We’ve all witnessed the rise and fall of many fashion trends. Think about the clothes your parents used to wear that have come back in style, looking back at old pictures of yourself in an awkwardly coordinated outfit (which you felt amazing in at the time, but now makes you cringe), or the sudden proliferation of a certain style of clothing on social media.
Fashion trends are everywhere and they have only gotten faster over time. Trends are not necessarily always negative, but they have become a key driver of unsustainable speed, consumption, and waste in the fashion industry.
Fashion trend cycles have become such an omnipresent part of our lives that we barely get to pause, step back, and understand the way that they affect what we wear and how we buy. Understanding how trends are created, and the effects they have on the fashion industry is an important step in becoming a more mindful consumer.
What Defines A Trend And How Are They Created?
The fashion industry was the first to use the term to refer to changes in design styles, and the popularity of a certain style, silhouette, color, or item of clothing. Today, fashion trends are often created by trend forecasters, who look to the future to make predictions about the present.
In an interview with Not Just A Label, renowned fashion forecaster, Li Edelkoort, described trend forecasting as future archaeology when she said, “I use the same methods as archeologists who dig into a site. They are able to find small fragments of our past and with the information they find, they can construct how people would have lived; what food they were eating, what clothes they were wearing, about hierarchy in society and ritual celebrations.
I do the same thing, only that I dig into the future, tracking the zeitgeist of tomorrow. When I have enough fragments, I connect them with each other and a new trend emerges.”
Trend forecasting relies on a careful and systemic analysis and constant research about the present and future. Fashion futurist, trend forecaster, and founder of Trend Atelier, Geraldine Wharry, describes this as a process that incorporates creativity while also focusing on objectivity and research. A very delicate choreography.
“Trend forecasting is a bit like investigative reporting and it’s intimately linked to the news cycle. To do this investigative research, you need to be objective and methodical, so that you make sure you are covering all bases and diverse perspectives. You should be able to forecast anything without putting your own taste in,” says Geraldine.
Trend forecasting helps fashion businesses remain competitive because it gives them insights into the future that allow them to make strategic decisions in the present. This is often used to shape consumer tastes in a way that makes us feel like we are not complete without the latest trends.
As fashion psychologist, Shakaila Forbes-Bell said on a Conscious Style Podcast episode about the psychology of consumption, “we all have an innate human need to belong, and clothing can help to fulfill this need.”
So trends in fashion come and go depending on what is considered to be stylish and aspirational at any given moment in time. And, this process is known as the fashion trend cycle.
5 Stages Of The Trend Cycle in Fashion
The fashion trend cycle refers to the process of introducing and popularizing a new trend, which happens in five key stages: introduction, rise, acceptance, decline, and obsolescence.
1. In the first stage, a niche new style enters the fashion world, usually from the runway, as spotted in street style, through a fashion blogger or influencer, or the careful planning of a marketing agency.
2. During the ‘rise’ stage more fashion influencers and trendsetters wear outfits that incorporate the garment or style, from social media influencers to celebrities. This increases the demand for the item and it becomes an aspirational style. It is officially termed a “trend” and this also means that more retailers begin to carry similar products.
3. Then, in the ‘acceptance’ stage, the trend fully moves away from only being accepted in “fashion circles” and is adopted by many different kinds of people. It is also at this stage that it often turns into a mass-produced style that’s available cheaply in several different outlets and e-commerce sites.
4. The ‘decline’ stage is essentially the realization that the trend has been fully adopted in the mainstream and so has lost its unique feel and sense of newness. This is when the style is no longer seen as aspirational.
5. The final stage of the fashion trend cycle is ‘obsolescence’, where the once trend is no longer considered to be fashion-forward. This usually coincides with the introduction and rise of newer trends that spark the same cycle and fulfill our desires for newness. But, because fashion and trends work in cycles, this trend may well return.
In today’s fashion industry, the five stages of the fashion trend cycle are still all present, but we’re cycling through the stages much faster. This speed is what has fueled the fast fashion industry — now, it’s been taken to an entirely new level with the rise of ultra-fast fashion.
The Hypercycle and the Rise of Ultra-Fast Fashion
Geraldine Wharry describes this endless speed and desire for constant newness as the ‘hypercycle’ which is a play on ‘hype’, ‘hyper’, ‘trend cycle’ and this idea of speed.” For Wharry, the hypercycle is “a bit like being on a hamster wheel with the constant chase and obsession with newness”.
As a result of this hypercycle, we have witnessed the emergence of microtrends, which are specific items that go in and out of style very quickly.
Even the microtrend cycle has sped up – they used to stick around for three to five years, but they can now be cycled through in a matter of months or weeks.
This has a lot to do with social media and the way that it can propel an item to popularity rapidly, contributing to overconsumption.
We still think about fast fashion as a speedy transition from runway to retail. But, with the rise of the internet and the omnipresence of social media, the way the fashion industry creates trends is rapidly changing.
Ultra-fast fashion doesn’t pay attention to the runways, but instead focuses on what’s going on on TikTok and Instagram.
