Trend forecasting looks into the shifts in cultural, economic, and technological contexts to predict how people will behave in the future in terms of their consumption patterns. Trend forecasting is especially vital for creative domains like fashion. Fashion is also one of the most visible media for trends as it reflects the change in the collective aesthetic through multiple mediums. The successful prediction of future fashion trends requires research across multiple industries and contexts. Interpretation and contextualization of this knowledge, using formal and systematic methods, is important in detecting emerging trends.
This bibliographic article provides an overview of history of trend forecasting and the terminology related to trends. It explores theories across multiple disciplines on trend life cycles and trend-adopter categories. Finally, it points out the formal process of trend forecasting using research, analysis, and interpretation methods.
The term “trend” can have different meanings to different people, from economists to scientists or designers. According to the author of The Next Big Thing, William Higham, the word “trend” was first used as a verb in the sixteenth century and as a noun in the eighteenth century in science, meaning “the way something bends.” The typical twenty-first-century use of the term, referring to change, is relatively new. As Higham states, the word “trend” was used to refer to stylistic and cultural changes in the 1960s and the terms “trendy” and “trendsetter” appeared in 1960 and 1962.
The formalized process of research for analyzing and forecasting trends started in the fashion industry and expanded to other consumer industries. The Color Association of the United States (CAUS), originally called the Textile Color Card Association of America (TCCA), issued the first trends forecast on women’s fashion in 1917. In 1927, the first fashion trend consultancy company, Tobe Associates, was launched and started issuing regular fashion trend reports, followed by the Fashion Group in 1928. Fashion houses experienced increased sales by using these reports and the formal practice of trend analysis grew as Higham, a consumer futurist, indicated. As the trend scholar Mackinney-Valentin puts in her review of trends, the fashion industry—and thus the process of trend analysis—went through transformations and became much more complex after World War II. The author lists the factors affecting this change as the mass production of fashionable clothing in standardized sizes, affordable clothing prices, the globalization of fashion and the weakening of Paris’s dominance in directing fashion change, the youth culture of the 1950s and the 1960s, and the emergence of new trends from subcultures and street styles. By the 1990s, trend analysis and forecasting moved from intuitive methods and short-term forecasting to more systematic and standardized methods and long-term forecasting. Trend-forecasting companies and reports such as The Popcorn Report by Faith Popcorn, CEO of BrainReserve, and the trend books by Lidewij Edelkoort’s Trend Union arose in the 1990s. In the twenty-first century, many trend-forecasting agencies operate across consumer industries such as fashion, interiors, technology, automotive, cosmetics, wellness, food, music and entertainment, art, and architecture. Trend-spotting Web sites that benefit from crowdsourcing to detect emerging trends are very common practices in the twenty-first century.
In addition to the term “trend,” terms such as “megatrends” and “minitrends,” “macrotrends” and “microtrends” have been widely depicted in the literature. John Naisbitt, a futurist, coined the term “megatrends” in 1982. A megatrend is a large social, economic, political, environmental, or technological change that is slow to form, affecting people on many scales and across many industries. John and Carrie Vanston, the authors of Minitrends: How Entrepreneurs & Innovators Discover & Profit from Business & Technology Trends, define minitrends as directions of society, technology, economics, regulations, demography, and other fields that are just emerging, could possibly become quite significant soon, and often escape early notice. Similarly, strategist Mark Penn and Kinney Zalesne coined the term “microtrends” as subtle and invisible trends in sociocultural, economic, political, and technological contexts triggered by a small group of people. The term “macrotrends” is interchangeably used with “megatrends” to refer to large-scale shifts that also last longer.
Trends also have different paths that they are likely to follow. They can become a fad or a classic, depending on the duration of their effect. “Fad” and “classic” are two terms especially used in fashion-forecasting literature, along with “trend.” A fad is a short-paced, popular collective behavior that fades out rapidly once the initial novelty has gone. Dress scholars Susan Kaiser, Joyce Heckman, and Denise Kastrinakis present a detailed discussion on fads in their review for the Berg Fashion Library. A classic, on the other hand, denotes a lasting significance, endurance, and long life span.
