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Searching For the Next Big Thing

In a world where fashion is no longer dictated from on high, trend researchers hit the streets to find out what looks will swim into the mainstream.

January 16, 1997|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I remember when [New York designer] Michael Kors did a men's bodysuit. I said, 'Think about it. A guy is accustomed to getting his shirts laundered. And he won't feel comfortable having his underwear and shirt tied together.' It becomes window dressing. It becomes buzzy. It becomes hype."

On a recent day in Los Angeles, Julian cruises down Sunset Plaza, checks out the crowd at Fred Segal Melrose and strolls through Erewhon.

Erewhon? What would a natural foods supermarket have to do with fashion?

"I do think there is spillover," says Julian, in L.A. incognito-wear, a navy Donna Karan suit and white T-shirt. "I'm looking at marketing. I'm looking at visuals. I'm looking at interesting product lines. Are they getting into other things than just food?

"Retail is retail, but there are all different forms of it. Think of the movie theaters now that have everything from serve-yourself candy to gourmet coffees. Are they going to be selling '101 Dalmatians' stuff there? Maybe. But again," he says, walking into the sprawling supermarket, "this is part of California culture, California personality."

Julian swings by the juice bar and the baked goods, taking particular note of the rugalach. "Individual packaging. Not tens of cookies, but OK, five cookies."

Passing a bookcase filled with tomes on alternative health, Julian sees other possibilities for inedibles. "If these kinds of stores did clothes, is it organic clothing? Is it hemp? And if so, would it be unisex?"

Businesses that want to stay ahead of the curve find trend research crucial. Buyers include companies as diverse as PepsiCo Inc., Limited Express and BMW.

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Some architects of hip, including Irvine-based Mossimo Giannulli, say they don't use them. "The whole idea of Mossimo is they don't need a trend analyst because they're living the trend everyone is following," says spokeswoman Janet Orsi.

But Chauvel numbers big-name clothing and product designers among her clients. "They're certainly some of the sharpest business people around and they're smart enough to know they can't be everywhere at once," she says.

Street-cruising trend scouts are among the tools Reebok uses to keep tabs on increasingly diverse groups of young people.

"You have the urban hip-hop consumer," Davis says, "and you have your more alternative kid--West Coast, Seattle, a little grunge but now more computer-influenced.

"I have a bunch of different sources because I can't be everywhere all the time. I prefer going with niche operations like Sputnik that focus on consumers who are very much the cutting edge."

Davis studies the Sputnik videos and reports and holds brainstorming sessions with Sputnik researchers and Reebok designers. Then either the designers or Davis herself retire to the drafting table to come up with next year's styles.

Take spring's new Heritage Reebok Classic Freestyle shoes. In English, that's Reebok's original women's aerobics shoes in pale pastel nubuck suede with the kind of chunky platform soles found on snowboard boots.

The style reflects the urban taste for wearing snow sports on one's sleeve, favored by "kids [who] have never gone skiing, trust me," Davis says.

Sputnik collaborated by suggesting materials and colors based on last year's projection that girls' snowboarding would mushroom.

Sometimes, the cutting edge is too sharp for the mainstream. So manufacturers try to soften it. Reebok liked the iridescent material found on firefighters' jackets and alternative kids wear. But when designers applied it to shoes, they used only palatable bits in the logo and sold "boatloads," Davis says.

Cone Denim, which supplies fabric to Levi's and the Gap, among others, forecast the current trend toward stiff, dark indigo jeans, often worn cuffed, partly with the help of a Pop*Eye video shot in Tokyo a year ago.

"They were taking their rigid jeans and cuffing them up 8 inches over there," says Ken Girouard, marketing manager for the Greensboro, N.C.-based manufacturer. "They love Americana, the James Dean look. We have a new product out that mimics the rigid look but has a soft hand. Next spring, it'll be happening more and more."

Some trend scouts prefer working with video because it lends a three-dimensional flavor to information about lifestyles. Chauvel says that when she started her company five years ago, she recognized the limitations of still photos. "They were static. They were people posing.

"I was aching to get at the underlying stuff, and I felt by using a video camera, you could get at the body language and the sound and the movements, the sort of conversational eddies going on behind the scenes, the music in the background and what was being drunk. I thought it's the wave of the future. It's got to be video."

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