Linda DeFranco arrived at Cotton Incorporated 12 years ago after looking for temp jobs fresh out of college. "It snowballed from there," she laughs. "I had gone to a Catholic school with uniforms, so of course I was always interested in style, and exploring identity through fashion."
Eventually, DeFranco climbed the ranks to become director of product and trend analysis, delivering predictions and color reports to some of the biggest retailers in the world. We caught up with her to learn how she and her team can predict trends over a year in advance (spoiler: it involves gas prices) and what new trends they've glimpsed in their crystal ball.
How does the trend-forecasting team at Cotton make their predictions?
"I send my team all over the world with their cameras, taking pictures, seeing what's going on in the streets of every city you've ever heard of—from Tokyo and Milan to more obscure places like South Africa, Russia, Chile.
But we [also] look at market indicators that anybody would look at, firstly gauging where the economy is and how the consumer is going to feel this season: Are they going to have money in their wallets? Are they moving toward electronic purchases? We look at consumer confidence, housing, unemployment, gas prices. It could be trends in education, even.
Market research is a key approach in our department. We also look at what's in stores—what's flying off the shelves and, more importantly, what's not selling. We look at runway shows, research art exhibitions, hotel trends, food trends, designers and collaborations—really everything we can get our hands on to see what the buzz words are, and what people are reading about.
The third way is interacting with our clients and traveling all over the world to work with them. Our clients range from the biggest retail manufacturers in the world to smaller independent companies. They'll tell us what's working for them: what pant style is selling or not, or which fabrications are trending, or what colors their clients are looking for.
It's a collective view of everything, but it's not a science."
How do your clients use your trend reports?
"They'll take our information and look at our website and present about those trends in-house. They'll make their own storyboards or color palettes from our palettes, and lots of the trends reverberate within their company as well. [It depends on] what country you're dealing with. Today, most companies work closer to the season. A lot of times the fabrication is what's really important—we give them so many different kinds of fabrics to look at that they can put into production themselves."
How long have trend-forecasting services like yours been around?
"I know there have been some classic ones in the industry, and people will often have forecasters in-house, or use a service like ours. But I think before, when fashion was a little more definitive, like back in the '50s and '60s, there was a clear idea of what was going on in the business, so there may not have been such an opportunity then for us to be effective in the industry. Fashion today is much less definitive. You could say, 'This summer, color is a big statement,' but that's so vague….there are so many trends and different aspects of styling, so clients really need to know as much of that information as possible."
Is the fashion industry speeding up?
"Absolutely. To keep the customer engaged, instead of having two seasons a year, people might have 12 seasons and 13 deliveries. There's so much pressure to get something new in the store, and the new phenomenon of the last 10 years is really fast fashion. You see something on the runway, in two or three weeks you'll see something similar in stores. And customers learn to expect that: They want what they see in the magazines and what they see on TV. And they want it quickly."
Can you share some of the trends you're predicting for fall 2014?
"There are two things we talked about for fall/winter '14 that have been reverberating around the world. One is a sense of discovery and exploration. A lot of things in the media discuss how, as a society with technology at its fingertips, we think we know everything. But we know so little, and I think we're starting to realize it. There are new explorations going on in the oceans, and all these new and fascinating things you read about. So we're seeing this awe and wonderment with nature and our surroundings, and we've talked about a color palette that's full of aquatic blues. It's been around for the last year or so but we think it's moving forward.
Another trend I really love—we're calling it "Rebound"—and it's really about '90s hip-hop culture. We talked about '90s art, music and fashion, but instead of dealing with the '90s grunge look we focused on the optimism and energy and the hip-hop scene. There's certainly renewed interest in the music and art and fashion from that time, but it's a little bit different than what we we remember, and that mood is reverberating all over the world. For example there's a documentary called "Shake the Dust" about how people are breakdancing all over the world, in Afghanistan and war-torn areas. It really represents, for the people who are doing it, a sense of optimism and breaking boundaries. So the color palette is, of course, a red, white and blue, with a little bit of neon, returning to that old-school style."
Are you ever just way off with a trend prediction?
"I can't say that we've totally bombed on anything. Some trends are much stronger than others, sometimes. The one you thought was minor ends up being huge, and vice versa. But trends are really evolutionary. Things don't just stop. There's a difference between trends and fads. Fads you see coming and you know when they're going to go. But trends, they come back, and of course world events affect everything, but in terms of big macro trends, they don't change so quickly or so frequently. We're a team, too. If it was just me, there could have been some duds in there, but it's a collective group of people with different lifestyles and ages, so we get a good overall view of what's going on."