Why does everybody look the same?

If you think there is a great deal of uniformity in the way we all dress, there may be a reason for that

WGSN trends uniformity accessories fashion

Where exactly do trends come from? And can we see them coming?

You’ve likely never heard of WGSN. But you’ve probably worn something they’ve ‘predicted’. Not designed, ‘predicted’.

WGSN makes a style prediction, and a year or two later, that style is what most of us choose to buy in the shops.  But how? Do we all just wake up one morning and want to wear T-shirts with colourful graphic prints on them? Is it the collective consciousness that suddenly steers us towards hurling oversized scarves around our necks? What exactly made the average heel height 1cm higher this year?

In other words, where exactly do trends come from? And can we see them coming?

WGSN SS17 template jacket

WGSN offer designers a database of around 70,000 templates. Pictured, a SS17 jacket design.

WGSN call themselves a trend forecasting agency, specialising in fashion but also covering anything from cars to interiors.

The agency, previously known as Worth Global Style Network, claims to be able to “decode the future to provide the authoritative view on tomorrow”. And their resources are utilized by big brands and high-street retailers alike, including Nike, Zara, Topshop, H&M, and Levi’s.

Locked behind a paywall costing thousands of dollars, WGSN provides around 6,000 paying companies with detailed reports, image libraries and, perhaps most crucially: a database of around 70,000 design templates. Because, as it turns out, the future is much easier to decode if you are the one providing the tools used to create it.

No change is bad for business

“Shoppers complain that everything on the high street looks the same,” says Marc Worth, the man who founded WGSN in 1997, but sold it and left in 2005. 

“But is it any wonder? Instead of looking for inspiration, brands are relying on templates, and because everyone uses the same templates, there’s no competitive edge,” says Worth, who calls his former company a ‘monster’. And this is a monster fed by an industry that relies on impermanence. 

Instead of looking for inspiration, brands are relying on templates.

Fashion, as a business, depends on change. If you buy a jumper, love it and don’t change it for several years, that’s bad for business. If you feel you need a new jumper every few months, that’s good. ‘Fast fashion’ encourages this. It’s a popular business model, used by many: produce cheap clothes quickly and sell them in bulk. Frequently.

One way fast fashion has been successful doing this is by breaking the traditional, seasonal fashion calendar. “It used to be four seasons in a year; now it may be up to 11 or 15 or more,” says Tasha Lewis, a professor at Cornell University’s Department of Fibre Science and Apparel Design. 

And this pursuit of change for the sake of business has produced results: Writing in The Guardian, journalist Lucy Siegle claims that we in the western world now buy roughly four times the number of clothes we did  in 1980. An American will, on average, now throw away 32 kg, or 70 pounds, of textiles in a year — the equivalent in weight of 200 T-shirts. 

Don't predict, create

This endless cycle of rapidly buying, disposing and buying again is something that brands need to keep up with. Or so WGSN claims:

“The reason fashion forecasting exists is because of the pace of fast fashion,” says Louise Stuart Trainor, a former WGSN forecaster.

In other words, if something moves forward quickly, to stay on top of the game, you need to forecast what comes next. And what comes after that. This is an idea forecasting agencies like to sell to their clients: 

“We’re a real, trusted resource for validation,” says Steve Newbold, managing director of WGSN trends. “Things are moving so fast. We give you,” the client, “the tools to know that what you’re making is going to be commercially viable.”

But there’s one problem: “No one can really predict or forecast trends,” says Marc Worth. 

t shirt style same graphic

Choose a colour, add a WGSN-approved graphic — and voila! A new T-shirt. 

WGSN themselves more than allude to this fact. Their New York office is decorated with a quote from the famed management consultant Peter Drucker: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Their website echoes this sentiment too: “You can create the future you see — and want — for yourself.” This unsettling mix of greeting card platitude and Soviet style sloganeering hints at what their forecasts really are: self-fulfilling prophecies.

In a sense, the distinction between prophecy and  reality is most evidently broken down by the 70,000 design templates offered by the agency that also makes the prophecies: Designers can simply make a few tweaks to the WGSN ready-made templates — choose a colour, add a WGSN-approved graphic — and voila! They’ve designed themselves a new T-shirt. 

Normcore and trend insurance

In 2014, a forecasting agency called K-Hole predicted normcore, a style based not on standing out but on blending in. On looking, well, normal. It took off. It was a runner-up for 2014’s word of the year — surpassed only by “vaping”. Vogue even covered it.

But K-Hole isn’t a traditional fashion forecasting agency. In person, they call themselves an art collective. And normcore, as they put it to The Guardian, “came out of nowhere — it wasn’t linked to any data research.” They just made it up. 

But normcore was taken seriously by the fashion world and now K-Hole does some actual forecasting. “Everyone has a little bit of anxiety that we might be pranking them,” K-Hole have said about working with brands, “that it might all be one really big performance piece that we’re doing.”

They may or not be pranking their clients, but they certainly pranked fashion’s forecaster-designer relationship. As Fern Seto at the trend publication High Snobiety puts it: “K-Hole directly parodied the industry’s reliance on the gospel of trend forecasting, and by blindly latching on to normcore, the fashion industry wrote the punchline in a highly complex joke about itself.” 

trends coordinated fashion fast fashion

Brands can't be truly creative without running a substantial risk of being perceived as off-trend when the new collection comes out.

So why then — if forecasters can, essentially, just make stuff up — use forecasters at all?

Forecasting, as one review in The Economist notes, is “a form of insurance: as long as [it is] widely used, the risk of being wildly out of step with the market is modest”. In other words, the industry may need trends to constantly change in order to keep demand for new clothing up — but individual brands and designers can’t afford  to try to drive this change themselves.

Brands can't be truly creative without running a substantial risk of being perceived as off-trend when the new collection comes out. Sticking to the templates and the industry-agreed ‘prediction’ for next year is a much safer choice.

Fast fashion broke the seasonal calendar and made its ever-multiplying style seasons look the same.

This is why, on the street, we see fleeting trends changing all the time — and, miraculously, at the same time. Trends don’t so much spring from creativity and evolve anymore. Instead, they have become coordinated and orchestrated events with distinct beginnings and ends.

The end of trends?

Back in 2012, Journalist Ruth La Ferla asked in the New York Times if trends themselves had become passé. Fast fashion broke the seasonal calendar and made its ever-multiplying style seasons look the same. If the pace continues to quicken, it may just break the very idea of trends too  — in much the same way that if you speed up the tempo of distinct tones playing at intervals, they end up almost becoming one continuous tone.  

Already, the industry is experiencing what seems to be a counter-reaction to the fast-paced, but uniform, trend changes.

Shannon Davenport, a trend ‘forecaster’ at Marc Worth’s new agency Stylus, says “people are starting to think more and more about the basics.”

“There's been a really interesting shift,” Davenport says. According to her, people are now looking for more simplicity. But Davenport is not convinced there won't be a shift again. Maybe the counter-reaction is itself a trend that can be replaced with another one.

WGSN fast cheap fashion

Where did that nagging urge for a multi-coloured, tasseled shoulder bag come from?

As global companies rely on shifting trends, and being there to satisfy the new demand that these create, ‘forecasting’ agencies and the fashion industry have a symbiotic interest in propelling change for change’s sake.

So maybe, someday soon, you will wake up with the nagging urge to spend your hard-earned money on embroidered, pink slacks  or a multi-coloured, tasseled shoulder bag — not entirely sure where that new need came from.

Any conscious choice to pursue a path of evergreen simplicity and longevity may be filled with subconscious obstacles.