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Why It’s So Hard to Get Apparel Trends Right Every Time for Today’s Quick Fashion Cycle

Trends arrive in fashion at a fast and furious rate, and retailers are selling out of hot new arrivals at a rapidly increasing clip. But brands are still searching for answers about how to manage and offer trends—and finding the magic time before a must-have item becomes yesterday’s news.

EDITED retail analysis and insights director Katie Smith pointed to Zara, Urban Outfitters, Nike and Gucci as four retail brands with very different assortments and models, yet all are moving new stock more quickly than ever. In 2015, Zara sold out of new arrivals in 105 days on average; now, that number has shrunk to just 88. At Urban Outfitters, new-product sell-through is down to 86 days from 125. It’s 93 days for Nike, much faster than the 144 days it used to take the company to sell out of new product in 2015. And though Gucci takes the longest—106 days—to run out of new product, that’s still a drastic drop from its previous 190 days.

At a recent trends panel hosted by EDITED in New York City, Bill Blass creative director Chris Benz said he thinks about trends not just in terms of product variations—the statement sleeve, for example—but in terms of product categories, too. “Handbags has been such a big category for the past few years and now shoes is picking up,” he said. “And shoes is still our biggest category. We’re thinking about which categories are trending and what’s coming in that way.”

Some brands are learning to react to how consumers adopt trends at their own pace. Crystal Slattery, president of LIKELY and advanced contemporary brand Cinq à Sept, described the classic trend graph as resembling a whale—a line that arches gradually and then drops off just as gradually. But today, she’s seeing a graph that looks more like a camel, she said, with a double dip mimicking a camel’s humps.

On the one hand, there are the early adopters who quickly jump on trends, which leads Cinq à Sept to think it’s time to walk away from a trend.

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“Being in the New York bubble, it’s easy to think the trend is tired, it’s old, it’s done. But what we’ve found is actually there’s a second big dip, that’s bigger and lasts longer than the [first],” Slattery said. “And I say this lovingly, she’s the ‘late adapter’—those who are not paying as close attention to trend in fashion. It’s not as important to them but they’re adapting to a trend after they’ve warmed up to it, they’ve seen it and gotten comfortable with it.

“In the past with the late adaptors, it started at a higher designer price point, and as the trend kind of evolved over time, it would go down market. And now what we’re seeing is it’s not about the price point, it’s not about upmarket or downmarket,” Slattery said. “A trend could start downmarket and move upmarket and vice versa but for this higher price point customer, she has the money and she’s going to spend it. She just wants to make sure this trend makes sense in her life and she’s not in a hurry to get there first.”

For Cinq à Sept, the secondary trend wave often can be more profitable than when a trend first emerges. “Knowing when to drop something that’s working is one of the biggest challenges in our industry,” Slattery said. “You hang onto it too long and you’re Juicy Couture with the sweatpants. You walk away too quickly and you miss an opportunity to build your brand. All the big contemporary brands out there, we’re all built on one key item. And if they’d abandoned that key item too quickly, they wouldn’t be here today.”

Though customers generally are looking for newness in fashion, Benz cautions against offering product simply because it’s fresh and rather because it makes sense for the brand.

“Because trends are happening so quickly and the fall off from the trend also just as fast, doubling down on your brand identity is really, really important,” Benz said. “For me at Bill Blass, so much of the history of the brand is what the DNA is, although consumer insights say that our actual customer is not that interested in the history of the brand. They just want new, great product. I can pull through the DNA of the brand and we can harness that with certain trends put through a filter that feels particularly Bill Blass, which has always been refined, a little bit lady. Our customer is not the coolest girl in the room but the second coolest girl in the room.”

Yedidya Mesfin, design director for BLANK NYC, said the brand, which typically offers basic jackets, created an embellished version that sold very well. But when it came time to restock, though everyone wanted to reorder it, she said, the jacket already had been widely knocked off.

“I feel like when you see so many variations of that concept, that trend, it’s time to make something super new,” she said, rather than simply restocking what previously worked.

What’s more, Mesfin said that when Blank NYC debuted new denim more basic than the fashion-forward denim it’s known for, “our buyers freaked out.” That’s because buyers come to Blank NYC for fashion denim and get their basic jeans elsewhere.

“That was a learning curve for us,” she added.

Sometimes consumers and the fashion industry are at odds with how they view trends. If a customer likes a trend, she’ll keep on buying it even when forward-looking fashion thinks it’s time to move on.

Slattery highlighted jeans as a prime example. “Denim trends move slower because [the customer] finally gets used to seeing their body in that silhouette and it just works and they don’t want to let it go,” Slattery said. “Sometimes the customer is holding onto [a trend] longer than the industry wants her to.”

Chasing trends has taught BLANK NYC a lot about who its customer really is. “We used to introduce a lot of ideas straight from the runway but it turns out our customer wasn’t ready for it,” Mesfin said. “It was too forward for her.”

Though trend inspiration is happening everywhere—from the runway to retail to the street and now on social media—brands must also look at how customers are presenting themselves wearing fashion on sites like Instagram.

“Now it’s about personal style and uniqueness and personality more than ever before, so if you can be part of someone else’s composition of their own personal expression, I think that’s exactly the feedback that any brand should be aspiring to be as part of that product mix that the person is wearing in their photo [on Instagram],” Benz said.