Ask Anna: Fashion Trends

Why do most fashion trends only last a season?

Fashion is many things to different people. On its most base level, it serves the practical function of covering our bodies. On another level, fashion helps us in the ever-constant process of identity production. It’s a form of self-expression that reveals not only what we are, but what we’d like to be -- our ideal selves. However, it’s important to remember that fashion is an industry.  In fact, it’s a multibillion dollar, international enterprise, and the second largest industry in New York (after finance). While many of the “rules” it follows may seem arbitrary, those rules -- like the seasonal timeline of fashion trends -- are the result of constructed strategies devised to sustain the industry.

Let’s start at the top, with high fashion. The “season,” as a unit of time in fashion, obviously originates from fashion weeks. A fashion week is a media event orchestrated in the “fashion capitals” of the world to showcase designers’ latest collections. Make no mistake: designers’ showcases were standardized into these “weeks” as a PR ploy to highlight what each city and its designers were producing. That’s why they’re so location-centric. Fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert organized the very first “Press Week” in 1943 -- held, of course, in New York -- as a response to Paris’s dominion over fashion trends during World War II. The spectacle was created to attract fashion journalists to New York. Today, the schedule and spectacle is still maintained. Designers prepare two major collections per year: Spring/Summer in September and Autumn/Winter in February.

Fashion journalism reports on the trends that fall in and out of favor with the designers, and buyers preview these designs so they can incorporate certain items or designers into their plans for the next season. Famously, this also creates a “trickle-down” effect (as coined by Thorstein Veblen) where other retailers are able to observe what haute couture has done for the season and produce lower cost and less avant-garde mass-market versions. So, as the luxury boutiques and department stores prepare their orders, Forever 21, H&M, and Zara have time to adapt it to a broader market and a lower price point.

There’s another factor in the expiration date of a trend, and that’s the other popular marketing term in the fashion industry known as “planned obsolescence.” That is, throughout a given industry, producers deliberately design products to have a limited lifespan so as to ensure that the consumer will return for more (we touched on this a bit in the last “Ask Anna” when we discussed how the modern lounge suit arose out of many different types of civilian uniforms.) Before you label fashion as greedy and evil, remember that many industries employ this tactic -- for example, technology. In the same way that consumers expect a new and improved (or slightly altered) iPhone to come out every 18 months or so, we expect to see new and innovative articles of clothing on the racks of our favorite store each time we make a return visit. Planned obsolescence also ends up creating a collective understanding of what is “unfashionable” or old news, so that the pressure to keep up with product cycles becomes partially socially motivated. Some of us would be mortified to be caught with an outdated smartphone or, God forbid, a dumbphone; likewise, in certain circles, it’s downright embarrassing to be caught sporting ballet flats or Ugg boots when everybody else in your social group is springing for platform heels.

How do you navigate this complicated marketing trickery as a consumer? It’s important to remember that some trends and styles are classic and will never fall out of favor -- the little black dress, for example. Make investments in these sorts of pieces that you’ll be able to keep and re-wear throughout your adult life. Similarly, find cuts and embellishments that are suited to your body and your personality, and feel free to splurge on high end versions of the things you know you’ll never get sick of. This could be a style of blazer or jacket you’re partial to, a signature piece of jewelry, or a great work shoe. Finally, if you can’t help but jump on the trend bandwagon, but you don’t think it’ll stick around in your closet for a while, you don’t need to buy a high quality version that will last forever and burn a hole in your pocket. Don’t make a big financial commitment to a piece if you don’t think you’ll be able to pull it off six months from now.