We're reporting on each of the events in the RA's free salon series for GSK Contemporary - Aware. Fifth in the series is Future Forward: Forecasting Art, Fashion and Identity. Featuring Helen Palmer (WGSN), Martin Raymond and Chris Sanderson (The Future Laboratory), and Suzanne Lee (University of the Arts, London).
We took out the crystal balls for tonight's event, which gave us a tantalising glimpse of the trends of the future - and a new understanding of the organisations that map them out for us
Look, don't ask
Chair Suzanne Lee began by asking each of the speakers to explain a little about what their companies do.
Helen Palmer is head of materials and knitwear for the trend analysts WGSN, whose clients include design brands, retailers and manufacturers.
"We deliver about 40 reports a day for the fashion industry; it’s based on the catwalks, what’s in store, what’s happening in cities around the world. We do design packs, we have downloadable CAD (computer-assisted design) designs for people, we look at future trends for the consumer, from working two years ahead all the way down to trends on the street."
(R-L) Martin Raymond, Suzanne Lee and Helen Palmer Martin Raymond and Chris Sanderson are strategy and insight directors for consultancy The Future Laboratory. Both have a fashion background.
Sanderson: "The Future Laboratory was set up 10 years ago as a response to our background in the fashion industry. Martin was editor of Fashion Weekly which then was the UK’s weekly fashion trade magazine and I had a background working in fashion PR and marketing.
"We were really interested to see if we could take the skills we learnt from the fashion industry, where you are really working from your gut in anticipation of social and cultural change, and take that to anyone who’s involved with consumers and the lifestyle industry in a broader sense.
"We could clearly see the advantages of the way fashion businesses worked, the way they allowed themselves to think creatively, to have vision and to be driven almost intuitively by the subtle changes occurring around them."
Raymond explained that a key part of their approach is understanding the consumer - examining and analysing subtle behavioural shifts rather than simply asking the consumer what it is they want.
"There’s a whole section on our website called tribes - we go to people’s houses and we go to their cupboards and we notice simple things. For example, people had stopped putting things into the freezer. They were putting them into the fridge."
Analysis showed that people were buying food that was more perishable, but also seasonal and organic: "Suddenly we saw this shift from what was a frozen food indifferent culture into something that was being produced to the consumer’s taste, so it was chilled.
"I suppose as a company we tend to 'look at', not ask, because it’s like the classic Henry Ford quote - if you ask consumers what they want they will simply say ‘a faster horse’. If you don’t know what a motor car looks like, you can’t say a motor car.
"On the other hand, you’re talking about speed, you’re talking about convenience, you’re talking about elegance of movement - that’s a car. What you have to look at all the time is the interpretative value of how people see the world."
The power of storytelling
Palmer explained that part of the challenge they face is how to deliver trend information to clients who are across the world, dealing with different continents and market layers and who all have their own products and brands.
Chris Sanderson Sanderson: "It’s very interesting historically because the forecasting industry came out of fashion, and the fashion industry has to constantly reinvent itself every six months from the birth of the prêt-a-porter movement.
"The timeline for cars, for example, is about five years. So there’s a big difference between someone who works in colour or trim working for Ford who’s thinking up colours for a new car range, and somebody who’s working for a fashion designer who has to come up with a whole new collection in 6-8 weeks.
"Over the last 15 years, fashion has become one of the most influential business sectors in determining the way we think about lifestyle. Other industry sectors have realised that they need to think in the way that fashion does.
"It’s very interesting how you can have certain business sectors that are very open to people telling them what’s around the corner and then you get other sectors where there’s this intransigence, this art and commerce divide. Certainly when we started we tried, very unsuccessfully, to get some architects on our books and it failed miserably because not a single architect wanted to be told what was new."
Raymond said that it all came down to stories.
"The great economists of history were storytellers. When someone begins ‘once upon a time’, you are all riveted in the same way that if I hold up a balance sheet you are all bored within five minutes. They’re telling you the same thing - one is showing the adjectives of civilisation, the other is showing the realities, the commodities.
