via pre-order models, before products are even made.
The impact of fashion bloggers, influencers, and video content creators should be emphasized when discussing the business of trend forecasting and trend creation today. Trend reporting and forecasting have evolved into conversations supercharged by social media, often initiated by the very individuals who constitute the target markets.
Creators started to build on their engagement around hauls and hacks to macro trend messages and trend communities. They didn’t want to just influence purchases anymore - they started to connect products and their presented lifestyles to aesthetic communities and pop-cultural conversations.
With influencer culture, fashion was no longer simply worn or promoted, it also needed to perform online via trend names and their trackable hashtag. This resulted in a hybrid online identity of the content creator slash trend forecaster. It’s also important to note that with the downward spiral of media companies and magazines, editors started to become content creators and found more success this way, adding to the emergence of a new editor/influencer/ content creator/ trend forecaster creative class.
Around 2020, Gen-Z were graduating the youth market with a new vernacular around fashion and products. The identification of trends was becoming an innate part of the consumer experience as aesthetic discourse and viral items anchored trend discussions on our feeds and comments, rather than on shop-able editorials published by magazines. Additionally, while trend reporting typically highlighted items that were hot now, TikTokers started to share their trend predictions to guide their followers on what to shop next, especially as thrifting culture became more popular. Trend guides by content creators aided the tedious task of going through second hand stores that were not merchandised or styled. What we wore started to define our aesthetic allegiance in new ways, as if our dress was separate to previous anthropological discussions around archetypes and subcultures. For e.g. someone might not be goth, but they were in their ~darkest academia southern gothic era~.
When the pandemic struck, K-Hole’s thesis around Normcore reached the masses as streetwear became oversaturated and we were all in premium sweatpants talking about it online. It’s impact made trend forecasting history with the christening of other -core’s, particularly Cottagecore. K-Hole brought trend forecasting and the naming of trends to the forefront of fashion and consumers couldn’t get enough. The mass amalgamation of these -cores created a new category of micro-trends, which spearheaded a new era of fashion bingeing* on social media.
The competitive nature of social media has created a time-sensitive ‘name game’ of trends. Thanks to K-Hole and trend forecasters such as Mandy Lee on Tiktok, suffixes such as -core, -sleaze and -chic are used to officially title new trends or hybridise existing trends into a (sometimes faux) newness.
The -core-ification of trends promoted fashion to have more cultural capital in contemporary discourse, in the same way music and its pop charts do. Trends and fashion are no longer just consumed - it must perform.
Fashion discovery is no longer at the mall or in magazines, it’s discovered in apps and online ads through recognizable trend names and their hashtags. The perennial printed dress wasn’t just a feminine dress anymore – it’s a Cottagecore dress – or a viral #StrawberryDress that has over 206 million views on TikTok. Maybe there’s something deeper here too, with the human desire for ranking status or popularity. Zuckerberg digitized this with the like button.
If you are what you eat, in fashion’s world of trends, you are no longer just what you wear, but what trend you tag or how your algorithm tags you. In the age of social media, whether or not a trend succeeds or busts, trend forecasts need to manifest into online discourse and connect consumers with their communities in comment sections and beyond. The -core-ifacation of trends has created a clickable, searchable way to identify trends on social media for better or worse, and once a ‘trend tag’ is made, there’s no turning back.
Conversely, there’s an emerging friction between follower and trend forecaster, with consumers wanting to stay on top of trend discourse, while also wanting to remain an outlier to the algorithm, to remain independent and retain ownership of their own selves, and maybe even distinguish their status as a trend leader. Perhaps this is due to the shift in the way fashion communities connect, and the vernacular or framework around aesthetics digitally native Gen-Z have created.
While many buy into these codes, trend leaders and early adaptors of change are already showing signs of fatigue. Trends are reactionary, rather than revolutionary, after all.
We conclude the first two sections of this report with 3 proofs of concepts, which demonstrate the current tensions in trend forecasting:
A new trend forecaster/ content creator class is flipping the script on how trend forecasts are made and shared. A ‘lowbrow’ trend broadcasting that is DTC (direct-to-consumer) has become just as important to track as a highbrow trend forecasting platform that functions in a B2B (business-to-business) trend forecasting model.
With an updated vernacular around fashion, aesthetics, and trends, there is an identifiable difference between the way millennials and Gen-Z consume trends.
In the future, Gen-Z’s love of micro trends and smaller aesthetic movements will be amalgamated into wider period-defining dress codes and fashion, the way hipsterdom or the ‘emo’ defined millennials in their youth.
Since fashion now must perform with trend monikers and punchy headlines, fashion and their trends have become memes* themselves. That is, fashion is no longer just an article of clothing, an idea, or a part of history - fashion is a meme that is imitated and can go viral like everything else online.
*Memes can be defined in a few ways, but for this conclusion, we define memes as a shorthand for a joke or a visual representation or an idea, thought, or feeling
The objective of fashion trend forecasting is to ensure new products and brand messaging align with market demands, consumer trends, and stay ahead of the curve.
