Understanding the (Surprisingly Short) Life Cycle of a Fashion Trend

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Gucci Pre Fall 2016
Photo: Courtesy of Gucci

The 90s choker is back, everyone is wearing sneakers to Fashion Week, and you might as well revoke your status as a fashion lover if you don’t own Dior sunglasses and a Gucci ‘Dionysus’ bag. Whatever ineffable qualities are found in the products that make up dominant trends every season are easy to recognize but next to impossible to define.

What we see as trends – those enviable products or styles found all over the runways and our social-media feeds – actually catch the public’s attention thanks to a very complex series of machinations. In other words, trends are intentionally programmed to entice. If you have ever wondered where trends come from and why they seem to cycle, this latest installment of Fashion Decoded will answer all your questions.

Where Do Trends Come From?

“Whenever there’s a trend, we have a desire to see a patient zero,” explains Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, to Esquire magazine. When we see a trend, we think of it as having a single origin point, but the truth of the matter is there is no patient zero. Back in the day, trends tended to originate with the individual, as in the case of the famous dandy Beau Brummell (who introduced cravats to high society in the early 19th century) or Griswalled Laurellaud (who was the first to popularize the tuxedo in 1886).

This occurred before fashion had come together as an industry, when manufacturing en masse was an unthinkable phenomenon. Once the Industrial Revolution had established a functioning fashion industry – a maze of fabric, textile, dyeing, sewing, button making, and other specialty companies – the ability of the individual to influence the fashion zeitgeist disappeared overnight.

Trends do not occur by chance. They are the product of careful calculating that takes place at every level of the fashion industry, from forecasting and manufacturing to production.

How is it that designers seem to arrive at the same conclusions every season? Is it some kind of coincidence that everyone started doing off-shoulder blouses and culottes, or is it some kind of shared madness? Furthermore, why does it seem like seasons are homogenizing along the same kind of details, like textures, silhouettes, colors, and even the way an item of clothing is worn (think: wearing menswear button-ups backwards or peeled back at the collar to reveal the décolletage, for example)?

Instead of thinking of trends as being built from the runway down, you should see them as being built from manufacturing up. Manufacturers conspire to direct trends so that they can produce and sell large quantities of textiles and other clothing building blocks. If manufacturers decide that velvet should be produced, it is velvet that you will see dominate the runway. Manufacturing is grouped into five categories: women’s fashion, menswear, youth fashion, interiors/environment, and beauty. Each category is supported by a range of experts who develop and push the idea of trends in the form of texture, color, and even silhouette.

Therefore, in the modern fashion industry, trends do not occur by chance. They are the product of careful calculating that takes place at every level of the fashion industry, from forecasting and manufacturing to production. For example, color-trend experts are necessary in defining the hues of the moment and, once dominant colors are established, they filter through the creative interpretation of fashion designers.

When a noticeable pattern emerges, we can thank manufacturers and trend forecasters.

Roseanna Roberts, Director of Color Trends at The Color Association of the United States, shares the association’s methods for determining trends with Time magazine, saying, “We really try to capture a feeling or zeitgeist of what’s going on in society.” Similarly, trend forecasters, like the experts at WGSN, work tirelessly to distill the next big thing into reports that brands and designers can learn from as they develop new collections. For trend forecasters, tracking what comes next is a global endeavor.

“We can track what’s happening literally all around the world,” Catriona Macnab, WGSN’s Chief Creative Officer, tells The Debrief. “If something’s happening in one city, we’ll track that and see where it might hit next and next and next. The customer now demands instant fashion and they want the trends worn by celebrities, immediately. So we have to react to it. It can change even weekly.”

So when a noticeable pattern emerges – like the sudden ubiquity of the tropical-leaf print during Spring/Summer 2016 – we can thank manufacturers (who are producing these prints en masse) and trend forecasters (who are advising brands and other companies about the pattern’s popularity). Additionally, fashion brands might consult bureaux de style that define emerging seasonal trends, trusted insiders like Li Edelkoort, stylists who advise what goes into a fashion collection, media analysts, global street style, and sociological analysts who have their finger on the pulse.

Gucci and tropical leaf print via agnijagrigule
Photo: Courtesy of @AgnijaGrigule

What Is the Trend Cycle?

When it comes to outmoded styles that make a comeback, never say never. Few could have predicted the roaring success of the 1980s legging and the massive trend it became in the 2000s, which owes its staying power to the popularity of athleisure. Shoulder pads, camo jackets, kitten heels, babydoll dresses, platform shoes – all of these forgotten styles have made appearances in the past few seasons, vying for a spot as an official trend. Conventional wisdom in the fashion industry declares that trends cycle every 20 years. This cycle, however, is now an imprecise and fairly useless measure of trends.

Social media has placed a spotlight on fashion around the world, proving that styles from every decade now have a place in the average person’s wardrobe. Savoir Flair previously documented the fact that many past decades have come to inform modern style. The 20-year fashion cycle is dead, and trends depend not on eras but on standalone items. In a single week, you can wear a patched denim jacket and flared bottoms, a slip dress and choker combination, silk pajamas, a fur bomber, and a turtleneck underneath overalls – and still remain thoroughly current. Nowadays, trends are about pushing products.

Since the life cycle of a fashion trend is tightening and condensing, the period of time between a trend’s appearance and disappearance is faster than ever.

When trends from the past do reappear, they suddenly strike us as contemporary options because they are improved upon as a result of advancements in technology – they are made with improved materials, more enticing silhouettes, more intricate details. This means that fashion is an ever-evolving organism that seeks to improve upon the past while keeping an eye on the future. In this way, the comeback of an item that was once popular during a past decade relies more on reinvention than recycling.

Additional changes to trend perception are also rooted in social media. Earlier, we would notice a trend in the pages of a magazine. We now notice it on an influencer on Snapchat or Instagram. Ironically, this type of immediate and global saturation of a trend is the root cause of “consumer fatigue”; seeing a cool new “It” bag a dozen times a day on social media can actually make a potential buyer weary of it before they’ve pulled the trigger on a purchase. This also contributes to the speed at which fashion now moves, as the modern consumer demands more options, styles, and colorways at faster and faster retail delivery times.

Since the life cycle of a fashion trend is tightening and condensing, the period of time between a trend’s appearance and disappearance is faster than ever. From introduction and adoption to peak and eventual rejection, a trend can be around for as little as a single season. However, it can also come back in rapidly increasing time frames. It is little wonder, given the evolution of consumer behavior, that many in the fashion industry have declared trends to be a thing of the past. In the new frontier of fashion, it seems like anything and everything has a chance at earning its 15 minutes of fame.

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