The Secret Science Behind Fashion Trend Forecasting

The Secret Science Behind Fashion Trend Forecasting
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Sarah Owen, WGSN's Senior Digital Media & Marketing Editor, discusses how to be a Nostradamus of the fashion world and what leading edge trends to look out for at SXSW 2017

Emily Wasik
  • 8 march 2017

For those of you who swoon at New York Fashion Week runways or go on a “like” rampage on Kendall Jenner’s Instagram account, did you know that these featured trends were most likely envisioned two to five years ago by the New York-based trend forecaster Sarah Owen?

No, this isn’t some farfetched Devil Wears Prada meets Back to the Future fantasy. As WGSN Senior Digital Media & Marketing Editor, Sarah has one of those jobs industry insiders predicted people might have in the year 2017. After interning at Vogue in her early 20s, Sarah went on to work as a reporter at the New York Times and New York Magazine before landing her dream job  as a trend forecaster at a company even more “en vogue” with fashion than Vogue itself.  Her job entails scouting trends at music festivals like Afro Punk and Coachella, flying to countless cultural melting pots around the world like Havana, Seoul and Lisbon to document underground subcultures, judging fashion week panels and speaking at conferences like Social Media Week, NRF and Web Summit. All with an iPhone in one hand and a crystal ball in the other.

Fresh off the heels of NYFW last month and before SXSW takes the stage this week, I sat down with the Nostradamus of the fashion world to get an exclusive scoop on the secret science behind trend forecasting, harnessing trends toward social good and what leading edge trends to look out for at SXSW, a.k.a. the entertainment industry’s Spring Break.

PSFK: You attend myriad festivals for your job. What do you love most about SXSW?

Sarah: The inspiration overload. I walk away completely saturated with information from SXSW and use all that knowledge to feed into my work after the event has finished. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

What does a day in the life of Sarah Owen look like at SXSW?

This year at SXSW we’ve got a lot going on. I’ll be covering everything from future-forward sessions during the interactive portion of the conference, to immersing myself in new and engaging brand activations. I’m also staying on for a few days in Austin to check out some of the film and music portion of the festival. It’s always such a well-rounded event that provides so many cultural insights.

Which SXSW events are you looking forward to most this year?

I’m excited to check out Casper’s hotel activation where visitors can book a night in the pop-up space. Also keen to listen to Marc Jacobs about designing around social media as well as futurist Ray Kurzweil and Marie Kondo.

Why are music festivals such important events for you to spot trends? Can you describe the process that goes into tracking trends on-the-ground at festivals like these?

Primary research is such an integral part of WGSN. Being on the ground firsthand at events like SXSW enables me to directly see, hear and respond to trends in their native environment. From soaking up all the innovative sessions during the Interactive portion of the festivals to discovering new consumer habits towards the music part of SXSW, the entire IRL process creates a symbiotic narrative that paints a picture social media never could.

When Austin comes to mind, people think live music, hipsters and “Keep Austin Weird” slogans. What is it about Austin that draws you in?

Austin is such a lively city. The culture roots come to the surface during SXSW and I always discover a new restaurant or new local band.

On that note, what’s your favorite SXSW memory of all time? 

Watching Elon Musk speak in 2013 (I’m such a big fan girl of his), listening to Rodney Brooks (former director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab) and of course, meeting my partner at SXSW.

Switching gears from Sillicon Hill to the Big Apple, what are the most intriguing trends you spotted at NYFW last month, both on and off the runways?

I think one of the greatest things I saw this season was a step towards more diversity on the runway—both race and body type. We saw Ashley Graham walk the Michael Kors runway, Iskra Lawrence walk Christian Siriano, Candice Huffine walk Christian Siriano and Prabal Gurung, and hijab-wearing Halima Aden who was cast for Yeezy in New York and then she popped up again at the Alberta Ferretti show in Milan. Though this is all very monumental and exciting, there are still great strides that need to be taken to be fully inclusive. With that said, however, this is certainly a step in the right direction, and deserves to be celebrated.

What are your predictions on the fashion trends and ideas that will come into play for brands in 2017 and beyond?

Obviously fashion shows fueled with political messages have also been dominating and given the tumultuous political climate, I see it continuing this year, extending beyond the runway. Brands like Diesel, for example, have already taken a stance, releasing a politically charged campaign that speaks right to the uncertainty around key issues consumers face.

“Trending” has become a word that’s thrown around like verbal ping pong these days. From your professional perspective as a trend forecaster, how do you truly define something as a “trend” or “trending”?

The different teams within WGSN have their own methodologies for deciding on trends—or what a trend is. For example, our two-year-ahead Vision forecast is a result of what we call “Trends Day”, where global editors come together twice a year to present their regional representation of where the future is going. For WGSN Insights, our methodology is very qualitative with most reports relying heavily on white paper research, mining data and stats to help land big picture concepts. For me, being a cultural sponge allows me to navigate the flooded social media scene with a honed eye for spotting early trends.

What’s the biggest difference between trend setters and trend followers?

As a general rule of thumb, I initially segment consumers or content into two buckets: trend-setters or trend followers. Trend-setters live on the outskirts of industries and are the ones disrupting their creative field. Trend followers are the consumers who are design and information conscious but not experimental or innovative to get to the trend initially. Age doesn’t usually play a part until later in the game. Trend-setters in general all have one primary quality in common: they’re proactively inspired and engaged in cultural conversations shaping society.

You’ve spent most of your career in NYC, the fashion capital of the world. What do you love most about the city?

The constant contrast—you really do witness every end of the spectrum.

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You’re now heading up the digital media and marketing beat at WGSN. What are some social media and communication trends that we’ll be seeing in 2017 and beyond?

Coming into the new year, it really felt like brands were going through a bit of an identity crisis and as a result are going through a rebranding revolution of sorts. From revamped logos to completely new social strategies, brands are taking a moment and asking themselves: what do we stand for?

Speaking of adding value, do you see a way that trends can be harnessed towards social good?

Brands are increasingly speaking up for causes they believe in. As we’ve see recently, consumers don’t want brands to speak to turbulent issues just because it aligns with their core demographics’ interests. Millennials and Gen Z are such educated generations and their expectation for brands to act as activists is more present than ever.

You’re obviously seeing brand campaigns on the daily at NYFW and with Super Bowl last month. In your opinion, what makes a brand campaign successful?

In today’s competitive landscape, a good campaign is one which has the ability to create hype and dialogue. Everyone’s searching for the recipe to virality but it’s not that obvious. The two key ingredients, though, are data and culture. Every great campaign I’ve ever reported on is grounded on a smart Insight and then executed with a keen sense of popular culture relevance.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt about the fashion industry over the last 10 years?

The dichotomy is real: they’re the fastest at identifying and developing trends, but the slowest at innovating and adjusting to change. That’s a generalization but I know many fashion insiders feel the same (think “see now, buy now” and the product development ecosystem).

What about the most important thing you’ve learnt about yourself?

That I’m far more adaptable and resilient than I thought I was, or at least acknowledged. I’ve also learnt that being kind can make you more productive, being curious can make you more creative, and that being still is sometimes more important than being busy.

Thanks for your insight, Sarah!

Follow Sarah on Instagram and Twitter.

All Images: Mathias Wasik

For your survival kit to SXSW 2017, download PSFK’s full-report here or request a presentation at your office. 

For those of you who swoon at New York Fashion Week runways or go on a “like” rampage on Kendall Jenner’s Instagram account, did you know that these featured trends were most likely envisioned two to five years ago by the New York-based trend forecaster Sarah Owen?

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