Interpretation and contextualization of the knowledge of how new ideas, innovations, fashions, or trends spread in a society are key to successful trend analysis, in order to go beyond simple intuition. Scholars of many disciplines—from sociology, psychology, and anthropology to economy, marketing, communication, and design—have studied the diffusion process of the “new” over the years. Fashion is one of the most visible media for trends as it reflects changes in the collective aesthetic, economic, political, cultural, and social life preferences at a particular time. Fashion and lifestyle trends symbolize the “spirit of the times” or the zeitgeist, as sociologist Herbert Blumer and psychologist John Flügel have posited. Thus, early theories of the life cycle of trends arose from the study of fashion.
The earliest theories of about distribution of fashion describe it as movement of adoption from one societal class to another in a vertically hierarchical society. These theories are classified as trickle-down theory in fashion scholarship. Economist Thorstein Veblen depicts a society based on economic principles in which conspicuous leisure and consumption mark an individual’s adherence to a social class in his Theory of the Leisure Class. According to this theory, fashion emerges through innovation within the upper classes, who continually create new forms of dress that are more sophisticated and expensive in order to reaffirm the place they occupy within their own social space. Then, fashion spreads through imitation as the lower classes start imitating the upper classes’ behavior. Anthropologist Georg Simmel describes fashion change through the notions of social distinction and integration. According to Simmel, social distinction and integration represent two fundamental motives for individual action. The dynamic aspect of fashion emerges from a process in which elite groups are imitated and subsequently create new fashions in order to keep up demarcation. In a more recent interpretation of trickle-down theory, anthropologist Grant McCracken describes a chase and flight process where the lower classes try to obtain status symbols of the elite (chase) and then the elite classes create new styles (flight). The trickle-down theory has less relevance in the twenty-first century’s fragmented society, as it is mostly focused on social class. Even though the flow of some trends from catwalk or celebrities to mass production and majority can be considered as trickle-down, today anyone can become a fashion influencer, innovator, or trendsetter.
The trickle-across theory claims that new fashions or trends diffuse horizontally among similar social groups and communities. According to sociologist Herbert Blumer and marketing theorist Charles King, new fashions emerge from a process of collective selection—a process by which collective tastes are formed by many people. Collective taste functions as a selector for the acceptance or rejection of ideas, and as a formative agent for innovation. In the twenty-first century, mass production combined with mass communication makes new styles available simultaneously to all socioeconomic classes.
According to bubble-up theory or the status float phenomenon, by business administration scholar George Field, new styles emerge in lower-status groups and are then adopted by higher-status groups. Subculture leadership theory, devised by George Sproles, also defines fashion trend movement in an upward direction from subcultures to the mainstream. Styles that emerge from lower socioeconomic groups are usually generated by adolescents and young adults who belong to subcultures or style tribes, according to the anthropologist Ted Polhemus. Age replaces social status as the variable that conveys prestige to the fashion innovator. Dorothy Behling, a dress scholar, developed a theoretical framework of fashion change in relation to the median age of population and economic health of the country based on the trickle-up and trickle-down theories. Today fashion companies and trend-spotters pay close attention to street styles to detect emerging trends.
An alternative theory that has less significance in today’s dynamics of fashion is the shifting of erogenous zones, according to the museum curator and fashion historian James Laver, who explains fashion change in women’s dress based on emphasizing certain parts of the female body in order to arouse sexual desire until this loses its effectiveness due to overexposure of the idea. Women exploit portions of the body by wearing clothing such as skinny jeans, leggings/tights, cropped tops, sheer blouses, and halters.
