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How Do Trends Happen?

Is there a conspiracy to make your trousers uncool every three years? The Future Laboratory explains

In an age where any narcissist with an Instagram account can become a broadcasting brand, the difference between innovator and emulator is a blurry one. Our cut-and-paste digital culture has accelerated trends that may once have taken years to filter through society, and it has given them the lifespan of a Snapchat message. Our focus on efficiency and immediacy appears to have done away with tribal groups and movements.

However ­– though the days of a shadowy fashion council gathering in some Milanese palazzo and decreeing that the next season will be “teal blue” are certainly over ­– the basic principles of trend forecasting are more relevant than ever. Digital media means we now live in a primarily visual culture, where younger demographics consume images rather than words, and so questions of taste, personal style and presentation have come to the forefront.

In fact, trends have always been, and will always be, core to the way we interact with each other. Human culture exists through a constant cycle of innovation and emulation. Yawns are infectious not because they’re airborne, but because they show empathy and understanding. They show that you’re part of the group.

In my work for The Future Laboratory – one of the world’s leading futures consultancies – we’re much less interested in the specific manifestations of a trend (we won’t be weighing in on the next pool sliders, sorry), but focus instead on the underlying social forces that drive mass movements: the social, economic and political backdrop that gives rise to new forms of behaviour.

To do this, we follow an adapted version of the Diffusion of Innovation Theory (DOI), which dates back to the 1940s and tracks a five-stage lifecycle on a curve. Although developed and refined over the decades since, this original piece of research took place far from the runways of Paris or Milan, and was, in fact, based on the uptake of agricultural technology in remote farming communities in Iowa. The truth is: trends are spread by nothing more complicated than people, meaning that each one will take its own peculiar course. By breaking them down into the following five stages you can begin to understand them a little better.

The Innovators

These individuals comprise around 2.5 per cent of the population and are a far cry from the cliché of “trendsetter”. Often taking on an outsider status, they may be oblivious to, or uninterested in, the mainstream, and are responsible for the strange cultural mutations that can become new movements. They could include the cult designer who has no real business model, but to whom the discerning industry looks for thought leadership, or the misfit at school who’s actually on to something. There’s often a fine line between success and spectacular failure here, as the ideas are so unconventional that they may never come to fruition or resonate with a wider audience. Mr James Dyson created more than 5,000 failed prototypes on his quest to revolutionise the vacuum cleaner, for example, while college dropout Mr Steve Jobs was met with scorn when he insisted that computing needed a better-designed visual interface. Who would have known that the technological tinkering of British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1989 would grow to become the World Wide Web, and change the trajectory of the human race? Similarly, dramatic epoch shifts can be found in Christian Dior’s New Look, or the masculine eveningwear of Yves Saint Laurent. For all of these great names who have earned their place in history, countless innovators will have been overlooked by mainstream society and faded into obscurity.

The Early Adopters

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? More importantly, does anyone care if it does? This describes the sad predicament of an innovator without his or her coterie of early adopters. Although innovators may be the wellspring of social trends, it is, in fact, the early adopters who make a trend. They probably adhere more closely to your image of a trendsetter: urbane, connected and plugged into contemporary culture at all levels. They’ll have a solid social-media network and will be filtering their own carefully curated range of cultural resources. They’re the kind of person who imported a cold-press juicer from LA years before you could find one on every street corner, and sprinkled spirulina powder on their chia-seed pudding in the morning. Early adopters are a resolutely urban group, as this is where they’re likely to come across innovations first, and will identify more as Londoners or New Yorkers than as British or American. At around 13.5 per cent of the population, they’re still a minority, but are also seen as the most important by trend forecasters and researchers. Mr Hedi Slimane’s introduction of a radically new silhouette (inspired by underground rock bands) to menswear in the mid-2000s is a good example here, taking an existing but peripheral behaviour and putting it on a far bigger stage.

The Early Majority

This is where mass-media dissemination really kicks in. By the time you notice something in mainstream magazines, chances are the early adopters are already looking for the next thing, and the trend is being packaged up and mass marketed. This is also where the financial potential of a new movement comes into focus, meaning that it’s the stage where an innovation moves from being a cult movement to being a global phenomenon. At 34 per cent, the early majority represents a large chunk of the mainstream and this is the moment when you’ll notice a movement taking to the streets around you. Although not the originators of an idea, the early majority are often its most eager and loyal advocates, relishing their early adoption of a new style or technology, and broadcasting the fact on all bandwidths. The bearded and plaid-shirted hipsters of Shoreditch or Williamsburg in 2010 would be prime examples of this stage, where entire urban communities developed around specific lifestyle choices, such as fixed-speed bikes and flat white coffees. More relevant now would be the normcore movement of gender- and brand-neutral dressing.

The Late Majority

The late majority are the most self-conscious of the groups on the DOI curve, and tend to need a lot of reassurance before they’ll experiment with a new form of behaviour. They are inherently conservative and conscious of social norms, so when a movement reaches this group it tends to become watered down and made just that little bit more beige. If the Dior Man of Mr Hedi Slimane was an early adopter in the mid-2000s, the late majority is where you’ll find the same skinny silhouette in high-street chain Topman. They are very firmly on the side of emulation rather than innovation, and are therefore a key commercial target for brands wanting to cash in on a movement (they also represent around 34 per cent of the population). While the early majority revel in the perceived newness of their behaviour, the late majority tend to be reassured by the sameness of their own. This is where you’ll hear talk of “must-have” items, or of “It” bags, coats or shoes. Because of these conservative impulses, the late majority is where a social trend tends to take a plunge in cultural capital. It’s the point when early adopter areas, such as Shoreditch, become overrun with graffiti tour guides leading packs of foreign students in search of an original Banksy.

The Laggards

A harsh name, and unfortunately they do not take on a glamorous role in the life cycle of a social movement. This is the group where trends go to die – or at least where they become so ubiquitous that they’ve moved beyond mentioning and are fully absorbed into accepted culture. While the late majority is self-conscious about adopting something new, laggards are actively resistant to anything they see as being unorthodox. They cling to traditional values and see each new wave of innovation as a personal affront. At 16 per cent of the population, they are the last bastion of what has come before, and will only accept “the new” once it has become so commonplace as to make it feel traditional. This is when trends have their “dad at the disco” moment, when their adoption becomes laughable and contaminates the whole movement. Many would argue that the hipster movement has now entered this stage, and that the carefully coiffured beard is about to become the mullet of our times. They are the full stop on the DOI curve and once a mass movement reaches this point, then it’s a sure sign that something new is bubbling up back at the top. Trends are only useful in so far as they carry cultural capital for the people who are deploying them, so once they reach a laggard status it’s time for the trends to die and the world to move on.