From the Stone Age to the Digital Age, humankind has always needed to uphold the old adage and remain “one step ahead”. Back then, that meant understanding miniscule changes in weather patterns in order to find adequate food or sanctuary. Now, however, this instinct concerns itself more with keeping up to date with cutting edge designs. As such, an entire industry has been birthed just to accelerate people to the forefront of what may come. We call this trend forecasting. In fashion, a forecaster predicts the colours, textures, materials, graphics, accessories, footwear, street style, or other styles that will become increasingly popular on runways, and later in store for everyday consumers.
Today, trend forecasting is progressing at an exponential rate. Historically, large fashion houses and designer insiders had monopoly over the manipulation of where styles would progress to and how this may be perceived. Of course, these trends would become self-fulfilling prophecies as the success was ensured merely by the inception of the idea. This control led to crazes like women wearing red lipstick to raise morale, during World War II, and vastly increased interests in tropical prints during the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Fashion’s impact and prevalence on social media has now democratised the input into the fashion industry.
Roughly half a billion pieces of content are shared on Instagram each day! Each morsel of this content carries its own unique information and insight into consumer style, headspace, desire, and behaviour. Social media’s power has even led to the creation of digitally native brands. This has highlighted the importance of customer and brand interaction on social media. However, social media’s inescapability has made it a necessity for brands and individuals alike – adding to the nearly infinite content stream.
It is clear that brands need to be able to anticipate trends – but, only if they have the right tools to make sense of so much data. Due to a growth in consumer consumption rate, trends phase in and out far more rapidly. This makes it increasingly difficult for brands to understand the present. So, how could they even begin to predict the future? The solution to this conundrum has been presented in the form of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). Computer vision technology has the ability to sift through billions of content activations and use machine learning to predict trends up to a year in advance. Machine learning is a process that makes use of a number of prototypes that ‘train’ computers to better identify specific features and nuances in images. This allows programmes to extract information around shapes, attributes, fabrics, textures, prints, and colours. ‘Early signals’ are the slight changes in activity among edgy influencers who are often those who breathe life into trends.
Using these early signals, these algorithms detect the onset of new emerging trends before they reach the mainstream and realise their full market potential. Brands use this information to intuitively provide its customers with the trendy wares and experiences that they desire. Thus, brands forecast demand and trends more accurately, produce more sustainably, and achieve unprecedented competitive advantage. AI adds further value in that it can spot potential advantages that may not be immediately obvious to companies, creating a competitive edge.
As daunting as this may seem, it actually places the consumer at the centre of the decision making process. For the first time in a long time, the little guy may just be winning. Very seldom are big brands genuine trendsetters these days. When numerous fashion retailers on the high-street subscribe to the same forecasting channels, diversity begins to evaporate. However, the trend status-quo has become somewhat mixed up. There is no longer solely a top-down model, where the few decide for the many. Rather, a bottom-up dynamic has become far more prevalent. Autonomy and individuality have begun driving the fashion industry, as some brands exist just to chase. One no longer needs to be powerful to influence style – all one needs is an internet connection.
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