What People Get Wrong About Trend Research

For many people working in the apparel industry, collecting trends and inspiration trips are familiar concepts. On idea trips, it’s usual to wander through big cities, taking note of street fashion, culture and phenomena and checking out what’s in stores. You usually end up buying idea samples too.

Many people in the industry (other than designers) believe that the purpose of these retail tours (or comp shopping) is to gather ideas for future collections. You get to see the styles and ideas of competitors and be inspired by them. This is one of the most persistent misunderstandings in the industry.

Whatever is in stores now is also already in the consumer’s closet, or soon will be. Why would a consumer want to have the same thing in their closet next year as they already have now? Future trends are often (not always) countertrends to what came before them. The majority of consumers get bored and want something new and different next. Only a distinct minority have their own signature style that they always use.

For this reason, I often tell students at Aalto University that the purpose of  comp shopping tours and brand analysis isn’t to scoop ideas from others, but rather to figure out exactly what NOT to design. The styles now available in stores are exactly what nobody will want in future seasons.

Copying just leads to lagging behind. The secret of a successful fashion brand is that it’s different from the others. Coco Chanel already knew this over 100 years ago when she said ”In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.”

In the previous millennium, stores in large cities might have had a selection that only reached Finnish market with a delay of several years. In this millennium, we can follow the selection of nearly every brand online in real time. If something new and groundbreaking goes on the market in Tokyo or New York, even Backwoods Bob can find out about it if he knows how to google.

At this point, you may be wondering why designers should fly around the world searching out trends at all, if it’s so easy to just find them online. The fact is that you can mostly find e-store selections online. You can get an idea of street styles through blogs, but the photos are always taken according to the interests and tastes of the blogger. I, as a designer, might spot completely different things on people than any blogger would.

Another reason to visit in person is the materials. A big part of designing is the feel of the quality, and you can’t get that through the internet. It is essential for the designer to be able to feel the texture for themselves. A third reason is the selection. Brands may have slightly different selections in different countries because cultures and tastes are different in different parts of the world. These differences can, of course, also be spotted through the internet, but then we come back to the same issue of the importance of being able to feel the material.

In addition to the retail selection, it is essential to take note of what people actually end up wearing. For example, when designing a sportswear collection, I may park myself with my camera by the most popular jogging tracks of Tokyo or New York, and pose as a “paparazzi” while taking snapshots of the passing people and their clothing.

You can form a comprehensive picture when you observe street fashion and what’s available in stores, and then on top of that when you go to fashion fairs you can spot what your competitors have lined up for the next season. But if you set out to copy any of these observations straight into your collection, you’re already behind, and if the collection you are designing is based on an original style rather than the changing trends, that’s when you’re really off. Researching trends or not, in any case the point is to seek that element of differentiation, that new perspective for your collection, which no one else has.

Even without monitoring trends, an original style can carry a brand for decades or even centuries. Many designers are inspired by things completely outside the sphere of fashion trends: art, architecture, nature, history, cultures or phenomena. Retail tours  / comp shopping are important tools for analyzing the markets, but they don’t work as a source for creating a unique style.

Photo: Thomas Broumand Style: Anna Rinta-Jyllilä, design from the David Sporswear 2010 collection

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