Seeing the Future? The Methods of Trend Forecasting
During one of the annual presentations put on by the New York outlet of Edelkoort Inc., a representative summed up her company’s trend methodology quite simply, stating, “If society says zippers and [we] say buttons, it won’t happen; we have to pick the right symbols.” Responding to what many wonder—if fashion forecasting really is predictive or if it is actually one of the driving mechanisms of trend cycles—the rep contends that she and her team work organically, picking up on and responding to esoteric social cues upwards of two years in advance of publishing their industry-leading, semi-annual trend books. Speaking casually in a flowing white cotton Issey Miyake dress in Trend Union’s sparse yet intimate East Village firehouse-turned-showroom, she paints a picture of the trend forecasting profession as one marked by exotic travel, simple luxuries, and a Zen-like centeredness in which future trends seem to saturate into the patient trend forecaster’s consciousness as if by osmosis. Absent in her talk is the chaos of high street retailing, the frenetic turnover of fast fashion, and the destructive tendencies of Western capitalism—or, what many would argue are the broader implications of trend forecasting put into practice. Here in the rose-scented showroom of Lidewij Edelkoort’s forecasting empire, fashion exists as an ideal—and for $300 a ticket, her audience is eager to buy into a piece of Trend Union’s utopic ideology.
In the three months I spent at Trend Union, the U.S. headquarters of Edelkoort Inc., I heard this lecture and many others while assisting in the office’s day-to-day operations. Working alongside the New York representative, her assistant, and one other intern, I gained unparalleled access and insight into the inner-workings one of the world’s foremost (and I would argue, most intimate) trend forecasting agencies. Offering their consulting services to major American brands, as well as to smaller independent designers, to say that Edelkoort’s influence is far-reaching would be an understatement. For, as an employee of a major American beauty brand told me, Trend Union’s color forecast is the product development department’s “bible”—the de facto reference for developing new lipstick hues, coordinating eye shadow color families, and tweaking package design.
What, however, are the implications of Edelkoort and Trend Union’s vast and authoritative reach in the trend forecasting sector and within fashion more broadly? It is no small secret that the frenzied pace of fast fashion has proven to be environmentally, ethically, and economically unsound, but in what ways has Trend Union played a role in this speeding up over the past three decades, if at all? And moreover, as a self-proclaimed socially- and environmentally-aware business, what are they doing to retroactively slow it down by changing the way its customers read trends? Are their efforts futile?
Finally, it must be asked whether or not influential trend forecasts like Edelkoort’s, a venture that is only thirty years old, on this kind of corporatized scale really do, as they say, simply respond to societal cues or if they in fact drive trend cycles. In my time at Trend Union, I wrestled with this latter point on a daily basis as I found myself simultaneously enrapt by and skeptical of the company’s self-positioning within the industry as an organic barometer of the zeitgeist. With compelling implications in the field of fashion studies, the answers to these questions necessitate a reconsideration of some of the foundational theories of fashion change.
Lidewij Edelkoort: The Culture Industry’s Trend Soothsayer
The online design journal Designboom has called Lidewij Edelkoort a visionary. Symrise has labeled her “the business world’s trend prophet,” and Fast Company has dubbed her a “sorceress.” Many have regarded her as an entrepreneurial vanguard in the business of trend forecasting, emerging as one of the key figures in developing the field more than twenty-five years ago. She has also been the subject of a 2009 retrospective entitled “Archaeology of the Future” at Institut Neederlandais in Paris and chosen as one of i-D magazine’s forty most influential fashion designers—an accolade typically befitting those engaging with practice. Yet, Edelkoort’s impression of herself is much more humble. In an interview with Linda Tischler she said, “People think I am some mystic or gypsy. But what I really do is pay attention. Then I have the nerve to say what I believe.” And in so many words, Edelkoort repeats this mantra constantly in interviews and through her Trend Union publications in an effort to demystify her process. Yet one must ask: how has Edelkoort managed to build an empire out of intuition alone and what is the secret to her trend acumen?