"We talk about fashion stories because when a designer sits down they are creating a story. ‘The story this season is …’ - it's about creating lyricism and an implication of journey and romance, whereas an architect never tells you the story about the building.
"What you realise is that while clothing is entirely about people and movement, the thing that the architects forget about is people. Every time you look at an architect’s model the people are afterthoughts in the same way as those strange architectural trees.
"Increasingly, industry is learning that it’s the adjective that makes the difference to the consumer, not the fact. So luxury has managed to survive the crash by becoming more romantic, more about being aloof, more about the journey. Think about the Louis Vuitton ads, Coppola sitting with his daughter under the tree - it’s about story."
Martin Raymond Raymond pointed out the car industry was a good example of this understanding.
"There’s no romance in extracting oil from the world and poisoning the gulf. However, there is romance in creating a car that’s silent and that runs on renewables. If you look at the language of the car brochure, you see these beautiful windmills, you see waves out at sea, there’s a story… I think that’s what fashion has done.
"In (the exhibition) the pieces that really work are the ones with a story, like Hussein Chalayan’s piece, there’s a really odd coded message there. The Dai Rees, it looks like a Francis Bacon, it looks like a window in a strange store on the other side of the world. So all of these things I think really matter in a way that we take for granted in the industry, because it’s how you think and how you live. But believe me, spend an hour with an engineer, or somebody doing the material trim for Ford and you realise why you work in fashion."
Herds of men
Lee asked, to what extent do people really think about the impact trend forecasting has had on their purchase decisions? Do we know something is a trend because we've read about it in a magazine?
An audience member said she looked in magazines and at what people wore in the street, "And I work in a school so I look at what kids are wearing at the end of school as well."
Sanderson: "I suppose I don’t look at trends so much because I don’t have to any more from a strictly seasonal perspective, I’m so removed from fashion now. But I’m always fascinated by men’s jeans because they change almost overnight.
"One minute every man you know is in bootcut jeans and then suddenly they’ve all gone, and overnight they’re all really short and rolled up or they’re skinny with loads of stuff at the bottom.
"It's because men herd, and very few will step out of the fold. It’s almost like there’s a consciousness, a decision that suddenly all men decide it’s now ok to wear bootcut and then that’s all you see. For me, that’s what’s so fascinating - it's like the classic definition of a trend. The first time you see it, you laugh at it; the second time, you ask who else is wearing it and the third time you’re wearing it.
"It’s that process of adaption that I find utterly fascinating."
Palmer said there was an interesting point of difference between being a designer, and being a forecaster.
"In my past where I’ve been responsible for designing product development, I’ll make things myself and go to the factory and alter things, you’re very involved with that development. Now I’m in forecasting, we put out design files with CADs so the designers can work with our shapes and use our inspiration.
"They’re using our trends within their own collections, so you can go to the high street and you can see our milkmaid trend with broderie anglaise and gingham in all sorts of interpretations, some nice and some on the sale rail. It’s really interesting to see how people adapt your trends - it’s a lot to do with the quality of the materials, the design, whether they’ve taken your CAD and just gone to the factory with it or if they’ve worked it into their core range.
"I go to the stores about once a week, I do menswear one week and women’s another. Sometimes it’s very subtle; it’s a trim or a colour, and sometimes it’s a full-blown ugly version of something we’ve done."
The colour question
The RA's Alison Bracker asked about colour - why did all the catwalks seem to have colour trends, and why is one specific colour more prevalent one season than another?
Palmer: "For me it’s a mystery in terms of the catwalk designers. It must be the fashion editors talking to the designers in a very private way, because we see links between the collections on a seasonal level that you'd think the designers could not have reached collectively…"
Alison Bracker and Chris Sanderson Sanderson: "We sit on a number of colour boards. In March we'll be looking at colour trends for the year to come - so in 2012, it would be about collections for 2014. It's about looking around, making some decisions and therefore creating stories that then influence and define what buyers will look at. There’s a constant process of refinement going on and in some ways I quite like it because it’s deliciously intuitive.
"And there's an interesting thing - are you reporting on this trend or are you creating this trend?"
