For the last six years, Sarah Owen, 29, has trekked from New York to Palm Springs, California to attend Coachella. Every time she goes to the desert music festival, she meets up with the same group of teenaged girls, donning chokers and dressed in their festival best. But it was never a vacation for Owen. It's her job: studying the sartorial habits of fashion-forward youth.
Owen is a trend forecaster at the World Global Style Network, commonly referred to as WGSN. Those four letters mean little to those outside of the fashion industry, but to those who work in the business, WGSN is an invaluable tool, an invisible hand that predicts in daily reports the trends taking hold for fashion consumers around the world. You've never heard of the company but it likely picked out the clothes you're wearing today.
WGSN's 70,000 subscribers include designers who use it to decide on silhouettes for the season, colorists who check the reports when finalizing their palettes, and merchandizers who consult the fashion oracle when deciding how many dollars should go towards hats versus scarves for the fall season. In broad strokes, WGSN is the reason why your jeans all turned skinny in 2005 and why you want to ditch all of them now for a straighter cut.
Founded in 1997, the company now has 350 employees in 14 offices worldwide. As a senior editor, Sarah Owen's job is to live in the future and report back what people want to wear there. In her world it is Summer 2018, and we have moved on from the now ubiquitous, jute-soled espadrilles to… well, to find that out you would need to pay for a WGSN subscription.
The fashion industry has always been based on future calendars: runway shows happen six months ahead of the season the clothes are designed for. The trends from those runways then trickle down to the mass manufacturers, where a year and a half after it first appeared on a model's shoulder as she sauntered down a catwalk, you can buy a watered-down knock-off of that Chanel bag. It’s the classic “cerulean blue” scenario that the character Miranda Priestly coldly lays out for her young intern in the movie The Devil Wears Prada: the sweater you select at the store in the mall has actually passed by desk after desk of people who chose that shade of blue for you.
Owen sits at the very beginning of this chain, and although volumes have been written about the integrity of this trend cycle, she sees this well-worn path changing.
“Five years ago it was really about aspirational designers on the runway,” Owen said. “Every aspect of the design process was influenced by the runways [but] that has flipped in the last few years.”
In the past, when a new color or accessory stomped down the runway, fashion magazines dominated the flow of that visual information to the public. Trend forecasting firms like WGSN would interpret high fashion for the mass retailers, and if everything worked according to plan, the latest trends would be available in the stores just as the fashion magazines lured consumers there with their glossy editorials. But that was all before the internet collapsed this mountain of influence and made it easier for consumers to follow couture and for designers to follow what people are actually wearing on the streets. The early adopters, the outsiders, or as we’ve come to call them in internet culture, the influencers, are now all posting selfies on Instagram.
“I am completely addicted to Instagram," Owen confesses. She calls it the "ultimate playground of discovery," where she finds the teens whose fashion choices she wants to track. It's where she found the squad of teenage girls she followed around Coachella. “I couldn’t do my job without Instagram," she said.
Owen admits that social media platforms are as ever-changing as the trends themselves. She recognizes teens love Snapchat but it's not as easy to mine for information. "There is an authenticity that is coming across on Snapchat that cannot be beat,” she said, but the lack of discoverability doesn't make it a very useful reporting tool.
Owen's favorite mode of discovery on Instagram is the hashtag search. “I do reports on ‘slanguage’, so I’ll round up hashtags and keywords," she said.
If you’ve ever taken a drive into one of these hashtags (#slay #queenin #potd) you know that it can take you around the world in seconds. Instagram hashtags are a lens into “global gangs that really defy geography,” which is how Owen describes the type of trendsetters whose influence will percolate to the top of her trend reports.
So is social media disrupting the trend-forecasting business? Couldn’t we all just click through to find the next big trend through the magic of the internet? Owen thinks not: “Primary research is very important to me. I could not sit behind my desk and do my job well.”
That's why you’ll still find her hitting the pavement at events like the Afro Punk Festival in New York. “I saw a guy that was wearing lighters through each of his ears, and I thought, ‘It’s my job to go talk to that guy’ and we ended up hanging out for hours,” she said. “It’s that contextual information that really validates our reporting.”
In fact the reports that Owen publishes for WGSN are a complex brew of on-the-street reporting, social media divination, and actual hard numbers. She will often pour over hundreds of pages of research reports and browse all types of statistics trying to identify any shift in the economic mood that might effect fashion.
“For my job I have to take the elements from those reports that make sense, look at the wider cultural lens of what’s happening, and try to figure out why A + B= C," she said.
Take the current athleisure trend, where everyone from Kate Hudson to Beyonce has a line of high-fashion fitness clothes, and sweatpants are just as likely to be seen at start-up offices as they are at the gym. Owens points out that it was easy to see this coming if you were paying attention to the booming gig economy. A fashion trend-forecaster takes a prediction that 40% of Americans will be working from home by 2020 and translates it into real-life fashion consequences, suddenly seeing an increased amount of stretchy cotton in your future wardrobe.
WGSN's predictions don't come cheap. It has a rather opaque subscription model but the monthly figure for its services is in the thousands of dollars. This high cost is probably why few outside the industry have ever heard of the company: the fees are simply too high for casual followers of fashion trends.
In some ways, the pay wall keeps trade secrets just that, secret. On the other hand, the information on the website, while inaccessible to the general public, is widely consumed. The company's customer list includes Nike, Levi’s, Coach, H&M, and even extends beyond fashion retailers to brands like Samsung, Chrysler and even Starbucks. All told they supply trend reports to over 6,000 different companies. In the fashion industry if you are not using WGSN, you are the odd one out.
So if everyone inside the industry has access to Owen’s reports, what is the competitive advantage of subscribing? Which came first, the trend or the report? While it can be hard to know if a trend is simply reported or created in the reportage, in some ways it doesn't matter: knowing the same information as everyone else in your playing field is a risk management tool. It’s the same reason you make sure you listen to the news before going to a cocktail party, or make sure to catch up on Game of Thrones before logging onto Twitter Monday morning; not doing so would put you at a competitive disadvantage. If you’re in business of selling cerulean blue sweaters, you can't afford not to subscribe to WGSN .
When we talk about the future it is easy to romanticize visionary design, and forget just how much is us hedging our bets. When I asked Owen if she could see beyond the two-year timeline she currently works on, she laughed.
“I’m not going to sit here and say ‘Pink is huge is 2020,'" she said. “No one is a literal trend forecaster in that purest definition.”
As it turns out, it may not be Miranda Priestly or even Sarah Owen who picked out the color of the sweater you are wearing, we may have arrived at that future together, through a sea of Instagram posts and a fear of being left behind.
Cara Rose DeFabio is a pop addicted, emoji fluent, transmedia artist, focusing on live events as an experience designer for Real Future.