By Geraldine Wharry, Fashion Futurist, Designer and Educator
As the climate crisis unfolds and we outspend our planetary resource budget, seasonal and “on trend” fashion collections continue to be produced, regardless of the cost, perpetuating a fashion calendar and production cycle living on borrowed time.
Trends are an intimate part of selling a fashion brand. They inform what brands think the end user wants and needs. Trends hold an influence over creatives, suppliers, marketers and leaders in the style industry. They continue to do so even as digital clothing and the secondary market are redefining how we exchange and relate to clothing. On a broader scale, trends reflect changes in behaviour, culture and society; they reflect patterns deeply rooted in our cyclical notion of time and our need for reinvention.
With soundbites such as “The Trend is not your friend”, “What’s trend today is trash tomorrow” or “Are trends over?” used by fashion activists and sustainability leaders such as Clare Press of Wardrobe Crisis and Fashion Revolution, it is clear the connotation of the words “fashion trends” are increasingly perceived as hand in hand with the toxic model of fast fashion and overconsumption. In reality, a “trend” can be far more complex than we currently understand it to be. Even more, we have a responsibility to examine its semantics, particularly in the context of fashion.
I have found myself at odds with the word, struggling at times to call myself a fashion trend forecaster, exploring other terms to use in my writing such as ‘shifts in culture’, ‘behavioural patterns’ etc to circumvent a word that bears so many negative connotations. This doubt has now shifted to a need to discuss how we can clarify the word’s position, in a bid to redefine how trends can positively help planetary imperatives.
In addressing the issue, we cannot circle around facing how the fashion trend forecasting machine has been complicit in a system that only values our obsession with the new. This is outlined by the Fashion Roundtable in a piece asking for trend forecasters to take accountability. Everyone needs to be questioning their purpose and as “beacons” of future direction, our role is to get people inspired, equipped and informed. So how did we get here?
In the second half of the 20th century, around the time trend forecasting matured as a profession (1), we evolved from tailor-made clothing to high-street fashion. The demands of the modern-day ready-to-wear fashion production cycle have meant we are today producing at least two seasonal collections a year, but more commonly four. With the advent of fast fashion in the first decade of the 21st century, this has been accelerated, creating tremendous pressure to constantly induce new desires for the customer and to respond to the fast changing customer’s demands and needs.
Fast forward to just after the 2008 great recession and fashion trend forecasting agencies and forecasters saw a significant increase in activity, as well as more public exposure as a coveted role to have in the industry. This illustrated a high demand from fashion brands that had become very risk averse. At the same time, fast fashion retailers, which relied on very fast turnarounds of products and trends, were rising to the top of the food chain.
This had consequences. Firstly, fashion collections started to look very similar as brands started following the same trend agencies and/or reports. A knee-jerk reaction to take cues from commercially successful fast fashion companies then sped up the general delivery cycle, the phenomenon of plagiarism and pressure on suppliers and internal teams. As a result, the very same risk-taking mindset which fostered innovation was stifled.
Fashion trend agencies became risk mitigators, dictating what brands should do and design. The adoption of prescriptive fashion design trend reports facilitated the work of brands under pressure, but it also fed into a system that no longer valued what design teams are best at: research, creativity and resourcefulness. And it no longer valued the true time needed to design originally, intelligently and thoughtfully. Instead, it fuelled an incessant delivery of new collections promoting trends that were often rehashed from previous trends. Many fashion creatives who entered the fashion industry admit – mostly privately – that they didn’t sign up for this system when they graduated, emboldened with passion, which ran dry a couple of years in, due to a relentless rhythm that is counter intuitive to creativity, as touched upon in the NYT times report by Irina Aleksander “Sweatpants forever”.
The rush to deliver collection after collection, trend after trend, has been one of the backbones of a system that puts toxic pressure on our planet and ultimately, our survival. Our gradual “loss of consciousness of impact” has, in fact, had a massive impact, as the fashion industry employs 60 million people globally as of 2017, according to the Global Fashion Agenda (2) and is the one of the most polluting industries. Meanwhile researchers now estimate the likelihood of human extinction by 2100 at 9.5% due to climate change. The data and science show clearly that what we do as a collective industry, down to the future trends we adopt, have far reaching consequences on earth.
Bold action to tackle climate change includes the willingness to have uncomfortable conversations about the speed at which we validate, produce and consume fashion trends. This means questioning the commercial motivations that hinder our objectivity, as powerfully pointed out by Devon Powers who discussed in her article “Pandemic Futures” how forecasting agencies and forecasters tend to avoid tough topics and suffer from internal biases.
