Fashion trends: Who decides what’s hot and what’s not?

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With New York fashion week almost over and London fashion week starting tomorrow, this  post by David looks at how fashion trends are created, developed and grown – from catwalk to high street.

I’ve never really understood fashion. Why is green hot one minute and red the next, who decides this? Is there a fashion god? A fashion illuminati? I imagine secret meetings behind locked doors and sacred rituals involving long black dresses and drinking blood from Louis Vuitton shoes.

OK, every industry has trends, fair enough, but why would you not want to be seen dead in an outfit in April that seemed to be attached to your skin in March? Technology advances and everyone wants the latest gadget, but from what I can see (and please correct me if I am wrong) fashion pretty much regurgitates itself every few years and if you wore the same outfit for 20 years you could probably bank on it being in vogue at least once. A bit like how a stopped clock is right twice a day.

As an unfashionable, 30 something male, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at who decides whether mini skirts are in or out. It turns out there are a number of factors and contrasting opinions on what is the biggest influencer on what’s hot and what not.

Celebrities

My first thought was celebrities. As a nation we are obsessed with them and celebrity endorsement is sought by all major brands. Open any glossy magazine and you will be presented with pages and pages of who’s wearing what and how you can recreate the look for yourself.

So, are celebrities behind fashion trends? Well, certainly celebrities are a primary influence in the growth and popularity of a trend, but that still doesn’t really explain where the trend originated. Most celebrities these days have personal stylists and moving further up the chain, the stylists will probably take their influence from designers and so on.

With the odd exception celebrities aren’t the trend setters, although they are generally ‘on trend’ and dressed in the hot outfit of the season.

You may say that you will see celebrities wearing certain fashions before they hit the high street and popular consciousness, and this would be correct, but there is a simple explanation for this. Money.

New York fashion week is just finishing and London fashion week starts tomorrow. Next week the celebs will be dressed in the latest fashion and appear in the magazines, but the main reason is they can afford to do so. They can afford to pay the designers for the genuine articles seen on the catwalks. It takes 2-3 months for the high street retailers to produce their own affordable ranges, which is why the fashion shows work 6 months in advance and we see Springs trends in the Autumn and vice versa.

So, if the celebrities don’t create the trends is it the designers?

Designers

This would seem the obvious answer. At the aforementioned fashion weeks, the world’s media flocks to see what the latest trends will be on the catwalks from the major designers.

But there you have it, they come to see the ‘trends’, i.e. they have already been decided. If brown is in for the winter, you can bet your bottom dollar (a not inconsidered turn of phrase as you will see later) that most of the designers will feature signature brown pieces in their show etc etc. Yes, there are exceptions and they will all put their own spin on the trend, but in general it is clear that when the designers are putting together their collections, they already know is going to be in for the season. If they didn’t then every show would be completely different and effectively there would be no trends, or so many that their impact would be diluted.

So again, the designers drive the trend, passing it from catwalk to celebrity to consumer but it would appear that they are not the originators.

Social and economic factors

This I found interesting and was not something I had really considered before I began researching this article, but makes a lot of sense. If you look at fashion trends over the past 10 years there has been a definite return to glamour, which coincides against a background of political and economic gloom (Iraq war, terrorism, credit crunch, recession). This could be interpreted as escapism in much the same way that fantasy films have been very popular over the past decade (Harry Potter, Twilight etc) – people want to dress up to forget about the doom around them. A bit like sticking your head in floral print sand.

Compare this to the 90s, when everything was going (comparitively) well. Cool britannia was all grunge, track suits, trainers and where what you like.

Going back further to the 60s, mini skirts and flower power was all about rebelling against the establishment, the vietnam war and the birth of sexual liberation.

The 80s decadent new romance could be interpreted as escapism from Thatcher’s cold, prudent, conservative Britain with its poll tax and miners strikes.

It would certainly seem that the world does have an influence on where fashion will go, but we still haven’t got to the root of who picks up on the zeitgeist of the day and sets the trends accordingly.

The media

As we know, celebrities are one of the main factors in the growth of trends, but it is the magazines, fashion websites and tv shows which give them the platform to do it.

While printed magazine sales are down [1] they still have a huge reach and there is no doubt that the glossies are a primary influence in the development of trends. After all, if the editors choose not to cover a particular fashion then it will never reach the critical mass required.

The fall in printed media is offset with the huge growth and reach of the internet and fashion magazines have reached a wider audience than ever in their online formats.

So why do editors choose particular looks? I hate to say it, but the answer is…

Money

The media is reliant on advertising and the major advertisers happen to be the big brands where we like to shop. Fashion is big business (estimated at £21 billion in 2010  [2]) and ultimately, sorry Jessie J, it is all about the money.

So why do trends change each season? Well, if you went into Zara and everything was the same from month to month then you would have no reason to purchase a new dress, or a new jacket. New trends are introduced to give us reason to change our wardrobe and continue to spend to keep up with our peers and celebrity heroes.

All of the big retailers have head office teams dedicated to fashion forecasting and each season they have researchers looking for trend ideas on the street, studying the political and economic background and (sorry again) looking at what hasn’t been round for a few years and is ripe for a comeback.

There is a silver lining in this though, because ultimately what this means is that fashion is driven by…

You

While the retailers may have the major influence in seeding what is hot and what is not, if they get it wrong then you, the consumer will not buy into it. Ultimately, you are the arbiter of whether a trend looks great or not and for every successful trend each year there will be dozens that we have collectively said ‘thanks but no thanks’ to.