Ultra-fast fashion brands select styles from social media (which are commonly stolen from small independent designers), they can produce almost anything and create dupe designs, and they can do all this at an alarming speed.
In essence, the three things that define ultra-fast fashion are: variety, speed, and the internet.
Do you remember the strawberry dress that became an online sensation and captured the attention of everyone aspiring to the cottagecore aesthetic in 2020? Or the House of Sunny Hockney dress that suddenly went viral? These are the perfect examples of the rise of ultra-fast fashion.
The idea that fast fashion brands could offer hundreds of new items per week shocked many of us, but now ultra-fast fashion brands – including ASOS, Shein, Boohoo, and Fashion Nova – offer thousands of new items per day.
The Impact of Fast Trend Cycles in Fashion
The faster the fashion trend cycle, the more garment makers are required to work at an inhuman pace, often working overtime to fulfill orders in time. Yet they are not the ones who reap the benefits of the exponential profits that fashion brands generate from their labor. They are the ones who pay the price for cheap fashion.
The speed at which these fashion trends circulate perpetuates a culture of disposability too. This means that the global secondhand trade is flooded with discarded garments, and waste colonialism continues in communities in the Global South that have to deal with an increasing influx of waste generated by the global secondhand trade.
The more we learn about these exploitative and extractive systems, that seem to only benefit a privileged few, the more we realize that we need to re-imagine our fashion aspirations and metrics of success and find a way to reconcile our addiction to speed and instant gratification. Trend forecasters play an important role in this reimagining.
Can Trend Forecasting Become A Positive Part Of The Future Of Fashion?
More than anything, trends are signifiers of change, which means they are not always negative. Sustainable fashion is an urgent necessity, not a trend. But, within the movement, certain trends are on the rise, such as the increasing popularity of shopping secondhand, capsule wardrobes, and the normalization of outfit repeating. These trends signify a change in how people are relating to their clothing, which is a positive sign.
“Forecasting gives direction to future potential products, campaigns, or ways of designing that can be very influential. We can shape the methodologies and the mindsets around thinking about the future, which is very powerful. There are things happening today that I have been talking about for a while now. For example, years ago, I used to talk about how legislation is coming and now this is starting to happen, ” Wharry points out.
Trend forecasters hold a lot of influence in the fashion industry when it comes to shaping our fashion aspirations. Trend forecasters have historically been key players in promoting a seasonal model of fashion that fuels overconsumption.
But, they can also be part of forging a different narrative. According to The Trend Atelier, trend forecasters have a significant influence over key decisions and decision-makers working in fields like design and product direction or brand positioning.
The work that trend forecasters do in gathering insights, design inspiration, and creating visions for the fashion industry is of great value. These insights can be used to advocate for clothing that is durable and designed with end-of-life in mind, as well as alternative models of fashion that focus on circular fashion, repair, rental, customization, and secondhand. Trend forecasters can be part of the shift away from focusing on what’s in this season and towards industry solutions.
For fashion to exist within planetary boundaries, speed and endless growth can no longer be the measure of success when it comes to the fashion trend cycle. We need new narratives in the fashion industry that encourage longevity, care, and slowness.
“Trend forecasting can be a force for good because they have a lot of influence when it comes to trends being published in the press and being brought into public knowledge. The eyes and ears of decision-makers are looking to [trend forecasters] insights to know what they should do next,” says Wharry.
Of course, trend forecasters will not be able to single handedly reshape the fashion industry. As consumers, we can become our own tastemakers to facilitate a shift in the fashion landscape that does not directly link trends to consumption. A better future fashion involves each of us getting in touch with our innate creativity, embracing our personal style, and learning about alternative ways of engaging with style that aren’t tied to speed and exploitation.
Fashion psychologist Dr. Dawnn Karen believes that mindfulness is the key to defying rapid fashion trend cycles. “Shopping can be addictive and advertising exists to get us to spend frivolously. Instead of shopping aimlessly, we need to practice mindfulness in shopping and understand why we are shopping and what exactly we are looking for. Mindfulness is the key to embracing your style and steering clear of trends,” says Dr. Dawnn Karen.
We all have a role to play. But, trend forecasters have enough influence to plant the seeds in the minds of powerful leaders to help them see the industry through a different lens.
A few places to learn more about trend cycles in fashion:
- For more trend forecasting and the role it plays in the future of fashion: check out The Trend Atelier and read this article.
- For more on the psychology of trends and how they’re connected to consumerism and slow fashion, listen to this Ethical Fashion Podcast episode with Li Edelkoort.
- For more on ultra-fast fashion: listen to this Wardrobe Crisis podcast episode and read his article on The Atlantic.
- For more on fashion psychology, how to embrace your personal style, and become a mindful consumer, take a look at the work of fashion psychologist Dr. Dawnn Karen and her book ‘Dress Your Best Life’.
With the hypercycle and the rise of ultra-fast fashion, we’re being bombarded with messages to consume more to stay in style.
But trends don’t have to always be antithetical to the slow fashion movement. Trend forecasting can also be about building creative and resilient futures, rather than perpetuating speed and overconsumption.
Rethinking and removing ourselves from the hypercycle is a great place to start!
About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.