Edelkoort’s biography, like those of others hailed as prophets within their fields (think Steve Jobs of Apple or Akio Morita of Sony), is one of legend and is filled with the typical detours one encounters on the path to self-discovery. Born in Holland in 1950, educated at the School of Fine Arts in Arnhem, Holland, and introduced to the field byway of an entry-level job at the Dutch department store De Bijenkorf, Lidewij discovered that she was not a naturally gifted artist, but had an uncanny knack for sensing upcoming trends. In 1975, she moved to Paris where she first worked as an independent trend consultant and shortly thereafter established Trend Union in 1980. Slightly predating John Naisbitt’s groundbreaking publication Megatrends from 1982, Edelkoort was a forerunner in what is now a fifty-seven billion dollar-per-year industry. Fast-forwarding to today, Trend Union (and its sister company Edelkoort Inc., which works primarily as a distributor of Trend Union publications) has consulting agents in Denmark, Australia, New York, Hong Kong, Sweden, Cape Town, London, Spain, Hungary, India, Brazil, the Ukraine, and most recently, Tokyo. Notable clients comprise a veritable laundry list of multinational mega brands that far exceeds the bounds of the fashion industry, as well as smaller collaborations, such as their recent consultancy with Mohair South Africa.
As one of the culture industry’s principal soothsayers, Edelkoort certainly looks the part: with her cropped, grey-streaked hair, red lips, and signature 80s minimalist attire (reminiscent of those created by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons in the 1980s), she exudes a kind of “arty” knowingness in her daily uniform that her clients have come to conflate with her trend forecasting ability. As Ilse Crawford, head of the Department of Man and Wellbeing at the University of Eindhoven told the New York Times, Edelkoort commands a kind of “futuristic” or “queenly-presence” that clients have come to trust and respect. Similarly, Cecilie Rohwedder of the Wall Street Journal writes, “The distinctive gray accents in her otherwise dark hair and the dark clothing off set by a bright red lipstick are consistent with her art-school roots.” In a similar vein, the standardized architecture of Edelkoort Inc.’s numerous global offices projects a kind of soft-modernist simplicity that is echoed in Trend Union’s tasteful and beautifully curated trend publications. With whitewashed walls, sparse artwork from Edelkoort’s personal collection, rustic oak panel floors and Scandi-modern furnishings set in an artfully renovated abbey in the East Village, clients and visitors routinely fawn over the New York office—which, unlike the semi-annual trend forecasts, has changed little in the past decade.
The Edelkoort Business Model: An Analog Throwback in a Digital World
Edelkoort’s pedigree, as well as her carefully composed style and the calculated interior design scheme of her offices, effectively rounds out Edelkoort Inc.’s brand image and serves to set them apart from their competition. Unlike their competitors—namely companies like Worth Global Style Network (WGSN) and Interbrand, which pride themselves on the speed and timeliness of their content—Edelkoort Inc.’s image does not immediately bring to mind the speed and rapid turnover of the fashion system. In fact, in today’s cyber-connected world of Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram, Edelkoort’s business practices are downright old-fashioned. Only adopting a blog platform in 2011, after much vacillation, Edelkoort Inc.’s bread and butter is their semi-annual trend forecast, which includes a color forecast, a beauty-specific trend book, the Pattern Book, the Lifestyle Book (a detailed discussion of trends in interior design), the Well-Being Bible (a guide to trends in the spa and well-being industry), the Key (a basic guide to clothing silhouettes), and the Trend Forecast. Focusing predominantly on trends in women’s apparel, the Trend Forecast is still Trend Union’s perennial bestseller—selling for the price of a month's rent for a one-bedroom in Greenwich Village.
With each book printed in limited editions of 250, Edelkoort’s publishing model is the antithesis of what modern trend forecasting has evolved into. In a Telegraph article, Emma Barnett details how London-based WGSN—a forerunner of digital trend forecasting—has turned its back on paper publishing and now circulates content exclusively online. With growing competition from online startups, the company struggles to stay abreast of “the next big thing” with an almost constant stream of daily content, which is available at subscription fees topping out at $26,460. In contrast, Edelkoort Inc. prides itself on the exclusivity of its content. With its content kept closely guarded—nothing can be found online save for their blog, Trend Tablet, which only publishes topical and tangential snippets of trend insight every so often—prospective clients and subscribers must call or email a Trend Union agent and book an appointment to even so much as preview the content; and even then, it is only a preview, for photography, sketching, and filming are strictly prohibited in Edelkoort’s offices.