Many recent studies about fashion change also exist. The symbolic interaction theory of fashion change by scholars Susan Kaiser, Richard Nagasawa, and Sandra Hutton studies the complex interaction between micro-level (individual) and macro-level (social) forces based on five principles: human ambivalence, appearance-modifying commodities in the marketplace, symbolic ambiguity, meaning negotiation, and style adoption. The fashion transformation process model by Anothai Cholachatpinyo, Ben Fletcher, Ian Padgett, and Matty Crocker makes a number of new predictions about the translation of social trends into specific lifestyles and individual differences, in addition to the symbolic interactionist theory of fashion. The model proposes two important fashion forces: the differentiating force and the socializing force, which operate at macro and micro levels and through different fashion practitioners. According to the chaotic fashion consumption model of Ka Ming Law, Zhi-Ming Zhang, and Chung-Sun Leung the interaction of being fashionable, perceived fashionability, and system participation affects the ultimate decision on fashion consumption. Annette Lynch and Mitchell Strauss, the authors of Changing Fashion: A Critical Introduction to Trend Analysis and Cultural Meaning, provide a detailed review of literature on theories about fashion cycles. The authors cover style-based fashion cycle theory, diffusion of innovations theory, status-driven models of the fashion cycle, and purposeful obsolescence-driven models of the fashion cycle, as well as long-term fashion cycles.
The decentralized diffusion system concept of communications scholar Everett Rogers’s diffusion of innovations theory has some commonalities with the trickle-across theory. Individuals in a social system create and share information with one another to reach mutual understanding, and innovations diffuse among adopter categories over time. The diffusion of innovations theory proposes that innovation adoption follows an S-shaped curve, which means that only a few individuals initially adopt the innovation, but over time more and more individuals adopt it and the adoption rate increases. The adopter distributions follow a bell-shaped curve, which is divided to characterize five categories of innovativeness, where innovativeness is defined as the degree to which an individual is relatively earlier in adopting new ideas compared to other members of a system. These groups are: (1) innovators, (2) early adopters, (3) early majority, (4) late majority, and (5) laggards. Rogers also describes the characteristics of an innovation, which may influence its adoption. “Relative advantage” is the perception of the improvement created by the innovation. “Compatibility” measures how the innovation matches with the potential adopter’s previous experiences, values, and needs. “Complexity” refers to the degree to which an innovation is perceived as difficult to understand and use. “Trialability” is the ease of testing the innovation before a potential adopter adopts and implements it. “Observability” is how visible the innovation is to others.
Scholars Eundeok Kim, Ann Marie Fiore, and Kim Hyejeong describe a similar innovation adoption process model in five stages: awareness, interest, evaluation, trial, and adoption. In the awareness stage, a consumer becomes aware of a trend for the first time, not knowing its details. The interest stage refers to the process of gathering more information about the trend based on piqued curiosity. In the trial stage, the consumer tries and tests the new trend to see if it meets their expectations. Finally in the adoption stage, the consumer starts using the trend. Evelyn Brannon, the author of Fashion Forecasting, references the Bass model and the Modis model in addition to Rogers’s diffusion of innovations. According to the Bass model, adopter categories in the diffusion process adopt a trend based on impersonal influences like media and marketing through the entire process, rather than at the beginning as in Rogers’s model. Theodore Modis, a futurist, suggests that as trends reach to later-adopter categories or the market is oversaturated, a chaotic period begins while new niche areas in the market or new trends are identified.
Mike Easey, the author of Fashion Marketing, defines the life span of a fashion trend as a fashion cycle, which also follows a bell-shaped curve of adopter distribution. The fashion cycle is composed of stages of introduction, growth, maturity, and decline. The first stage is the introduction of a new fashion trend in the market. During the growth stage, the new trend gains popularity and is accepted and copied by more people. The maturity stage is when the trend is major and mass-produced throughout multiple markets. It is the longest period with intense competition. In the decline stage, the trend loses its popularity, and shows descent in adoption and sales. Chelsea Rousso, the author of Fashion Forward: A Guide to Fashion Forecasting, on the other hand defines the fashion trends cycle in five stages: introduction, rise, culmination, decline, and obsolescence. The fifth, obsolescence, refers to the end of the fashion cycle for a trend, with no potential retail. The pendulum swing movement of fashion trends refers to movement of fashion trends between a point of exaggeration and its opposite, as studied by economist Dwight Robinson. When a trend can no longer go in one exaggeration direction, it starts to move the other way. For instance, once hemlines reach a level where they cannot go any shorter, they start to become longer and longer.