Within the fashion industry or company, there are many touchpoints for trend forecasts. Below is an illustration of the trend forecasting funnel:
An example of a trend forecast workflow is as follows:
Ultimately, trend forecasting calls to action creative work that puts relevance and commerciality first. Trend forecasting is a for-profit business and serves for-profit businesses.
This is not about designing as a designer fulfilling creative desires, or a buyer pulling merchandise together to fit a brand and to serve a specific consumer. In trend forecasting, design nor brand vision no longer comes first - markets and marketability does. It's every cog in the machine of retail, all interconnected and influencing each other, focusing on the anticipation of consumption at the very start of its inception. It's beyond fashion and the fashion-ing of products, as it requires consistent proof of concept. It demands the understanding of consumption, societal perception, and so much more. Just like how the pillars of traditional design no longer exist, trend forecasting has shifted to require a point of analysis and designed thinking, before the act of designing. The most successful trend forecasters are able to break this down and reason creative concepts with patterns evidenced in data, design history, work by futurists, and consumer insights.
Overall, we could argue that trend forecasting is a positive practice that demands creatives and business owners to think ahead and outside the realms of their past experiences.
If brands did not instigate, participate in, or align with trends, they’d go out of business. However, as the practice of trend forecasting becomes a wider scope of work that incorporates influences and executions outside of fashion, the ‘traditional’ work of trend forecasting needs to be differentiated from those created by futurists, strategists, and editors. This is where concept design is an emerging creative practice within or outside of trend forecasting.
Concept design focuses on the creative idea itself, and all of the elements that make it a viable concept for a target consumer. If a trend forecast is our Fibonacci sequence, concept design is an idea or narrative that unwinds from a primary source of influence or inspiration. 'Concept spirals' can define eras or ideas, but don’t necessarily have a projected future or growth like a trend forecast has.
A problem with trend forecasting is that it relies on trends to accelerate products or create growth. As the world needs fashion to slow down, the notion of a concept design studio is more appealing than a trend forecasting one.
The nature of trend forecasting and the objectives of the practice have raised many questions around ethics. Referencing existing or emerging ideas as a way to piece together potential trends to better serve consumers might be somewhat fair. Good trend forecasting can reduce unwanted excess products, or cater to underserved consumer groups, for example. However, there is an open ended question here around whether or not trend forecasting is an ethical practice. In the end, the trend forecasting industry doesn’t answer to anyone. There is no such thing as a trend impact score, despite the fact that their impact can be felt by the state of fashion, the environment, the climate, consumer culture, digital developments, and more – the trend theory of everything.
A colleague in trend forecasting shared something interesting with me a few months ago: the idea that eventually, people will become disenchanted with traditional trend forecasts and will instead seek 'just vibes'. Vibes, instead of trend forecasts, connecting consumers, inspiring aesthetics, and creating communities around them. As defined by Sean Monahan, perhaps trend forecasting’s own 'vibe shift' will illuminate a creative-first, human centric approach to forecasting that prioritises originality and conceptual narrative above all. If the current trend in consumption is bingeing micro-trends defined by hashtag-able names, expect a growing group of consumers to seek individuality over trends and vibes over virality.
Fashion is Just TikTok Now, Vox, Rebecca Jennings
The Meta Trends 2023, Matt Klein
Cottagecore Was Just the Beginning, The Atlantic, By Kaitlyn Tiffany
You’re Locked in a Prison of Trends, Blackbird Spyplane
Trends Are Dead, Vox, By Terry Nguyen
Tacky is Back!, Vox, Rebecca Jennings
Contemporary changes and challenges in the practice of trend forecasting, Clarice Carvalho Garcia
The Coolhunt, The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell
The State of the Trend: Are Trends Dead, or Are They Just Being Recycled in an Endless Loop?, W Magazine, Emilia Petrarca
Politics After Subculture, Eric Leong
The Time Warp, Again?, Post45, Olivia Stowell
Welcome to the Era of Unapologetic Bad Taste, Time, Judy Berman
What Next - On the End of the Trend Piece, Real Life Mag, Mitch Therieau
Life After Lifestyle, Subpixel Space, Toby Shorin
After Authenticity, Subpixel Space, Toby Shorin
The Meaning and History of Memes, The New York Times, by Alexis Benveniste
End of Trends, Johannes Koponen
Narrative Collapse, The Convivial Society, L.M. Sacasas
The Paradox of Gen-Z by The Loop on Gen Z
The Remains of the Heyday: Are Subcultures Still Possible?, SSENSE
Namecore is the Trend that Unifies All Trends, The Face, Olive Pomestey
How TikTok is Influencing the Next Generation of Fashion’s Trend Forecasters, Input, Andrea Carrillo
The ‘Night Luxe’ Aesthetic: Instagram and TikTok’s Post-Wellness Vibe Shift, Glossy, Liz Flora
What’s Up with Gen-Z’s Obsession with Picking an Aesthetic?, CR Fashion Book, Hannah Oh
Corecore is the Screaming-Into-Void TikTok Trend We Deserve, Vice, Ella Glossop
The Dark and Twisted Return of Preppy Clothes, Harper’s Bazaar, Rachel Tashjian