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Insider Trading Is Their Specialty : Trends: These stepchildren of the style world are now respected by manufacturers and retailers, who rely on them to be their eyes and ears.

June 01, 1995|WILLIAM KISSEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fashion forecasters used to have an image problem. Like paid informants, they traded in secrets, tipping off the competition to the latest hem lengths, lapel widths, fabrics and colors.

"No one in the European fashion industry would admit they bought information," says David Wolfe, creative director at New York-based D3 Doneger Design Direction.

More recently, though, these stepchildren of the style world have earned respect from retailers and manufacturers, who pay $400 to $800 a season to forecasters like Wolfe to act as their eyes and ears.

The recession has made these trend mavens indispensable to the designers and retail stores who use them--from Jean Paul Gaultier to JCPenney.

"We use them for an overview of trends around the world," says Joe Sapienza, director of product development at JCPenney. "We know what's selling now in our stores, and we can project X amount of longevity to a trend. But we need the services to tell us what the next level might be."

Fashion forecasters, says Kathie Betts, trend manager at Sears, "still give us runway information. But they also recognize that the majority of customers are looking to find fashion at a price."

It wasn't always so. Forecasters were once what Wolfe, a 30-year veteran, calls "this crazy tribe of wonderful, far-out people traveling the world looking for trends. Now it's much more--I don't want to say boring--but it's more bottom-line oriented."

He recalls a colleague's disastrous attempt in the early '70s to crash a Karl Lagerfeld fashion show. The woman came in through the bathroom window, but was immediately apprehended by security guards.

"She wanted to be inconspicuous," Wolfe recalls. "But how inconspicuous could she be in a sequined blazer?"

The high-end fashion houses banned forecasters, he explains, "because they didn't want us to sell the information to someone else."

Today, instead of sneaking into fashion shows, most forecasters spend their time charting the differences between what comes down the runway and what actually sells. This information is translated by category (sweaters, woven shirts, dresses, jeans) into sketches, photographs, even color and fabric samples, and sold to manufacturers and merchants to use the next season.

"The best fashion forecasters are those whose interests are broader than just fashion," Wolfe says. "They have to be curious about what makes people tick--what makes them interested in a romance novel one year and a violent action movie the next."

Society is tribal, Wolfe says, and the trends one follows depend on what tribe that person is in, "whether it be a rap singer or a politician's wife."

Although fashion magazines might insist that "this is the season of pink," forecasters prefer to make predictions based on something a bit more concrete.

"We spend more time researching sales data by customer profile and tracking color trends by region," Wolfe says. "So the information I give to my customers is based on what's selling rather than what Karl Lagerfeld sends down the runway."

Suzi Chauvel and Marie Griffin have taken forecasting into the next era. The owners of Popeye Chauvel, a Laguna Beach video trend service, eschew statistical data. "We don't analyze everything to death," Chauvel says. "We give visual information."

They do that by taping a population they deem more cutting-edge or "directional" than others.

"What Popeye does," Chauvel says, "is take its viewers--including retailers and fashion designers--on a worldwide cultural crash course without them ever leaving their desk chairs."

Chauvel claims that her company spotted the "return to rugged" trend seven years ago, when "a lot of kids were just coming of age . . . and couldn't afford the Armani suits and BMWs. So they took an anti-fashion approach by latching onto Dr. Marten shoes and grungy flannel shirts."

It's an influence that is still with us, Chauvel says, "trickling down from shoemakers going into hiking boots to fabric suppliers showing more denim and flannel to home furnishings and even cars."

Carole D'Arconte, whose New York-based Color Portfolio tracks color changes from season to season, keeps her eye on the political climate. "Neutrals, for instance, come in whenever there is political indecision," she says. "When people feel depressed financially, they pull in and wear darker or somber things. When we feel more frivolous, we wear very bright things."

Among her successes, D'Arconte counts predicting in the '70s the strength of the color purple. "And it just keeps going," she says--unless you happen to live in a cosmopolitan area, where conservative colors rule.

"Southerners wear more pastels." Her conclusion? "People tend to be chameleons who want to blend in with their scenery."

Bill Glazer's L.A.-based BG & A tracks American fashion trends for foreign markets. Longevity, he would argue, helps forecasters recognize trends. "You have to know what is old in order to identify what is truly new."

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