Sunday, December 15, 2019

I See Your True Colors

Fall / Winter 2019 - 2020

"As a form of cultural expression, fashion always reflects the deepest concerns of society.  But unlike literature, music or art, fashion communicates indirectly -- employing a language and a logic of its own.  Fashion's power, to capture the present and even to predict the future, is only revealed with the passage of time."

-Lourdes M. Font, Ph.D.

Data is currently the most valuable resource in the world; anyone who recently watched The Great Hack heard some version of this sentiment throughout the entire documentary, but while "data" seems to be the buzzword of today, this is nothing new.  Our data has been collected, mined, and studied for hundreds of years as the statistics that we know of today, that is, however, people have been tracking important information for much longer -- arguably, since there was a statistic worth keeping, someone has kept it.  Folks weren't just blindly running entire empires before the 1700s, and as our technology, and processes advanced simple record-keeping transformed into the Big Data we know today. 

Understanding a population's needs, desires, and behavior is an incredibly powerful tool.  That kind of knowledge, and the ability to correctly decipher, and apply it drives everything in modern business from elections to the clothes hanging in your closet - even (and especially!) the questionable pieces hanging in the back.  A person used to have to be a genuine stalker following someone's every move, and even engaging in an occasional dig through their garbage cans to get the kind of information we gladly hand over for free in the 21st century.  Even if you're not blissfully-actively participating in the invasion of your own privacy, you're still being tracked in myriad ways, and the information gleaned goes into creating a portrait of the consumer that entire industries study the sociology, and psychology of to determine everything from what you will wear, what you will drive (where you will go, and what you'll do when you get there), to how you adorn your home each season, and what colors all of these items will be offered in ... Just to name a few.

Now, I realize there are a lot of you out there thinking, "Not me, I'm not predictable, or 'trendy'.  No one tells me what to wear, or how to look!"  Hey, I march to the beat of my own drum too, Reader, but I am telling you we are all trapped together in the matrix to some degree or another, even if your personal taste is considered to skew more "classic" and even if you shop for lasting pieces, and have a home full of antiques, or family heirlooms, or shop second hand, whether you drive a luxury car, or a strictly utilitarian vehicle ... There's a reason you have those things.  Someone at some point in time decided those items were en vogue, and put them in front of you, the consumer.
Nothing in product development is an accident, and you have been accounted for no matter where you fall on the Fringe - Trend - Mainstream spectrum.
Local youths' roadside shenanigans
Whether you're an early adopter, a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, or fancy yourself as a nonconformist there are always indicators that let people know the choices you'll make.  There are even signposts for when counter-cultures emerge, and crowds split to form new categories of subcultures, and any trend forecaster worth their weight in plaid flannel will know how to read them well (I'm talkin' to you, Grunge.  I'm lookin' at you too, VSCO girl).

Okay, now that we've established we all live firmly in an unrelenting surveillance state, and you're probably wondering how best to accessorize your tin-foil hat this season ... How does this all work?  Who decides?  First, I think it's important to note that home, and auto tend to follow lock-step behind fashion.  Generally, people enjoy seeing themselves and their personalities reflected back at them through the environments they inhabit - this is why home decor exists, and why cars don't come in just one make, model, or color - it's all a form of non-verbal communication; self-expression, and there is no mode of self-expression more personal, and intimate than the garments we choose to drape over our bodies, thus keeping it in a powerful slot that dictates most all other trends, and making it crucial to get right since, you know, billion dollar industries depend on it.  So how do we get from Big Brother hunting our data, to a donation pile that no longer sparks joy?  Well, the route to getting a product from Behind the Curtain to Main Street looks a little like this:

Market Research
Trade Shows
Trendsetters & Influencers
The Rest of Us

Or to put it another way ...