Raymond: "You get people who object to the fact that it can be so calculated. There is actually an international colour committee that meets. It’s like a shadow conspiracy organisation who decide about that… and why is everybody so surprised by that? What did you think? It’s not like everybody is connected to a higher mind. It’s really obvious things.
"If you see 52 people wearing blue, either that’s a trend or it’s because somebody has sold a bolt of fabric to 10 designers all of whom thought it would be a really nice idea. And you think, 'which is it?' But it’s kind of both.
"What we’re beginning to see is people beginning to understand that process. The industry is becoming more transparent as a consequence, and the hierarchies we used to see are changing… now everybody has to sell the stuff as soon as it appears on the catwalk because of blogging, because of the internet.
"And what used to sit upstairs, in that strange thing called a gallery, is increasingly now sitting in a store - and the main place you notice that is in textiles. Suddenly you are seeing things you never thought possible - machines that knit food, for example.
"Ultimately, does it matter if someone makes a dress and whether that dress is blue or red? Well, no, but what if that dress is edible, or dissolvable like ( Helen Storey's installation ) upstairs…"
An audience member asked if there was a renewed interest in new materials and manufacturing techniques.
Raymond: "Increasingly a lot of focus is about the body and what you carry around. There’s a restaurant that is powered by people walking along the floor, there’s a hotel where you pedal for an hour in the gym and you give them enough energy for one free meal… if you wear a jacket out for a couple of days, you’re powering your mobile phone.
"I think we’ve had a decade of sleep, the last one has been a beige decade. Suddenly sustainability, the question of materials… science has woken up. There are so many science and engineering programmes are on TV now, and women who have graduated with science and engineering degrees - it’s almost a third more than men doing it. That creates a different thinking.
"Take knitting, for example. I was in the Royal Festival Hall last week and there was a knitting circle there, you had people taking out what looked like the belly of an old hoover and they were knitting the wire, they were making sculpture. People are thinking differently about materials."
Lee: "Fashion textile design students are moving into more academic industries because that’s where the funding is, that’s where the jobs are, so there’s that cross-fertilisation. We’re starting to get the innovation coming through at a very young age, and also the environment - I think younger people really are thinking about that, the undergraduates I talk to will factor (sustainability issues) into their projects."
And so to the big question - what are our forecasters forecasting?
Sanderson: "One of the things we’ve been talking about is the 'turbulent teens'. We’re now in this century's teen decade, and we think it’s going to behave just like a teenager. It’s going to be very turbulent, it will be about swings, highs and lows, difficulties and challenges - not just regarding the economy but continued growth and progress.
"And also with this issue of 'make do and mend', having fewer but better things, people are going to be facing something we call ‘stuffication’ - how do I deal with having too much stuff? One of our big predictions would be a massive de-cluttering, a massive throwing out or passing on.
"A great example is Howies, a small clothing company who came up with the great idea of a hand-me-down label. It's a label they put in the product which you can write your name on, and then there’s space for the next wearer. It’s this idea of passing it on, it’s a story. Oxfam have a fantastic campaign with labels, where again, it’s obviously second hand.
"I think it’s about how do we stop this cycle of continuous purchasing, garments that are made to be worn once or twice and then put in the bin, garments that don’t bear any true reflection to their cost to manufacture. The transparency that’s required in larger companies in the industry to deal with this…
"The seasonal catwalk is now just complete nonsense, which anyone will admit - from (American Vogue editor) Anna Wintour to the head of Saks Fifth Avenue. It makes no sense, how can you put a story to a magazine which is already three months out of date and the clothes on the pages are already in the shops or aren’t even available any more? It’s just all out of whack.
Tonia Bastyan and Chris Sanderson "For us, this revolves around sustainability, it’s no longer just about the green agenda, it’s now about good business practice and it’s about sensible husbandry. If I’m going to be sustainable I’m thinking about whether my business is still going to be here in 50 years’ time. For us, it’s a massive topic and you see all kinds of people trying to attack it in all sorts of different ways.
"I suppose the caveat would be that the phrase we’re using for this next decade is 'the decade of environmental acknowledgment' - which means, I’m afraid, that not much is actually going to get done."
