Are Fashion Trends Really Such A Mystery?


People are constantly influenced, consciously or subconsciously, by what is happening around them in every sphere – be it in politics, the economy, socially or in popular culture, every phenomenon has an impact on how society will react and behave as a result of these influences. These movements in society can be seen as macrotrends and they have a lifespan of five years or more. They are the trends that sculpt societal behaviour, and they occur cyclically, often lying dormant before reappearing later, redeveloped and conditioned to be relevant to the current societal climate.

Every trend can be illustrated by a trend curve. At its origin are the Innovators, those that initiate the trend with new ideas. Further on up the curve are the Early Adopters, those that identify the trend first and borrow from it. As the curve approaches its summit, the Late Adopters enter the fray. They contribute to further sculpt the trend’s application. At the summit of the curve is the Mass Market. At this point, the trend becomes most relevant in the broad consumption market and is thus most commercially viable, but it loses steam quickly after that. The Laggards are situated at the mid-point of the trend curve’s descent. They take advantage of parts of the market that are slow to respond to the trend.

Occurring within macrotrends are other dynamic phenomena, which are born of these larger, more encompassing macrotrends. They are category-specific and are more immediately apparent in everyday life. These are the microtrends, which have a lifespan of less than five years – and it is here that fashion trends find their place. Until recently, most fashion trends followed a cycle of approximately six years, but due to the rapid evolution of the fashion industry, they are not as predictable any longer.


Fashion trends have their origins in the inspired creations of maverick change-agents in the industry that are not constrained by conventional parameters such as public opinion. They are the true innovators that buck conventions and are constantly pursuing originality and progress in design. The shifts in all societal movements invariably begin with the envelope-pushing behaviour of these change-agents, and shifts in fashion trends are no exception. These changes of direction are adopted by the observers, who translate them to be accepted in the mass market where the business of fashion takes place.

The adopters are wholly concerned about public opinion and the commercial success of their fashion items is ultimately their driving factor. It is this interpretation of innovation that has made the fashion industry the international force it is today. People use clothing as the primary instrument to project their identities to the world, and the fashion industry strives to provide people with the most appealing instruments that are relevant to the societies in which they live.

Despite this cyclical process of evolving fashion trends, there is no strict hierarchy within the fashion world. There is no right and wrong fashion. It has become more of a “meritocracy”, where exclusivity is dissolving. Renowned designers, who before had created clothing for a niche market at premium prices, are now beginning to see the merits in designing for a less exclusive – and more mass – market. An example of this is Albertus Swanepoel’s bespoke hat range, which he designed for American discount retailer Target, priced at $19.99.

The process of forecasting trends is not an exercise in crystal-ball gazing. Trends occur as a reaction to behaviour within a context, and carefully monitoring and studying this behaviour is what trend research entails. Over a period of time, very distinct patterns emerge that are reliable indicators of movements within fashion. By closely observing iconic innovators, renowned and respected for their fashion savvy, an accurate picture of what the future holds for fashion on a grander scale becomes apparent. Street fashion plays a large role in signalling how unique interpretations of fashion will influence the styles appearing in stores.

Inventive, uninhibited individuals who are naturally adventurous and expressive reinvent and adapt styles, so that they are not stifled by convention and what they have seen before. This type of “guerilla fashion” is becoming more prevalent as people seek the truest form of freedom of expression – and it is strongly influencing the design of clothing in the fashion industry.

At a more commercial level, how fashion is exposed to the consumer and what entices the consumer to buy fashion items is of vital importance in monitoring fashion trends. By closely monitoring changing styles evident in fashion exhibits such as international fashion shows, designer stores, websites and the fashion media, the business of fashion and its constantly changing dynamics can be plotted and analysed. Trends educate the business approach to fashion. Absorbing them and having a better understanding of them can be of assistance in achieving the optimal impact on a receptive market.

With these fundamental trend-research practices informing their approach, designers can forecast fashion themes for the upcoming season. They identify key elements of colour, fabrics and styles and interpret them in a way that is absolutely relevant to what is happening and what will happen in the fashion industry.

Consumers want to buy into a theme, even if it is just to take elements of various themes and fuse them together. It’s imperative to identify these themes, name them and present them in a way that the consumer recognises, appreciates and responds to. The consumer fashion-buying process remains one of aspiration, but the process of trend research that informs the eventual fashion-product offering is a much more scientific approach.

Project director Jodi Robertson and writer Stuart Brown are associated with the International Trend Institute in KwaZulu-Natal.


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