After the market research (where we're studied like zoo animals) is compiled, it's time to pack our bags and head off to Paris, France.  Historically, we may have fluctuating input from them, but ultimately all fashion-roads still lead to, and from Paris, and will continue to do so to as long as the most important trade show in the world is held there: Première Vision Paris.  Having combined forces with Expofil in the early 2000s, Première Vision Paris has cemented itself as the single most important trade show in the apparel industry ... on Earth.  Expofil, now, Première Vision Yarns is a biannual event where innovations in the world of yarn, and fibre are showcased.  Yes.  There are entire trade shows developed around, and for the threads, yarns, dyes, finishes, etc. that make up the very shirt you are wearing right now.  Specialists, and experts in their fields do not wait for entire garments to be sketched, and designed before deciding what's in or out.  The seed is planted (sometimes literally if we're discussing organic cotton, and bamboo) much earlier than we tend to expect.  A designer must know how the fabric is going to act before they are able to effectively design clothing, and for one to understand the drape, hand, and nap (among other qualities), they must have appropriate knowledge of how the yarns and fibres that make up these fabrics have been treated, and from what they are made.  For instance, if there's a natural fibre that's had a treatment applied that hinders the dying process, and you need hunter green hoodies to coordinate with the rest of your "atheleisure" line, but they come back celery ... 

"If it's the right color, it sells, and if it's the wrong color it's inventory."

-Charles Smith

That's going to be an expensive problem.  Did you need to send your yarn out for dying before the treatment is applied?  Does the company accommodate that?  Do you need to ship it to a third party vendor to dye the yarn before it's treated, then send it back for treatment before it's sent to the fabric manufacturer?  Have you chosen a company that does all of this in-house?  Who on your pay-roll do you have chasing down all of this information for you, and scheduling all of this activity?  Fairly quickly it becomes apparent how necessary these kinds of events are, where you can have experts from some of the most obscure corners of the industry under one roof for a handful of days, and get some of the most tedious aspects of the design process sorted out, so when you get back home you can hit the ground running, start forecasting in earnest, and finally designing what your demographic needs.

Once the market research has been analyzed, patterns of behavior emerge, and the consumers' needs, and desires become clear the forecasters will see how it all intersects with what they learned, and were introduced to at the trade shows.  This is when an entire story begins to take shape.  I have to say, the whole process is not as cut and dry as step one, two, three, etc.  The first four increments in the product development journey kind of all happen at once in the way you have a running to-do list in your head or on your fridge at home where you add and subtract tasks as needed - much the same when conjuring a theme, aesthetic, designs, and whatnot you've got ideas constantly running in the background, and you add or subtract concepts as you go, as you learn, as technology evolves, and as ideas mutate; an organized sort of chaos.  Now, to be fair, trend forecasters are working year-round whether you've got your own in-house team, or you hire this work out to one of the leading firms, these people are constantly keeping their collective fingers on the pulse of what's happening around the world by making multiple trips abroad, attending 6-8 trade shows in the states alone, attending fabric previews and markets at least quarterly, touring fabric mills, meeting with key suppliers, and sitting in with color forecasting organizations on top of touching base with their trendsetting contacts they regularly interview.  These people are grinding, and hustling to keep their designers in the know.  Make no mistake, these are not kids with pretty vision boards, they are the gatekeepers to a wealth of knowledge that businesses are desperate for.  A true pioneer of this industry is Tobe Coller Davis, the inventor of the Tobe Report.  But these are just the fashion trend forecasters ... What about the color trend forecasters mentioned a few lines above, how do they fit into all of this?

Our relationship with color is an emotional experience.  A simple search on the topic will have you swimming in essays, think-pieces, and studies making claims about the connection between mood / emotions, and color, so it's only fitting that this sector of design and marketing would be its own entity.  There are three main color forecasting agencies that are the gold-standard (in order):

These three organizations, and others like them, are private, membership-based companies that publish color trend reports in some cases up to 2 years ahead of what's happening in retail to keep their clientele on the cutting edge of what's to come.  It wasn't always like this, however, the Grand Puba of color forecasting, Color Association of the United States (CAUS) started out as more of a color match management organization, much like Pantone is today.  With America cut off from much of Europe during the first world war, we didn't have access to their tools of the trade which made it difficult for designers, and manufacturers to communicate their artistic visions with one another.  Have you, and a friend ever tried to pin down the name of a color before?  I'll never forget when I needed to sew a button back onto a jacket one time while I was visiting my friend's grandmother I learned that my "sage green" would always be "Army drab" to the woman who had to watch her sons go off to Viet Nam.  It's no different for industry insiders.  We all come with our own ideas of what colors are, our own conditioning, and our own emotional attachments, so a uniform method with which to communicate our color needs is crucial.  The industry hit another growth spurt when exciting new color inks were introduced to print media, creating a new batch of customers that needed color management assistance.  You can read a little more about the creation of the color forecasting industry in America over here, it's quite fascinating how these companies grew into the leaders they are today.  These companies' services are not limited to the apparel industry, however, their clients range from clothing designers, to cosmetics companies, automotive, architecture and building contractors, to packaging and bottling companies.  Have you ever wondered why your shampoo bottle's lid changed from silver tone, to rose-gold from one year to the next? 