Lee asked designer Tonia Bastyan (in the audience) about her perspective as someone who’s launched a new fashion brand.
Bastyan said she had clothes that both her grandmother and mother had handed down to her, that were beautifully made: "I want to create pieces that people can keep, so I'm not so interested in fashion colours, for example, which tie a piece to a particular season."
Palmer noted that at WGSN there was a drive to get rid of 'seasons' within their website: "We are constantly generating ideas and for us it's not necessarily season led, especially when looking at consumer lifestyle trends, macro-trends that are working two to five years ahead.
"We’re looking at how we’re going to package the information to make it season-less or evolutionary… we want to look into moving the trends on a little bit rather than saying, ok, we have three spanking new trends."
An audience member asked if anyone predicted any subculture groups tapping into fashion trends and adopting them.
Sanderson: "Constantly. What we all do stems from the massive shift that culture saw from the '70s into the '80s where fashion which was bounded by class and society became liberated, so fashion trends went to the street.
"If you wanted to know about fashion you didn’t go to the salons, you went to the streets… counter culture exists where people are doing things first and that’s still very much the case. Things go in cycles where everything speeds up a bit and then slows down a bit and I think we’re on one of those curves at the moment.
"Tailoring and suits, for example are about to go through a change. What we’re seeing now is people wearing suits because they want to, rather than because they have to - which challenges how we define what a suit is. They used to be a uniform, but I love suits now because I simply don’t need to wear one. I can have dress up Friday."
Palmer: "At WGSN we have a whole team of really hip people dedicated to the youth market, constantly snapping away at events and it’s really interesting that there are literally tribes within tribes; you can’t actually pinpoint any one tribe at any one time.
"There are so many rules and regulations to how people are dressing up, it’s a really fascinating area to look at. One of the things we’re talking about is the jpeg gen (jpeg generation) and it’s basically the young kids that are just mashing loads of stuff together, styles from everywhere, it’s a global phenomenon. We’re seeing really individual style emerging from everywhere."
The age of re-enlightenment
Lee asked each of the speakers to pinpoint one key trend each.
Sanderson: "Uniform will go through a period of revivalism, and it will be tied to sectarian behaviour, patriotism, jingoism - both the good and the bad side of that. It will be about people showing their colours in what they wear, wearing their hearts on their sleeves, so I expect to see really strong return to uniform and definitive identifiable 'markers' on your body. It's also the start of a massive backlash against obvious luxury."
Raymond: "I was really serious about the last decade being a beige decade. I was watching Tony Blair today trying to reason his way out of a sub-committee on the Iraq war and it reminded me that we had a decade of such unremitting stupidity, what I call 'tofu people' - we absorbed flavours without questioning them and I think what I’m predicting and what we’re already seeing is cultural elitism, intellectual elitism.
"It's a decision that we do not have to be democratic, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. We did that classic thing of 'let’s please everyone and not really look at the issue', so I think we’re going to get people saying, 'I don’t care whether you like it or not, I like it, I think it matters, I think this is how it should be.'
"I think we’re going to see new divisions based on culture, new divisions based on taste, new divisions based on what I call ‘gated intellect’ and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We’ve had the age of stupid, I’d like to predict the age of the re-enlightenment."
Palmer: "We have macro-trend meetings each season, and what came out of the one we’ve just had is that 2013 is all about unrest - politics, it's very dark, there's very little product interest and colour - it's about gritty drama, opting out, the demonstrations that are going on, education.
"One of the trends we’re looking at is what we've called ‘radical neutrality’. It's not about opting out, it’s about having strong feelings but being subversive and wearing things on the inside, stepping away, finding your own space and embracing becoming an individual.
"We’re really looking at the fashion of the '90s, more intelligent fashion - anti-luxury but still high luxury, unbranded brands... it’s basically about stepping off the gravy train and being contained and quietly being who you are."
Raymond: "We’ve already beaten you to it, we’ve just put it up - it’s called transformation."
Palmer: "Well there you are, we’re on the same page!"