The author of Anatomy of a Trend, Henrik Vejlgaard, introduced the diamond-shaped trend model framework, where he describes eight adopter categories: (1) trend creators, (2) trendsetters, (3) trend followers, (4) early mainstreamers, (5) mainstreamers, (6) late mainstreamers, (7) conservatives, and (8) anti-innovators. Trend creators are a very small group of a heterogeneous mix of people. Trends spread from trend creators to trendsetters through social interaction; trendsetters are usually young, wealthy people, style-conscious subcultures, artists, designers, and celebrities. When a trend reaches the conservatives, it also reaches the end of its popularity. Anti-innovators, on the other hand, are people who refuse to accept any trends or changes.
Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist, extends the idea of the trend process from natural and biological phenomena to social phenomena. He uses the analogy of viruses to describe how information travels from one person to the next. According to Gladwell, information is a virus copying itself, which travels through family, friends, social media, the Internet, news, and so on. Therefore, ideas, behavior, messages, and products sometimes behave just like outbreaks of infectious diseases and develop into what he calls social epidemics or trends. There is a particular moment in time when these epidemics break loose from being contained within a small population and begin to spread. This is what Gladwell calls a tipping point. The three rules of epidemics that Gladwell identifies are: the law of the few, the stickiness factor, and the power of context. According to the law of the few, very small subsets of exceptional individuals influence the masses and start epidemics. The stickiness factor is a law about the actual informational content and packaging of a message. It is about the unique quality that compels an idea to stick in the minds of the public. The law of context is a rule about the environment, historical moment, conditions, and circumstances in which a message spreads.
Individuals react to new trends differently based on their personal characteristics, and adopt a new trend at different paces. As introduced in the previous section, Everett Rogers and then Henrik Vejlgaard both categorized consumers in different adopter categories. Trends spread from consumers who first adopt a trend at its emergence to the consumers who adopt the trend at the end of its life cycle or once it is no longer new. According to Rogers, innovators are at the forefront of trying new ideas. They are comfortable with uncertainty and have the ability to learn new technologies quickly. Trend creators take the lead in Vejlgaard’s innovativeness categories. Trend creators are a small and elite group of inventors, innovators, pioneers, and courageous entrepreneurs willing to take the risk of launching new products and business models on the market. The next category defined by Vejlgaard is that of trendsetters. Similar to innovators, trendsetters are the first to accept a new product or style and start to use and promote it, thereby becoming the most important link in the formulation of new consumer trends. Researcher Laird Borrelli provides detailed examples of trendsetters in fashion through history in the “Trendsetters” review for the Berg Fashion Library.
Trend followers are the next group in Vejlgaard’s adopter categories. They are also very open to new ideas, but want to see others using them first. Early adopters follow innovators in Rogers’s theory of diffusion of innovations. Early adopters trigger the critical mass, which means once they adopt an innovation, they will function as opinion leaders and higher numbers of people will start adopting the innovation. Trend forecasters usually study innovators and early adopters to detect an emerging trend. Trend forecasters are also interested in individuals that are usually referred to as opinion leaders. Opinion leaders provide advice and information to other people and maintain a high level of credibility. Similarly, Edward Keller and Jonathan Berry describe influentials as responsible for driving trends, influencing mass opinion. Influentials are people who are engaged in their local communities and wield a huge amount of influence within those communities. According to Malcolm Gladwell, in social groups a great proportion of individuals get most of their information from a very small subset of the group. He breaks up influencers into three categories: connectors, mavens, and salesman. Connectors are the key in spreading a new message; they can pass information to a very diverse population in a very short amount of time. Mavens are socially motivated experts; they want to share and trade information that they have collected. Salesmen are the people whose unusual charisma allows them to be extremely persuasive in inducing others’ buying behaviors and decisions.
Early majority and late majority are two consequent groups to adopt an innovation based on Rogers’s model. They both form the larger segment of society and represent individuals who are more deliberate and skeptical in their decisions. According to Vejlgaard, mainstream comes in two waves: early mainstreamers, who adopt new ideas just before the majority, and mainstreamers, who adopt when everyone else seems to be using it.