While one could fault Edelkoort Inc. for not evolving alongside their competition, their longevity and enduring clout demonstrate that the company, despite sticking to its analog roots, has prospered as the trend forecasting industry has ballooned into the online realm over the past decade. In fact, many of the loyal Trend Union clients I met during my internship find Edelkoort’s business practices downright refreshing. In one instance, after one of our Fall/Winter presentations an elated designer slowly flipped through the Trend Forecast, languidly running her fingers over the fabric swatches and lingering on the full-color photographs overlaid with color samples. As I stood by, waiting to answer any questions, she murmured to no one in particular, “Nobody else has anything like this…I subscribe to all of them, and there is just nothing like this out there anymore.” Turning her attention to me, she went on to explain that while she subscribes to all of the major trend forecasts so that she can, as she says, “get the fuller picture,” she finds herself returning to Trend Union’s books time and time again because it is something tangible that she can pull out of the book (made easy by its three-ring binder format) and tack onto her inspiration board above her design table. She noted that while StyleSight’s and WGSN’s streaming services are handy as a reference, Trend Union’s books are her bible.
In addition to distributing the trend books, Edelkoort Inc. in New York also puts on regular presentations for subscribers and new clients. Essentially a truncated version of the large-scale presentation Lidewij gives to the New York fashion community at Parsons twice a year, these presentations serve both as an invaluable selling opportunity for the New York representative and her assistant, and as an opportunity to broaden the Edelkoort community. Far surpassing mere industry networking, they use these occasions to forge bonds with and between Edelkoort Inc.’s diverse clientele. In Trend Union's cozy offices, representatives go to great lengths to personalize their client relations and to make everyone feel at home, eager to engage everyone in brainstorm-style conversations about the content (a kind of free consultation). And with visitors regularly lingering after the presentations—sipping artisanal coffee, sprawling out on the shabby-chic ABC Carpet & Home rug, and flipping through trend books—a familial atmosphere is created that simply cannot be replicated at a large company like WGSN, and the clients revel in the respite. Through these kinds of exchanges, Trend Union has carefully cultivated a creative community that extends well beyond the conventional work day with bi-weekly, no-pressure “Firehouse Dance Sessions” in which clients and friends are invited back to dance to the sounds of Robyn by candlelight like no one's watching (a sort of workout-meditation). Due in large part to these relationships, even clients who have been disappointed by previous seasons’ trend forecasts continue to return year-after-year.
The Method of Trend Forecasting
Yet another area where Edelkoort Inc. sets itself apart is through their popular lecture, “The Method of Trend Forecasting,” put on by the New York office every few months for Edelkoort’s current and prospective clients, as well as for the occasional student or college lecturer. Above all else, this lecture is the primary platform through which the company espouses its trend ideology. With attendance capped at around 10-15 guests maximum, the talk is closer to a workshop or roundtable discussion than lecture; and at nearly three hours long, the format makes for a comfortable morning of mutual exchange over coffee and croissants.
However, the company’s motivations for putting on such an event are unclear; for, if they are in a sense “giving away” all of their secrets, aren’t they undercutting the company’s edge in the industry? While traditional logic might suggest that this is the case, the statistical reality of trend forecasting as a profession suggests that even if she were revealing a closely guarded secret to the company’s success, the chances of any one person actually getting a foot in the door to this insular industry in any substantial way are slim to none. One’s chances of finding work at Edelkoort or Trend Union are especially slim as the company, worldwide, employs only a few dozen people who have worked for the company virtually since its inception in 1980, with only two employed full time in the New York office (adding to the familial atmosphere in the workplace). More broadly, a New York Times article entitled “Roaming the World, Detecting Fashion,” Eilene Zimmerman writes that worldwide, there are only 1,000-1,500 professional trend forecasters, many of whom work in entry-level positions making a barely-livable (in New York at least) annual salary of $20,000. Similarly, CNN Money reports that there may be as few as 750 forecasters worldwide, many of whom work largely in front of computers, generating content for meager pay; they go on say it can take upwards of 15 years in the business to make a six-figure salary and have those exotic globetrotting experiences that are so often associated with the profession.
