Fashion by definition, is the style or styles worn by the majority of a population at any given time. In other words, whatever most people are wearing right now—a particular, color, pattern, cut or silhouette—is “in fashion,” “in style,” “a la mode.”
Contrary to popular parlance then, fashion is more about fitting in than standing out. It emphasizes group identity, highlighting those groups who wield the most power, or social significance, in the moment. Fashion underscores and externalizes the cultural zeitgeist. And by recognizing what is “in fashion” companies are able to best engage their audience and make a profit.
It seems then that fashion companies should simply be keen observers of the present in order to ensure their ongoing viability. And yet, it’s not quite so simple in an industry where determining what to produce often begins two years before a product arrives. This requires companies then to be constantly ahead of the curve in terms of potential societal trends, in order to deliver appropriate styles. Experts in trend analysis help to facilitate this process—and have become highly sophisticated at mining data to do so--albeit still victim to global health pandemics and Mother Nature. But there is another interesting tool at play—and that is the role of marketing in selling a particular trend. It starts in the business-to-business space—mills selling brands what fabrics they determine will be “in style,” brands then selling retail buyers on the clothes made from these fabrics at trade shows or on the runway, and then retailers selling customers on these same looks. In short, it’s the fashion industry, at large, that sells society on what will be “in fashion.”
And while this was a relatively controlled process in the past, wherein companies focused on “high society” or cultural tastemakers, supported by ad campaigns, events and store locations—globalization and social media has made controlling the narrative much more difficult. Top down, or trickle down fashion, has been replaced, or at least muddied, by an upward flow of trends, “from the street.” This upward flow is constant and varied—coming from a consumer that is not defined by fashion seasons or supply chain processes. And it puts fashion companies at risk of being able to deliver the right goods at the right time, leading to more market volatility and retail turnover that consumer focused technology cannot overcome. If anything, the better technology has become at giving consumers what they want when they want it, the more pressure it has put on the more complex and expensive problem of producing goods quicker. While made-to-order works well for single high ticket purchases like tailored mens shirts, it’s more difficult for low ticket purchases on less tailored clothes, especially across multiple categories.
In the short term, this issue has raised the stakes for fashion companies to convince consumers what they are creating (and have invested so much money in to produce) is worth buying. If trends are coming from the street, then brands must go to the street. First, this means using social media data to determine what they design in the first place, doing their best to take something very generalized and connect it to their own DNA. Cue, luxury and mass market brand collaborations, branded hotels, and coffee shops. Second, they must pay influencers to influence consumers to buy what they have to sell across myriad platforms. And this means engaging influencers that are both international in scope all the way down to influencers at the local level. Cue Tik Tok dance memes and paid YouTube shopping haul videos featuring luxury products. It’s an expensive game to be sure—when you’re paying on a one-to-one basis to wield influence, but the alternative is for fashion brands to be “out of fashion.”