Rogers defines the last group to adopt an innovation as laggards. They are either very traditionalist or somehow isolated from the rest of society. In parallel, Vejlgaard defines late mainstreamers as people dismissive of new offerings, who adopt new ideas a few seasons later; conservatives are those who prefer styles that have existed for years and are skeptical of new offerings. Anti-innovators are the last group in Vejlgaard’s model, who refuse to accept any trends or changes, like the Amish in the United States.
Trend forecasts can be either short-term or long-term. Short-term forecasting usually refers to two years ahead for the purposes of product development, especially in fast-paced industries like fashion. As laid out in Color Forecasting for Fashion by Kate Scully and Debra Cobb, color forecasting organizations such as Intercolor and the Color Marketing Group begin developing a seasonal palette two years ahead of the season. Then, spinners and mills develop and dye fabrics to present samples at trade shows. Retailers collect these swatches for concept development. Prototypes are developed around ten months before the season. According to the authors of Fashion Forecasting, Kathryn McKelvey and Janine Munslow, interviews with fashion consultants show that some trend agencies stay relevant by issuing updated forecasts on a weekly basis and some provide up-to-date information about hot trends right before the start of a fashion season in order to keep up with dynamics of fashion.
On the other hand, long-term forecasts are critical for the strategic positioning of businesses in a competitive market. Effective long-term fashion forecasting requires not just an awareness of the pulse of current trends, but also an in-depth understanding of the changes in society. Thus, the long-term trend-forecasting process requires the use of rational research and a well-established process to predict where, when, and why new things happen.
Authors provide different frameworks for the formal process of trend forecasting. The fashion trend analysis and forecasting process method described by scholars Eundeok Kim, Ann Marie Fiore, and Kim Hyejeong is a three-legged research on environment, market, and product. Each leg involves a research process composed of awareness and observation; data searching and gathering; analysis; and interpretation and synthesis. The environment is scanned for shifts in economics, politics, demographics, culture, and technology. Market research refers to researching consumer behavior, and analyzing competition and sales records. The evolution of a product is analyzed based on silhouette, color, and materials. Researchers Ayudhya, Boonla-or, and Piromya divide the trend process into three parts: tracking and visualizing trends, communicating and distributing trends, and applying trends to design. Chelsea Rousso defines the trend-forecasting process in five stages of researching, editing, interpreting and analyzing, predicting, and finally communicating. William Higham, on the other hand, offers a three-step trend-forecasting process as identification (recognizing the trend), interpretation (analysis of a trend and its adopters), and implementation (application to a specific business). As laid out in the literature, a common process for trend forecasting involves research, analysis, and interpretation phases.
Trend agencies interpret changes in society to develop a vision of evolution in culture, lifestyle, and behavior and to detect industry-specific trend drivers. For instance, the ageing population is an influential trend driver that translates into the apparel industry as new materials and sizing systems that are sensible for, and aesthetically pleasing to, older adults. Barbara Vinken, the author of Fashion Zeitgeist: Trends and Cycles in the Fashion System, presents case studies showing the way that the styles of influential designers have been affected by influential trend drivers throughout history. Economist and marketing professor Paul Nystrom’s framework for observing the zeitgeist provides five dominating factors for monitoring sociocultural change. Dominating events, ideals, social groups, attitudes, and technology are the factors one needs to consider in order to read the trend drivers. Chelsea Rousso defines demographical, psychological, sociological, economical, political, technological, and environmental influences for monitoring the pulse of a culture. The environment scan introduced by Eundeok Kim, Ann Marie Fiore, and Kim Hyejeong refers to searching for current and near-future trends in the economic, political, social, and cultural arenas. Similarly, “cultural brailling” is a term popularized by an influential American trend forecaster, Faith Popcorn, for detecting such trend drivers. It refers to a way of reading the culture with all the senses, to build insights about things affecting people on many scales. Martin Raymond, the author of The Trend Forecaster’s Handbook, suggests that a forecaster brailling the culture would look for the innovators and early adopters of the emerging trend, when it was first noted, where it emerged from, why it was emerging at that time, and finally identify what it should be called.
