What would fashion be without its alchemical ability to transform clothes into status?
For one thing, a great deal poorer. The endless trend cycle of products gaining and losing cool keeps fashion labels flush with cash as shoppers chase the next new thing.
The most striking expressions of new trends play out on designers’ runways and via the fashion influencers that crowd Instagram. But appealing to trend pioneers who are first to fresh territory isn’t necessarily the most lucrative position for a fashion brand counting on more timid customers to buy their wares. Not all brands—not most, in fact—can be the Guccis and Balenciagas of the world.
The internet and social media have sped up the endless comings and goings of trends, leaving the trendsetters soon feeling a look has become overexposed, and abandoning it as quickly as they picked it up. For labels aiming at more mainstream appeal, which can also mean bigger sales, the greater opportunity is often in appealing to a second wave of trend-adopters.
“In the past in my career, I’ve thought about trend as that curve. It’s kind of a whale shape. It goes up slowly, slowly, slowly, and then it peaks and drops down,” said Crystal Slattery, president of contemporary at Jaya Apparel Group and cofounder of all its contemporary brands, including Elizabeth and James, Cinq à Sept, and Likely. “Now what we’re seeing is almost like a camel.”
Slattery, speaking at a March 6 panel on how trends work today, hosted by Edited, a retail technology firm, meant a double-humped camel: The first wave of customers that comes and goes with a trend is now often followed by a second, larger and longer-lasting wave. “Those are our friends who are maybe not paying as close attention to trend and fashion,” she said. This audience may be less adventurous in how they dress, or require time to get comfortable with a trend before jumping in. But, she said, that’s where the bigger profits are to be made.
The other speakers included Yedidya Mesfin, design director at Blank NYC; Rob Lim, head of design at Saturdays NYC; and Chris Benz, creative director at Bill Blass, who said his label is also not exclusively focused on the early adopters.
Benz emphasized it’s more important than ever to have a clear brand identity, which lets the brand filter trends through that prism—again, because trends rise and fall so quickly these days. Bill Blass’s customer base tends to be part of that second wave. “I always talk about our customer as being not the coolest girl in the room, but she’s the second coolest girl,” he said. “She doesn’t want to be full-sequined-glitter-boot, but she wants a little glitter heel.”
The aim isn’t to offer an exact copy of the most outré version of the trend, which will likely lose its appeal for the more adventurous fashion customer by the time a mass-market label can design and produce its own version. Instead, brands try to keep the spirit of the trend while softening its cutting edge, to make it more accessible to a customer looking for something to wear to work or out in the evening.
The way Instagram and the internet have reshaped trends shows up in other ways too. Traditionally, trends trickled down from the runways or bubbled up from the streets, said Katie Smith, the retail analysis and insights director at Edited. But ”a linear way of tracking trends just isn’t relevant anymore,” she pointed out.
Now there are simultaneous feedback loops happening among the runways, the street, and retail. It makes it harder to identify where a trend is in its life cycle, and it has upended the old model of trends beginning upmarket and migrating down as they spread into the mainstream. Luxury and fast fashion are often neck-and-neck, and their customers don’t behave much differently.
One of the biggest challenges in capitalizing on a trend, consequently, is knowing when to drop it. Abandon it too early, and you may miss the lucrative second wave. But because things move so quickly, brands also risk suddenly looking tragically outdated. As Slattery put it, “You hang on to it too long, and you’re Juicy Couture with the sweatpants.”