When it comes to fashion trend forecasting, shoehorning a trend each season is not the best use of resources as, in truth, fashion trends have not been changing every few months, and this phenomenon has been happening for a while now. There are other cognitive dissonances and contradictions in the model we use. On the one hand, agencies are promoting monthly and seasonal trends and, on the other hand, they are heavily promoting sustainability as the defining fashion topic of today. To their credit, many fashion forecasting agencies and independent forecasters have published comprehensive and inspirational reports on topics such as systems change, degrowth, sustainability, the circular economy and slow fashion.
These reports have a powerful role to play, especially when a trend agency has fast fashion clients, as it can inform them from the inside; they are technically “inside the belly of the beast”. But there is still dissonance there if those very same clients are not paying their garment workers and suppliers, and a certain kind of “at speed” fashion trend model supports their system. Constantly churning out new fashion trend reports has caused deep contradictions at a time when fashion sustainability and slow fashion underpins everything. If we are giving trend direction to unsustainable fashion corporations, does it require us taking a stronger stance? This is a thorny issue as it could imply losing large clients if we rattle them, which in turn could force reductions in staff and financial hardships. But it is one of the underlying contributing factors to a loss of credibility and a potential ticking time bomb in undermining our purpose as fashion forecasters. At a time when transparency, social and climate justice are of paramount importance, we must have tough conversations together and find a solution. This isn’t a binary issue.
Trends are profoundly about much more than their current subversion. Trends are a reflection of our human need to create myths as a way to keep our societies cohesive, as Yuval Noah Harari explains in “Sapiens”. Trends reflect cycles in time and personality types, well explained in the commonly used “diffusion of innovation theory” by Everett Rogers in trend forecasting methodology. Although even this well-established theory can be questioned, as we face a need to slow down and save ourselves. There is a sense that time is flattening due to issues larger than innovation, defining the very foundations of our existence on this planet. One could say that the current seasonal fashion model and trend delivery system is currently living in a time warp.
As we face economic collapse due to the Covid-19 pandemic and a closing window of time to transform our societies into ecological systems, this inherently reduces the space for compromise. We have a responsibility to shed fast trends as the constant chase for the next best thing to produce, season after season, is further exhausting our planet. The priority now is on regenerative future forecasting models which can fuel the circular cradle to cradle model. “Hot items” and seasonal trend reports are inherently a contradiction to the future direction we are facing, which is one of redefining design, consumption and the purpose of fashion.
Collectively, we must reclaim the culture and creativity of fashion. We are much more than the industry we have become. Fashion is a craft and an art form that has the power to change culture and is a constant mirror of society. We need new myths, new collective stories, new trends that spread across the world and create powerful change.
And whether we impose ourselves a more unflinching alignment to planetary needs or it is thrust upon us, it seems a trend towards less trends and a questioning of the very impact we have and the very nature of our profession is taking place. Climate change, much like fighting a virus, requires a united and cohesive front or there is no chance. The scale of what is at stake puts a priority on new systems creation that are not trends; they are fundamental changes in paradigm. The message today is to think and design for the planet and create a just transition out of an industry model depending on extractive convictions.
As French philosopher Bruno Latour states in his 2020 paper “Where to land after the pandemic?”: “it is no longer a matter of a system of production picking up again or being curbed, but one of getting away from production as the overriding principle of our relationship to the world”. Latour proposes six questions to ask ourselves as part of an inventory of actions and systems we want to let go of for good during Covid-19. If the pandemic has proven anything, it is that we can put the world economy on hold in a few weeks. Therefore, it is less than impossible to question our approach to trends presented as shiny opportunities, regardless of how they contribute to an exhaustion of our natural resources.
Future trend forecasting where climate justice must be embedded in methodologies, and in the very trends that we set forth, may seem radical. Yet perpetuating speed-obsessed product trends has far more radical consequences. With “futuring” methods inspired by seven generation sustainability, we are as Oren Lyons, Chief of the Onondaga Nation states: “looking ahead, as is one of the first mandates given to us as chiefs, to make sure and to make every decision that we make relate to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come … What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?”.
This ancient wisdom imparted here is perhaps the biggest cue for our Eurocentric vision of future foresight for the style industry. It isn’t radical because it never once holds space for short term thinking. It is radically empathic and can inform the essential first steps in reclaiming the positive power of fashion trends.
Footnotes 1- “The Fashion Forecasters A Hidden History of Colour and Trend Prediction” https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-fashion-forecasters-9781350017184/ 2- Pulse of the Fashion Industry by the Global Fashion Agenda https://www.globalfashionagenda.com/publications-and-policy/pulse-of-the-industry/