The Prophet Wears Prada

The London Lassie Explores the Modern Day Predictors; This is the Rise of the Trend Forecasters

forecast confirmation

In the past millennia predictions were made by the likes of Moses and Jesus, crystal ball clad gypsies, Nostradamus, and the Mayans. But now, we have new prophets – the trend forecasters. Involved with an ever growing industry worth billions, these new fortune tellers are here to stay, and they’re stylish as hell.

It’s no coincidence that everyone started wearing wedged hi-tops or how tribal prints were weaved into high-end garments as well as Next cushions last summer. Trend forecasting organisations such as WGSN predict fashion and lifestyle trends years in advance, and they’re making mega bucks for designers, retailers and themselves. Chuck Richard, vice president and lead analyst of research company Outsell, believes trend forecasting, could now have a global market value of $36 billion.

 WGSN, the biggest trend forecasting organisation today, was started by British brothers Julian and Marc Worth in 1997. It was later bought by EMAP for £140m. In January of this year, EMAP revealed WGSN had created £40m of revenues, up 5% on the previous year. That’s roughly the same amount of revenue generated by all of EMAP’s magazines put together. In an age of social media and increasing communication it seems trend forecasting is becoming extremely important.

With offices around the globe, WGSN has proven expertise in telling the fashion and lifestyle future for over a decade. It has over 38,000 subscribers including Armani and Dolce & Gabbana, who pay up from £16,500 a year for the service. Subscribers can browse over 20,000 crystal clear catwalk images per season as well as browse over news, forecasts and analysis. WGSN was involved with Graduate fashion Week in June this year and Martyn Roberts, Event Director commented, “With their world-renowned expertise on trends, there can be no one better to collaborate with”.

However, WGSN is not a lone wolf in the trend forecasting sector. Due to the increasing popularity of this industry, they now have serious competition. Stylesight, who are based in Tommy Hilfiger’s old New York office, yet translate their site into numerous languages, came on the fortunetelling scene in 2008. They offer subscribers a much cheaper service at $7,500 a year, and compete for similar clients to WGSN such as Prada and Zara.

 Nevertheless, there are even cheaper forecasting companies on the rise, and they don’t charge a penny. Trend Hunter, launched by Canadian Jeremy Gutsche, is a free trend predicting website that anyone can subscribe to. Nevertheless, is paying a vast amount for this providing the feeling of authority and expertise? If the service is for free, anyone can access it. This may be important, as wallet-busting WGSN is still on top. According to Isham Sardouk, senior vice president of Trend Forecasting at Stylesight, “People will always pay for something they require to get their job done”.

So how do they do it? Does it involve magic powers, or a spiritual gift? Apparently it’s simply about noticing things. Martin Raymond, co-founder of The Future Laboratory in East London, who funnily enough predicted the economic downturn to a reluctant banker in 2005, states “social, fashion and spending trends are all interconnected. You can look at young generations – their environment, concerns, and sexual attitudes – and guess how that will impact later on as trends.”

 Melika Imoru, past designer for ASOS, River Island and Jane Norman and founder of brand, Melika M describes trend forecasting as simply “a gut feeling”. “It’s an art, all about keeping up with the consumer and what they’re doing.”

 Isham Sardouk, senior vice president of Trend Forecasting at Stylesight, states fashion fortunetelling is based on observation and research, almost to the point of “obsession”. “There isn’t really a limit to where our research should stop…Predicting what’s going to be popular or successful is simply the process of detailed and thorough observations of what has occurred in the past, examining the present and based on our expertise, we build logical evolutions to everything that exists today”. He also articulates “We sometimes also predict trends that have no past or present, by simply scouting what’s happening in the art world, in politics, in music, in design and fashion.” Sardouk states one of his favourite predictions was the African tribal summer trend “The entire Burberry collection reflected our predictions, with identical colours and patterns, as if Burberry had used our forecast – but of course they didn’t since they aren’t clients”.

Burberry SS12 Campaign

Burberry SS12 Campaign

 Sue Barrett, a denim specialist for WGSN, agrees that prophecies are based on observation, but this has to be combined with travel. She makes her predictions through “travelling around Sweden, Italy and France, scoping out what styles are popular in each country”. Sue states that interestingly trends are adopted at different rates and in different ways across the globe. For example, Italians iron their jeans, opposed to Brits who would wear them crushed for an edgy look.