Now that the color palettes are selected, the fabric's been delivered, and we know our customers, the designers can get busy making the magic happen.  From here it's pretty straight forward, the designers let their imaginations run wild, they (with their production teams) assemble garments to showcase at biannual Fashion Week events where buyers for department stores from every corner of the country, and around the world decide what pieces they'd like to order for their customers (mind you, they've been forecasting too!).  This is why Spring clothes are shown during the Fall shows, and Fall clothes are shown during the Spring shows.  The actual clothes that are coming to store racks near you are not in production at the time the models hit the catwalks -- This is why knock-offs and counterfeits are so frustrating.  There have been many times a fast-fashion brand has taken photos or sketches (in the old days) of designer duds from their seats at a fashion show, and had the garments manufactured and on discount store shelves before the actual designer of the clothes had been able to put a manufacturing order in for the clothes to be sewn the way they were meant to be, at a higher standard of quality (and price).
Counterfeiters do the same thing, but they'll actually sew designer labels into the clothes and try to pass them off as the real thing, charging that very real high-end price ... this is illegal, by the way, don't do it.  
On the fun side of things, however, this is also a time when companies like Pantone bring part of the high fashion experience to us regular folks.  I mentioned Pantone a little earlier, and while they sometimes get confused with the color forecasting agencies, they're more of an intermediary between the apparel industry, and the curious masses.  They fit into this colorful world by having their own color match system that is widely used by some fashion designers, graphic designers, freelancers, artists, and product designers.  What they're also known to do is release their Fashion Color Trend Report to the public during each New York Fashion Week that lets the rest of us know what's going to be hitting store shelves in the upcoming season.  So if they're not forecasting, what are they doing?  After designers have taken their members-only forecast, digested it through their imaginations, and infused their collections with what inspires them most, Pantone combs the collections and compiles a highlight reel of the 12 strongest, most abundant, dominant, and popular colors out of all the collections showing at NYFW, and that is what they're putting into their easy-to-understand, tidy little report.  More often than not, these are the main colors that trickle down through every level of retail, and find their way into a massive majority of establishments from your piano-player-by-the-escalator department stores, to your local one-stop-shop.  I don't know about you, but I grew up listening to a mother loudly bemoan, "Why the hell is everything the same damn color in every damn store?!" on nearly every shopping trip throughout the entirety of my youth.  Well, this is why; everything I've written in the above paragraphs (and more if you can believe it), coupled with the fact that mid-range fashion is not very adventurous.

The stores most Americans are shopping at need to meet their bottom line, and they're banking on all of us wanting to emulate the looks early-adopters have put together, or wanting to copy what we've seen in a recent magazine as best we can for a lot less money.  Most of the time it works, if not out of any desire to have our closets stocked with the latest styles every season, then mainly because over-saturation exists in the marketplace.  If you have clothing items that need to be replaced, but they're only available in certain colors, and cuts that's how a lot of us end up playing right into seasonal trends without ever meaning to.  Take a look around during your holiday shopping this year, aside from obvious "theme" apparel, you will find a lot of the colors in the chart at your local stores.  I've already seen at least 8 of them used in the current line for an annoyingly popular athletic company, and 5 of them showed up in the weekly circular ad for my neighborhood big box store.  If you really can't stand being part of the cycle, you can always shop vintage, but while you're opting out of the current roller-coaster ride of fast fashion, you're still choosing something that was born out of the same formula ... But!  You are keeping something out of a landfill, and I have to give you extra credit for that.  No matter where you're buying your threads right now, if you're worried about spending hard earned dough on fad colors, don't fret, the Spring & Summer colors aren't too dissimilar making for a smooth transition next season, but more on that later!