They will studiously analyse sales figures and look for spikes, i.e. 10% increase in pink polkadot high heels last month, so again the early development of the trend is influenced by you.

Social media is also a huge tool in the power of the consumer and instant feedback on facebook, twitter, blog comments etc tells the retailers which trends to push.

Additionally, trends can still start on the street and skinny jeans are a classic example. This trend was first spoted in 2003 by the head of trend forecasting at Cotton Inc on a trip to Stockholm, where she saw groups of teenagers wearing their jeans rolled up a few inches to make them tigher around the legs. She took photos, went back to head office and by 2006 skinny jeans were all the rage [3].

So, there we have it. Fashion trend ideas are brainstormed by fashion industry retailers, voted for by you (despite you knowing it!), pushed to the designers, debuted on the catwalks, endorsed by celebrities, covered by the media, developed back into high street ranges and ultimately worn by you! This process is rinsed and repeated every 6 months

It’s been interesting looking at the circle of fashion, particularly as a man who has worn blue jeans and a black t-shirt for the last 20 years and will probably be doing the same for the next 20. Do you agree with my analysis? What’s your own thoughts on how fashion trends develop?

After all my reasearch, one burning question remains… when will shell suits be back in vogue ;-)

References

[1] Mag ABCs: Glamour stays top as More plummets (Press Gazette) – http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=49864&c=1
[2] London Fashion Week: Why British fashion is worth £21 billion (Telegraph) – http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/news-features/TMG8008413/London-Fashion-Week-Why-British-fashion-is-worth-21-billion.html
[3] Roaming the world detecting fashion (New York Times) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/jobs/11starts.html

Recommended

Fashion Trends: Who Decides? (part 1) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rei9H13TtAg
Fashion Trends: Who Decides? (part 2) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvXx_ElOyxQ

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  • Love this article,it’s so interesting and something I have always wondered myself!
    http://www.whatwillshewear.blogspot.com

    Danie B

    • Thanks Danie, it was really interesting putting it together and I hope I have shed some light on where all those new trends come from!

  • Loved the article david, and i think you have it spot on,, street culture, real people really do influence the next seasons looks, and also nothing is new just a clever twist on past collections

  • Wow!! Has any greater truth ever been spoke with regard to fashion!? You have obviously researched this superbly well. Bravo, but no bravo to she’ll suits EVER!!!!

    • Thanks Ling, I certainly learned a lot while writing it. I really want to dig out my old Scotland shell suit, circa 1992 though!

  • Kate

    A brilliant and informative article! I personally look at the glossies (mainly Glamour magazine) for inspiration, then take the bits I like and go and buy the styles and colours I know suit my shape, not whatever may happen to be ‘on trend’. And just for the record brown will never ever be the new black!!

  • What a refreshingly interesting read! The part about the social and economic factors really interested me and obviously this goes hand in hand with money. Personally, I don’t feel I am massively influenced by trends, I certainly don’t always try to be ‘on trend’ and feel I have quite a classic style, but then ‘what’s hot’ can almost be a subliminal message influencing our tastes through media, celebrities and events like LFW. Subconsicously or consciously I may subscribe to them, if they fit with my own personal style….and then I guess they merge into my own style!

    Rachel from http://www.whatabeauty.co.uk x

    • Thanks Rachel. Yeah, that was one of the things that most interested me, and really make sense when you think about it.

  • I love this article, it was really interesting to read :) I really enjoyed the section on social and economic factors.

    • Thanks a lot Samantha, glad you enjoyed it :-)

  • been thinking and writing about this whole topic during an essay for uni. super interesting and definitely worthy to share some thoughts on!
    i agree with most of your points and i loved your way of writing!!
    thanks for this – really gave me some other ways and points to look at it!

    oh and rachel’s comment totally makes sense to me – i’m having a similar opinion! :)

    xxx

    anna

  • Sally

    I’ve often wondered if my own style is really my own style, or if I’m being led by the ‘media’. Good to hear that despite the obvious economic side, great fashion still has its origins in the street.

  • I loved this article, i am slightly fashion obsessed but never really delved into the inner workings of whom & when, so reading this has opened my eyes.

    I struggled with fashion for years, it frustrated me as many styles didn’t suit a bottom heavy girl but i learnt that dressing for my shape and being happy in what I’m wearing is all that truly matters, i always try to be on trend with my shoes, bags, top half, accessories, colours, hair and makeup etc.

    Again loved the article.

    Txx

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  • Great article, I never would have thought fashion originated from the “kids on the street” but it makes sense, Its really interesting watching fashion make a full circle, I went through the 90s as a teen and now the 90s hairstyles/clothes and makeup are all coming back.

    • If only 90s music would make a comeback too!

  • The fashion illuminati! Lool but seriously… There must be some secret society who decides what is fashionable. I mean, it has to come from somewhere..I remember reading a nail blog once, and it was about nail art being ‘in’ this season, and I thought, well says who? Who is the decider of what’s in? Ok, it’s spotted in the big fashion shows, but the nail techs applying the nail art must have got the idea from someone or something.Personally I like to think I have my own individual style but, similar to what sally said, I would be lying if I said I wore a khaki army jacket years ago. I get inspiration from celebs, and then kinda customise it to my own style. If there were no magazines, no media, no celebs, I wonder what we would all be wearing? I mean if whoever/whatever decides that a potato sack is fashionable, there will be people out there who will wear that ‘ish. Remember when everyone started getting the rihanna hair cut with the shaved side? Even though alot of them didn’t suit it…Just like the pillarbox red hair colour she had, everyone copied and it looked so bad on so many people, but the media was all over it! Great post btw, I love this blog :)

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