Cher Potter Senior Editor of Creative Direction at WGSN, the department that looks the furthest ahead in terms of trends, states her job also involves lots of continent hopping, “every six months, I look into all major exhibitions around the world and travel to the important ones, we identify regions that are generating a lot of interest and travel there to understand the creative scenes”. But they don’t just travel to New York and Tokyo; these prophets go way off the footpath, to dive into bubbling future trends. When asked about the craziest thing to happen whilst researching for WGSN, Potter states “a 48-hour trip to Kazakhstan that involved 2 lectures, a workshop, 2 studio visits, a trip up a mountain, a visit to a turquoise-toned communist era caviar market, an evening in a club with a women who owned 3 diamond studded mobile phones and a short period of being held in a locked metal room at the airport by Russian-speaking attendants”.

 Crazy travel tales and excessive observation aside, Potter states trend forecasting has more to it than meets the eye, “There are in fact many aspects to trend forecasting, beyond what people commonly think” she says. “Most people know about the trend spotting aspect …But trend forecasters also analyse what is happening on the catwalks, identifying major trends and predicting how they may develop over the coming seasons”. She also explains “we study youth groups and online themes to understand new modes of identity. And then there is the cultural side that I work on – we look at architecture, design, arts, music, and philosophy. We also study big cultural movements and how these will impact on the fashion world. Based on these we create WGSN’s Macro trends”.

 But why does the fashion industry need these trend predictions? It’s slightly mind boggling how an industry based on creativity pays thousands a year for someone else’s ideas, albeit unproven ones. According to designer, Melika Imoru, founder of Melika M, “On the buying floor the ‘we have it first’ ethos is key!”

But, can a trend forecaster ever get it wrong? According to Melika Imoru, it’s the forecast followers that get it wrong, and one of the current victims is Next. “Their current campaign is too one dimensional” says Imoru, “It is too much based on the Prada SS12 collection and their sales are down! I think the key is to not try too hard with catwalk trends as it can turn out to look like knee jerking. The trick is to stay true to your brands ethos, and take small elements of a trend to look new”.

Next AW12/13 Campaign

Next AW12/13 Campaign

 According to Isham Sardouk, trend forecasters really can’t get it wrong. “It’s not so black and white. If you look carefully at the runway or even retail, you realize that every trend imaginable appears all in one season”. Think about it: tribal, floral and pastels are spring/summer wardrobe favourites, yet every year the trends are embraced as if they’re revolutionary. Is trend forecasting just a case of the Emperor’s new clothes? (Pun intended).

 Derek Carter, chief executive of EMAP’s communications division hints that the increasing popularity of trend forecasting may be a growing paranoia instilled in designers, and fast fashion may be to blame. Many of us are guilty of buying a cheap Zara dress or Topshop skirt and wearing them once. “The trouble with fashion, which is good news for all of us forecasters, is it changes so rapidly so these things become incredibly disposable and really, really fast,” says Carter. However Cher Potter says forecasting has moved on from fast fashion and it’s more about helping businesses to be current, “We’re living in an information age, where knowing what is happening in your industry is a kind of necessary power…[forecasting] has moved beyond the production of constant newness and into the field of cultural research”. Carter and Potter both describe trend forecasting as a “must-have”, “To get a season wrong as a designer is cataclysmic”, says Carter.

Nevertheless, trend forecasting may just be a time saver to assist with the growing demands of the information age. Sardouk states the fashion industry needs trend forecasters because they are “simply a great way to kick start the season with lots and lots of tools and inspiration… it’s a breath of fresh air for designers who have been entrenched in the process of developing the previous season’s collections and have little time to research.” WGSN’s Cher Potter agrees, “Trend forecasting is a full-time job! Companies and brands do not have the time to look as deeply as we do into what is happening in design, fashion and arts – so we give them an edited version of what is happening in the world”. Julie Anne Sloan, a buyer at Next plc seems to be pleased with Potter’s expertise, “Without WGSN, we would have a limited view of the world,” she says. “I can see what’s happening from LA to Sao Paulo without leaving the office.”

So, are trend forecasters almost doing the designers job for them? According to Sardouk, this is not the case, “We trust our clients to use our content to adapt our message and make it their own”. Martin Raymond of The Future Laboratory states “we make two promises – to innovate and to inspire”. WGSN’s Cher Potter believes “a designer’s job is really about clothing, the details, feel and uniqueness of each garment and about knowing the messages of your own brand”.

 The impact these Prada wearing prophets have on designers seems undeniable. Almost like what black shades are to Karl Lagerfeld. Forecasting is becoming a mega-buck business, and with the chance to travel and sip coffee whilst observing street style and partying in wealthy Kazakhstan nightclubs, we doubt they’ll be short of employees. This is the business sector to watch, and it can only go up from here. As Stylesight’s Frank Bober puts it, “The fashion industry always needs feeding. I don’t see anybody naked”.

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