However, the “Method of Trend Forecasting” lecture doesn’t linger on the viability of a career in trend forecasting. Rather, the talk is thick with descriptions of Edelkoort’s jaunts around the globe in the name of research, which function to legitimize the value of the Edelkoort process to potential clients. In one such talk, guests were wooed by tales from a recent trip to an exclusive health resort in Marrakesh where a forecaster rode horses, indulged in Shiatsu massages, and woke early to do yoga with a private instructor at sunrise. While no discrete parallels were drawn with regard to how this experience may or may not have influenced trend insights, the trip was invoked anecdotally as an example of how the diligent forecaster must expose herself to a world of experiences, observing along the way, in order to later forecast future trends. Again, it is unclear just how such a holistic methodology translates into reports on fashion silhouettes, color predictions, or trends in interior design, but such tales of introspection and travel are not uncommon from industry insiders. Like those at Edelkoort Inc., WGSN forecaster Isham Sardouk says, “There’s no way of explaining forecasting. There is a lot of intuition,” while Sharon Graubard, formerly of StyleSight, has said that “forecasting is a sixth sense…you can feel a trend bubbling up on the streets and then you find the seeds of it on the catwalk.”
Still, a question remains as to how forecasters can compile tableaus of the future when they only have imagery, experiences, and objects of the present from which to draw inspiration. For example, how can a forecaster, in effect, “see the future” whilst luxuriating at a spa that is very much of the present moment? The short answer is that she doesn’t, nor do any of forecasting’s principal futurists. In one telling experience from my summer at Edelkoort Inc., I got to spend the afternoon with one of Edelkoort’s Paris-based trend assistants as he prepared to “go hunting” for inspiration for the forthcoming Spring/Summer 2013 forecast in New York’s more bohemian neighborhoods. As he mapped out bespoke men’s tailoring shops, antique stores, and new interior design shops to visit, I asked him how he planned to cull visions of the future from extant (and mute) objects. His response was that while a trend forecaster cannot literally “see the future,” he can seek out glimmers of new ideas in extant objects (an intriguing fabric, a clever arrangement of objects, an isolated shape, etc.) and either keep them whole (for photographing later) or repurpose or recombine the objects to designate a more futuristic vision. Played out on the pages of Edelkoort’s Trend Forecast, the viewer is presented with themes (of which there are upwards of 10-20 in each forecast) that, at once, seem familiar yet also on the verge—attesting to the forecaster’s elusive ability to sense what’s to come, while also calling into question who exactly these elusive "trendmakers" even are.
The Accuracy and Ethics of Trend Forecasting
It is here then that one has to question whether at this point in her career, Lidewij Edelkoort and her team are still predicting trends or if they are effectively driving the ebb and flow of trends within the fashion marketplace. In other words, is Edelkoort now publishing a self-fulfilling prophecy? And more importantly, is she creating slower, perhaps more ethical trends, thereby undercutting her company’s bottom line? One salient example that may provide some insight into this question is that of Trend Union’s Spring/Summer 2012 forecast entitled “Earth Matters.” Clearly responding to the impact humans are having on the environment and a rash of then-recent natural disasters occurring worldwide (Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, the volcanic eruptions in Iceland, etc.), “Earth Matters” reduced these meta events down to their basal elements. Focusing on new uses for chalk and clay in the beauty sector, to abstract iterations of Earth’s geological stratum in textile design, the effect of our planet-in-tumult on the culture, fashion and beauty industries is reconsidered in artful and avant-garde ways for the future, but is also (and quite obviously) culled from current concerns with sustainability in its focus on reducing waste and creating less (in a sense, slowing the trend cycle down). In short, the future accuracy of this trend forecast is unquestionable as our relationship with resources and our planet is, in no uncertain terms, undergoing transformation as resources dwindle and global markets founder. In a way then, this forecast could be viewed as an iteration of the undying “eco” megatrend in the past decade that has permeated nearly all sectors of culture.
