The world of fashion and the creative industries is constantly evolving.
Fashion is a mirror of society, one of the cogwheels of commerce, culture, and human identity as shown in Stewart Brand's The Clock of the Long Now (1999), by Ian Babineau. Trend Forecasting is widely used in the Style Industry and the Creative field. A Fashion futurist can work in areas as diverse as fashion, beauty, tech, marketing, and innovation.
Today brands are evolving in a complex world with major shifts taking place in technology, materials, design philosophies and systems, the supply chain, ethics and sustainability, health, consumer behaviours, the economy and geo-politics. More than ever, the future is on everyone’s mind and forecasts are becoming commonplace in the media.
As ‘future tellers’, forecasters and futurists are mythmakers and part of the cultural production machine.
But the truth is that the trend forecasting business is in fact very niche, yet has a great sphere of influence as forecasts are used to influence key decisions and decision makers working in the following areas (this list is not exhaustive):
- Research and development
- Design and Product direction
- Short and long-term strategies
- Marketing and advertising campaigns
- Brand positioning
- End user (also known as consumer) understanding
Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned specialist, you must stay abreast of future trend forecasting methods.
Trend forecasting is about detecting signs of change and understanding how they point to the future. These signs and the methods for detecting them are an important component of the work of a designer, forecaster, marketer and creative. The ability to spot trends is a necessary skill within a creative practice, the survival of product, a brand or retailer. Therefore a thirst for knowledge and curiosity is a pre-requisite, as the function of future forecasting is to help predict, innovate, and therefore question.
Although forecasters have a significant sphere of influence, the job of a trend forecaster and futurist is a very little understood skill. For those of us working in this field, having to explain what we do at a dinner table can be complicated, as it requires a mixture of methods, a broad scope of interests and our services are used in many ways. But as future forecaster Els Dragt states in her book "How to Research Trends", we are all futurists to a certain degree. We have always tended to want to prepare for the future, from the Ancient Greeks relying on Oracles to our current obsession with algorithm’s’ ability to map out a future.
Then intuition comes into play. This adds a layer of complexity to the work of a futurist or forecaster in the creative industries and fashion. Because although future trend forecasting is referred to as “a soft science”, it requires a healthy level of sensitivity. Blending creative thinking and intuition with data and hard facts, we analyse where the market is, the latest innovations from factual research, and from this propose future scenarios that may have not happened yet. This requires a unique ability to project into the future, imagine possibilities and is probably why it is not a field one can summarise in a catch all sentence. The work of a Futurist straddles pure creativity and pragmatic advice is a try. But really it's much more than this.
A trend forecaster and futurist must sense when the tide is changing, that moment when what is on the fringe of culture, also known as emerging trends, is about to reach the mainstream.
In terms of innovation strategy, working like a Futurist requires the ability to map out the future and strategise between a possible, probable, and faraway future, using a blend of techniques from scenario planning to science fiction to speculative design.
No matter how obscure the field may seem, the diverse skills of ‘futuring’ (ranging from data research, intuition to strategic direction to name a few) have become essential in a world with fast changing tides and shifting sands.
Trend Forecasting agencies and consultants provide their clients with critical and strategic intel to help them understand the purpose of the brand, the needs of their users, future product development and marketing. This can also be done by internal teams existing within an organisation. Each product implementation and brand activation must pre-empt the future context of its market. And since the great recession of 2008 in particular, brands have been increasingly risk adverse and ‘obsessed’ with future predictions which give them a sense of certainty. Furthermore they need assistance in filtering the flurry of messages to what is right for them, in the age of information overload.
The trend forecasting discipline is an integral element of the fashion industry.
Many fashion companies, from raw materials producers to finished product manufacturers, design brands, retailers and marketing consider they need trend forecasting to stay competitive.
To recap, futurists and future trend forecasters help organisations align with the future, or possible futures and via their ‘predictions’, work backwards to map out the key steps they need to take to make this future happen, or be aligned with it if it is already fast incoming.
This ‘futuring’ role is based on constant research, not only to inspire but also enable the right business decisions for companies navigating what is essentially a new playbook for fashion and the design industries, when it comes to tech, economics, changing lifestyles, sustainability, materials and ethics and how they conjure an incoming tide of systemic and philosophical changes.
But unlike a decade ago when forecasting was still about predicting ‘sure’ outcomes, trend forecasters and futurists today employ more the idea of ‘possible futures’, blending both the fact the future is something we create, and the fact the future is unpredictable. To promise100% accuracy is tricky.
Trends are constantly re-arranging themselves to form new trends. We can methodically research and hunt for the signs of what the future holds, but the fact is that the future is a moving target, a changing fluid set of circumstances. And by forecasting or dictating new trends, we in fact colonise our future, and create it. Therefore we can shift from ‘future predicting mindsets’ to ‘future making mindsets’. This last point is critical at a time when creatives are in the driver’s seat of designing the change they want to see in the world.
At a time when we are ripe for systems change, we must be more open to unforeseen and adjacent possibilities.
Whether we are generating or evaluating innovations, the fact is that the sooner we realise the future is fluid and can’t be predicted, the sooner we become more open to new ideas and free ourselves up in terms of imagining future possibilities.
In terms of helping 'predict' the future, and more specifically in the fashion industry, the job of a fashion trend forecaster has traditionally been about pointing to what products brands and retailers should design and sell, based on what is already trending, or what innovators, early adopters are doing, depending on how much the brand or retailer like to chase the “New”. The fashion industry sets a high premium on being and staying “on trend”.
And this role of forecasting trends, when it comes to the climate crisis and the responsibility fashion brands have in the demise of our planet’s eco-systems and the fair treatment of workers, is as we know it, more than problematic. Our obsession with the next trends has even made the word trend itself gain a negative connotation.
As the matrix of how we design, how we use products and where we exist (i.e. the metaverse) is being rewritten, so are some of the fundamental values and needs for trend forecasting. We must harness time tested approaches and methodologies, as well as raise ethical questions on the relevance of trends today and in the years to come and explore new approaches.
Because the signals are pointing to a shift when it comes to our notions of time, innovation, growth, and adaptability. This includes shifting needs in terms of sustainability and purpose-led business.
We have been at a tipping point for quite some time.
A realignment of the style and creative industries is taking place, due to climate change, technology and new socio-cultural contracts being shaped. The events of 2020 have only accelerated this and put into question what was already standing on shaky ground when it came to unequal or simply broken systems.
As we look to the future and face challenges, as we experiment and prototype, navigate the discomfort of uncertainty, this can be the time to truly rewrite the framework of design, commerce and ultimately societies. And for this, future forecasters, the myth makers/ chasers/ spreaders as we also like to call them, have a key role to play.