The forecasting of trends not only requires a thorough assessment of the long-term direction of society but also the implications across multiple industries. The cross-cultural analysis of Martin Raymond or the scanning across industries is a useful method for validating preliminary insights and to prove the credibility of an emerging trend. The three-times rule used during cross-cultural analysis means spotting three applications or examples of an emerging trend with noticeable characteristics in three unrelated industries.
When an emerging trend has been identified, the next step is to deep dive and focus on the specifics of this trend by researching its potential impact on consumers for a specific industry. According to dress scholar Marilyn DeLong, awareness of the product (form), consumer (wearer), and physical and cultural contexts and the interactions that take place among them are important factors for understanding the consumer’s response to a potential trend. Digital media, ethnographic research, and brand-specific collaborative trend analysis are methods of tracking and visualizing trends as described by researchers Ayudhya, Boonla-or, and Piromya. As a result of the Internet, there is a tremendous amount of already existing research in digital media that can guide the trend-forecasting process. Some of this information is paid for and some of it is freely available. Today, some trend-spotting Web sites benefit from communities around the world who help to spot new ideas and happenings in their localities. Instead of relying on what a guru trendsetter says, these Web sites build a collaborative hive where thousands of people all over the world share new concepts they have spotted. There are also professional trend-forecasting agencies operating at many different levels. These companies have staff traveling around the world and looking at street fashions and lifestyles, monitoring all sorts of online and offline sources to identify the new and the next.
In addition to online research, trends have social, cultural, or lifestyle aspects that can be observed more effectively than they can be articulated or described. Like cultural brailing, the observation method requires immersion with all the senses to see, listen to, and feel the new things and form impressions about consumer behavior. Martin Raymond introduces expert panel interviews as an effective way of testing an emerging trend detected via online research and observation. Expert panel interviews are conducted with innovators and trendsetters from different industries, trend forecasters, and representatives of mainstreamers or majority and laggards to test how far the trend has penetrated. Raymond calls the iterative process of collecting, reviewing, and correcting the trend information with expert panel interviews “thin slicing.”
Researching and detecting emerging trends does not guarantee success for businesses in the marketplace. Competitive analysis is utilized to identify competing companies’ offerings and to predict their responses to the future trends and market conditions. It offers potential benefits for understanding the market a company operates in and for better targeting consumers and finding niche consumer segments, and for figuring out pricing strategies.
Trend forecasters can predict potential applications of an emerging trend in specific industries through the analysis and interpretation of data they have gathered. As described by Martin Raymond, the trend analysis process starts with gathering an evidence wall or mapping wall, and continues by formulating a trend thesis. Evidence walls are a scribble of ideas and a collage of images that can be constantly rearranged and categorized into a methodological arrangement of looks, colors, textures, or functions depicted in the emerging trend. The author defines the process of rearranging the trend data as “trend framing.” The data from the evidence wall is then translated into a trend thesis document that describes the trend and its potential adopters, origins, drivers, and life cycle. William Higham defines the process of analyzing and interpreting trend research data as “trend mapping.” The first step in the process is causative analysis, that is to say establishing what caused the trend or exploring early stages of its development. The next steps are to explore its potential market and size, when it will reach the mainstream, and how specific industries will be affected by the trend.
Especially in fashion-related businesses, the common practice of interpreting and communicating trend data is done through presentation boards and prototypes. Chelsea Rousso provides step-by-step guides for developing specific forecasting boards for color, material, silhouette, and theme to visually display a detected trend. Scholars Kathryn McKelvey and Janine Munslow present highly visual case studies of the way that trends are communicated in the fashion industry. According to Ayudhya, Boonla-or, and Piromya, the trend information is communicated as design solutions via different events and media. Fashion shows and trade fairs in influential cities like Milan and New York take place to collect feedback from influential people and gatekeepers in the fashion system. At this stage, trends are not translated into mass-produced design, but rather it is a developmental process for modification based on feedback.
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