On Trend Forecasting

Why Predicting the Future of the Fashion Market is More Important than Ever

Key Takeaways

  1. Trend forecasters work in every industry, but their role in fashion is of vital importance in a post-pandemic world.
  2. The role of trend forecasters is changing rapidly due to the rise of social media and faster trend cycles.
  3. New AI-driven demand sensing platforms aim to replace more subjective trend forecasting reports generated by agencies. Analyzing this data allows programs such as Stylumia to increase profit margins for brands and retailers while decreasing wasteful unsold products.

The formula for brand success is a complex amalgamation of factors such as artistic vision, accessibility, brand ethos, and a certain x-factor that is hard to pin down. It’s the reason small independent brands such as Taylor Dorry can create “the dress of the summer” in today’s marketplace, where luxury brands such as Gucci, Prada, and Bottega Veneta continue to dominate sales (Vogue). While many indie brands are able to tap into the zeitgeist simply by creating what they’re passionate about, many labels pay to understand what consumers are after. A fashion forecaster may very well have predicted the rise in popularity of Dorry’s namesake line, because of her reliance on upcycled fabrics. For those seeking a leg up, turning to trend forecasting services in order to predict fads for upcoming seasons is a no-brainer. So what is trend forecasting and how do these firms work?

Fashion forecasters are tasked with predicting upcoming trends in everything from the fabric, silhouettes, styles, and colors that will be popular with consumers. These agencies utilize demographics, sales data from previous seasons, the political climate, culture, and the impact of tastemakers and creators on social media. Many forecasters come from varied career backgrounds including marketing, art, design, and editorial. Top talent at these firms have an innate ability to suss out what’s next in fashion by applying their analytical skills to raw data. In an interview with the Business of Fashion, WGSN’s Trend Forecasting Director Jane Monnington Boddy explains, “Some people look at trend forecasting and think it is a bit esoteric, but my success has come from having grounded experiences in the fashion industry. I have worked in the supply chain and at Champion Sportswear, designed at Yves Saint Laurent, and worked as a forecaster for Stylesight—it’s given me a really clear understanding of the fashion industry, and what the needs of the supplier, the designer, and the buyer are.” These insights into the industry are published in reports generated by agencies such as the largest, WGSN (World’s Global Style Network), and sold to some 6,000 monthly subscription users (Highsnobiety). The hefty price tag acts as a gatekeeper for industry players such as buyers, marketers, merchandisers, and designers while keeping consumers out. The reports promise to forecast trends two years into the future.

The role of trend forecasters is changing due to the exponentially faster turnover of tastes and opinions on the internet. Before the information boom due to the internet, fashion forecasters primarily made their predictions off of runway shows. They determined which trends were most viable and then generated these reports for clients, who were primarily department stores. “Images would trickle down to the public via fashion magazines and 12 to 18 months later after the magazines hit the stands, retail versions of catwalk designs would hit the street.” (Highsnobiety) Today trend forecasters scour outfits on Instagram, TikTok, and even identify niche subcultures in order to determine what will ultimately become a hit with a wide array of consumers. Forecasters are responsible for identifying both macro and micro trends. The former is defined as a broader shift in consumer attitudes and trends that last from 5-10 years. Fashion’s recent move towards true sustainability instead of greenwashing, and a wider silhouette for pants are two macro trends emerging this year. Conversely, micro trends are trends that only last from 3-5 years, (e.g. tummy bearing tops, the rise in onesies as outerwear (Who What Wear)). 

In some instances, trend forecasting does not only predict future consumer tastes but directly influences them. The art collective-cum-trend forecasting group K-Hole’s 2014 report on Normcore—developed as a direct antithesis to the popularity of branded clothing—was initially written as an homage to real trend forecasting reports. When their report went viral on Twitter, its influence was seen six months later in high fashion editorial spreads and youth culture’s ironic embrace of normal-looking clothing. The success of the report led to K-Hole’s recognition as an operational trend forecasting company.

K-Hole, Normcore Matrix

It can be argued that fashion forecasting exists in a gray area, neither entirely science nor art. While there are benefits to the ambiguity found within the roles of trend forecaster, critics argue that these agencies do not solve the problem of waste produced from excess unsold products. Today’s AI-driven style forecasting and demand sensing platforms such as Stylumia aim to solve this problem. Developed by a former Walmart India executive Ganesh Subramanian, Stylumia “uses fashion forecasting methods to swiftly and strategically streamline inventory for retailers by way of its Consumer Intelligence tool, an algorithmic solution that instantly aggregates data on consumer buying behavior across markets, geographical regions, fashion retailers, and brands, categories, styles, and colors, all according to the firm.” (WWD) Unlike the solutions offered by subjective experts, or supply-driven data turned into reports at WGSN, Stylumia’s technology relies on demand-driven data. In an interview Subramanian gave to YourStory, he explained that the company’s ability to identify consumer demands helps retailers create accurate demand plans, a more accurate execution in production, and in more efficient timing for supply chains. This leads to higher gross margins, lower inventory costs, and less waste. Stylumia’s lower price also democratizes fashion forecasting for small and middle-sized brands that can not afford to pay for the reports from traditional forecasting agencies.

Trend forecasting is a necessary component across multiple industries, but its role is increasingly proving to be crucial within the fashion industry. While some brands are able to create successful collections without access to these resources, it becomes more difficult to repeat this success season after season, while also remaining profitable. Labels can revitalize their image or appeal to a younger consumer by relying on the reports generated by trend forecast agencies. Small brands may have shied away from this resource in the past due to cost concerns, but new affordable demand sensing platforms are revolutionizing the industry. By creating products that meet the needs of their intended audience, labels are able to ensure their longevity in a fiercely competitive and fast-paced marketplace. Brands can pivot their production models based on this data, ensuring that what is manufactured will be sold. Assessing future consumer behavior in order to create relevant products, is an integral part of the fashion industry.