Photograph by Hannah Whitaker.

Is Trend Forecasting an Art or Science?

The elusive field of trend forecasting has become a codified business, but a handful of renegades are questioning this big-box mentality. Is it science or magic?

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Sep 4 2018, 2:30pm

Photograph by Hannah Whitaker.

When BuzzFeed published a profile of Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, writer Katie Notopoulos tweeted, “What the fuck is a PhD in fashion forecasting? You can literally become a DOCTOR of that?” After all, anyone who claims to possess knowledge of the next big thing, their methods obscured, seems more like a soothsayer than a highly trained academic. When what they’ve been saying all along comes true, it is an anxious magic. Is trend forecasting the ultimate technology or the ultimate witchcraft?

I consulted with Louise Stuart Trainor, a lecturer of trend forecasting at the London College of Fashion (Wylie’s alma mater). Trainor, also a consultant for industry titan WGSN, as well as her own brand, explained via email that the trend forecaster’s occupation “is about capturing the zeitgeist and translating that into products and campaigns that consumers will react positively to in the near future” She continued, “[They] provide a curated view to brands, and brands provide a curated view to consumers.”

For global trend-forecasting agencies like WGSN, it’s a numbers game. WGSN, founded in 1998, has 20 years of research compiled in its database—shared only with brands that can pay—and hires forecasters to pull out the relevant patterns. The method, Trainor notes, “used to be mostly art or, rather, intuition. But with the rise of big data, brands started to look for more hard evidence to bolster the concepts trend-forecasting agencies were providing.”

But is clairvoyance simply self-fulfilling prophesy? The con seems easier than ever in the digital age, prolific with blind spots and seductive assumptions. The ethics of trend forecasting, like data mining, is only a recent concern, and it is far too late to impose rules. Fern Seto notes in her 2017 article for High Snobiety that WGSN is not only selling access to its database, but also access to templates. With the company’s clients all using the same information, she muses, “it seems the industry is chewing happily away on its own tail.”

This sounds sinister, but trend forecasting, in its most positive form, aims to expand creative possibility, not narrow it. To her students, Trainor recommends they look at anything but fashion, which “could be reading a magazine in the dentist’s waiting room, watching half-time football analysis, listening to a podcast, or overhearing a conversation on a bus.” The oracle’s art is to pay attention to what it is like to be a human living on the planet Earth in this day and time.

Perhaps it’s not the conceit of trend forecasting, but the scale and source of prescience, that seems problematic. Self-defined cultural oracle Ayesha Siddiqi objected to the corporate forecasting machine in March, tweeting, “A lot of people that work as trend ‘forecasters’ are telling people who don’t know any better about trends that have already happened...that’s not forecasting, that’s conning those that aren’t connected to cultural currents and will always be behind.” She followed up with her sales pitch, claiming that she “can tell you what you’ll be eating for lunch this time next year and what shoes the waiter will be wearing...” (How, precisely, Siddiqi applies this knowledge and for whom remains a confidential art.)

Like in Oz, there are good witches and bad witches. Are the independent and autodidactic trend forecasters like Siddiqi, free of the institution, closer to apprehending an authentic art form?

The pioneer of forecasting-as-art form is, of course, the artistic collective K-HOLE. From 2011 to 2015, the group meditated on this landscape in a series of online essays, writing, “Seeing the future ≠ changing it. Networks of power and influence remain the same.”

The oracle’s art is to pay attention to what it is like to be a human living on the planet Earth in this day and time.

Some oracles do substantiate their visions. Karla Welch, stylist to Justin Bieber, Lorde, and more, has preternatural abilities to create endlessly fresh looks that manage to capture attention in the TMZ noise. She described her process, startlingly similar to the vibey nature of trend-seers, as tapping into “something mystical,” but also into “an internal library.” She choses looks with context and instinct. “This sounds a little weird,” she said, “but I activate a feeling.” Her work “comes from [her] own likes...and letting those flow through me.”

Daring to be oracular feels either completely brilliant or breathtakingly irresponsible, but it is undeniably the work of an artist. Someone in Siddiqi’s Twitter replies (never a good place to dwell) wrote, “This is the kind of wild speculation that led to the crash.” My parents still wear a bootleg joke tee they made in the 80s that reads, “Endless Repetition, Wild Speculation.” K-HOLE recognizes the oracle as one who “used the alchemical quality of group dynamics to transform inside jokes, gossip, and petty infighting into advice fit for a king.… The oracle’s way of creating new things in the world was to convert nonsense into sense.” Maybe we need a wry talisman against those who dwell in divination while we wear the same bell-bottoms revamped from 1813 to 1977 to 2002 to 2017. Then again, this wild speculation may move us toward wisdom. Perhaps we need their clarity of vision to help us make sense of our very own present.