Yet, in publishing this forecast, did Edelkoort merely respond to social cues, or was she being proactive in pushing what could be considered an activist agenda, thereby driving what could become future trends in sustainable or “eco-chic” aesthetics? Unfortunately, Edelkoort’s true impact on trend cycles is exceedingly difficult to ascertain given that such a vast swath of culture-defining companies purchase and rely heavily upon her predictions to develop new products. Regardless, Edelkoort and Trend Union’s dedication to sustainability in their business practices complicates the intentionality behind “Earth Matters” and even her forecasts more broadly. Recognizing her potential impact on dictating trends, Edelkoort told the website Always Inspiring More that while she interprets societal moods, she also “acts as a catalyst for the spirit of the day and [turns] it into trends as early as possible.” In this concession, the “give and take” relationship Edelkoort has with responding to as well as influencing trends is realized. While it may seem counterintuitive, Edelkoort’s predictions (or mandates?) had a tangible impact on several of the company’s clients who, after seeing “Earth Matters,” expressed to me a tacit desire to reduce their environmental impact by creating less and thinking about trends differently. Whether or not these desires were ultimately realized, however, remains unclear.
 “The Method of Trend Forecasting,” Trend Union, New York, June 22, 2011.
 Creative Projects Management has commented that Lidewij Edelkoort is both the “No. 1 trendsetter in the world” and a figure who has singlehandedly “turned trends forecasting into a profession.” See “Li Edelkoort" (accessed November 1, 2011), http://en.creapro.com.ua/represent/trend_union_li_edelkoort/).
 “Interview with Li Edelkoort,” Designboom, 14 April 2000, (accessed November 29, 2016), http://www.designboom.com/interviews/designboom-interview-li-edelkoort/.
 “Li Edelkoort: The Business World’s Trend Prophet,” Originally published on the now-defunct website, Always Inspiring More, now readable on archive.li (accessed November 29, 2016), http://archive.li/ZAKTm.
 Linda Tischler, “Li Edelkoort: Famous Trend Spotter,” Fast Company, October 2, 2008 (accessed November 29, 2016), https://www.fastcompany.com/1007048/li-edelkoort-famous-trendspotter.
 Cecilie Rohwedder, “Know Business: Noted trend forecaster Li Edelkoort on what the future holds,” The Wall Street Journal Magazine, December 3, 2009 (accessed November 1, 2011), http://magazine.wsj.com/features/the-big-interview/know-business/2/.
 Emma Barnett, “Trend-spotting is the new £36bn growth business,” Telegraph, May 1, 2011 (accessed November 29, 2016), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/mediatechnologyandtelecoms/8482964/Trend-spotting-is-the-new-36bn-growth-business.html.
 Alice Rawsthorn, “Li: Edelkoort: Assessing the impact of a design icon,” The New York Times, 29 June 2008 (accessed November 29, 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/30/style/30iht-design30.1.14048925.html.
 Rohwedder, “Know Business."
 Barnett, "Trend-spotting."
 In the introduction to the talk, the forecaster usually begins with a joke that guests should have their notebooks handy because she’s getting ready to “give away all of Edelkoort’s secrets.”
 Eilene Zimmerman, "Roaming the World, Detecting Fashion," New York Times, May 11, 2008 (Accessed November 29, 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/jobs/11starts.html.
 Jeanne Sahadi, “Fashon’s Future is a Six Figure Job,” January 7, 2005 (accessed November 29, 2016), http://money.cnn.com/2004/09/28/pf/sixfigs_eight/index.htm-
 Barnett, "Trend-spotting."
 In my time at Edelkoort Inc., I was witness to the company’s dedication to reusing shipping materials, recycling and reducing energy consumption in their daily business practices. The New York employees were also very outspoken in presentations about the impact consumption has on the planet—particularly in the “Earth Matters” presentations.
 “Li Edelkoort."