How I Became a Futurist- Part 1
If I had been told in 1999 when I graduated from design school in Paris that 20 years later I would be a futurist, public speaker, writer and teacher, I never would have believed it. All I wanted was to be a fashion designer.
But on the sinuous road of life, one opportunity led to another and today I am regularly asked: “how do you forecast trends?”. There is intuition, there is data, there are facts, and there are point of views. But it was my passion for research that helped evolve my career from designer to futurist and create a methodology accessible to all.
This is a very personal mini-series about my path and it starts with talking about the importance of curiosity.
I truly believe we invent the future. And for this a nearly obsessive curiosity and appetite for RESEARCH IS the WEAPON OF CHOICE.
I studied Textile Design at E.N.S.A.A. Duperré where every project started with research and fleshing out concepts, overseen by our charismatic and brilliant department head Francoise Mamert. This was in the 90s so before cell phones were microcomputers. We researched at the library, immersed ourselves in exhibitions and listened carefully to every word our teachers said. When I went to Parsons school on a full scholarship, it was a very similar process. Again this is pre YouTube, Online courses and Apps era. Now we have many educational partners!
We printed, photocopied, prototyped objects to create installations that showed our concepts to the rest of the class. It was then I learnt how to create mood boards, juxtapose materials, images and colours against each other so they would resonate and tell a story. Without knowing it I was learning one of the fundamentals of trend forecasting. But my passion for visual story telling initially came from my father who is an artist and film maker.
Today, in terms of research, I use every tool possible whether online or offline. I flex the “Research Muscle” by using Primary and Secondary research as well as pulling from Quantitative research. I use various tools to catalog my research. This is something I go into detail in my upcoming online course.
They enable me to keep things organised when I need to aggregate, group references into themes, easily refer back to them and ultimately create trend reports within a timely and organised manner. Essentially, I am constantly hunting, hence why I call the first part of my 3-pronged methodology the “HUNT” phase. This is the same method I have used to work with clients ranging from Samsung to Dior, Dazed Beauty to WGSN.
To unleash the power of researching the future, one must have a profound curiosity for the world around him/ her/ it/ they. I didn’t fully realise how curious I was about the world until I became an adult, to me it was normal to be a sponge. But I do remember telling myself when I was 8 years old, as I read a French news headline, that I didn’t want to see the same language my whole life. Without knowing it, I had essentially decided I would one day live in different countries. And subsequently as an adult I lived in New York for 6 years, Los Angeles for another 6, briefly in Tanzania and now London for almost 9 years.
The discovery process is one of the reasons I truly adore trend research. There’s a choreography within the strategy of identifying future trends which requires a balance of data gathering and creative unleashing. This process can be learnt by anyone who feels they need to be more in tune with the future, it is not just limited to designers.
But fashion design was my entry point. In New York I worked in Street Wear at Triple 5 Soul in the early 2000s. This was pre-social media, online shopping, data gathering and AI. The way we designed collections was intuitive. We would come up with an idea, research into its whole visual etymology and then design into it. We would rely heavily on going to vintage stores, especially military supply, my particular favourite being this little hole in the wall on Canal street. Triple 5 Soul was a lifestyle brand, and the natural connection with our audience was through music as the brand was represented by Mos Def and De La Soul. We were anchored in the conscious Hip Hop, Skate and Urban world and designed for that demographic.
The design team was very young and we didn’t fully realise that our research was fundamental to the success of the brand. Our designs were out selling big brands such as Diesel at retail. Our jackets, coordinated sweat suits, tee shirts and sweatshirts were best sellers, and we were copied by many fashion brands, an unfortunate common practice in the industry. In 2004 I joined Ripcurl and discovered the California surf culture, and in 2007 I joined 7 For All Mankind and entered the world of American denim. With every brand I helped create best sellers, along with wonderful teams and trend research was involved in this success. Knowing the right colour, print, shape would allow us to create a new hit and it would also enable us to update an existing best seller.
THE LARGER THE COMPANY, THE MORE OUR EXECUTIVES WANTED US TO CROSS TRIANGULATE OUR DESIGN CONCEPTS WITH RESEARCH GATHERED BY TREND FORECASTING AGENCIES. IT WAS A WAY TO ADD WEIGHT TO OUR SEASONAL DESIGN CONCEPTS AND SHOW THAT THIS WASN’T JUST COMING OUT OF THIN AIR, IT WAS BACKED BY SPECIALIST RESEARCH.
The whole Trend Forecasting industry to me was covered in this incredibly mysterious cloud. Who were these people? Their lives seemed perfect as they were spending all their time researching and coming up with concepts. what more could you want as a designer? I later realised it was much more complicated than this! But the point is all I could see was large amounts of inspiring information and that was incredibly attractive.
As someone who was feeling worn out by the incessant cycle of seasonal collections where there was no breathing time (I was designing hundreds of styles a year), it seemed like working on the concept side of things would be amazing. It was also around 2008 that I was getting increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of waste we were producing as I was working in denim at the time. So things were starting to feel counter-intuitive.
So I moved to London in late 2010. I didn’t have a job lined up but I wanted a change, and I wanted to come back to Europe. I had some savings and was spending time researching and taking classes at Central Saint Martins. I got in touch with the London branch of a head hunting company I had worked with since the beginning of my career in the USA. Because I knew eventually, I had to get back to work! Next thing I knew I was contacted by a head hunter to meet with the WGSN womenswear team. We had a very good informational meeting. I designed a personal card with one of my fashion illustrations and sent it off as a thank you note. And 3 months later I came back to the office, with my own desk, and that same card sitting on my boss’ desk.
I initially had no clue what I was doing. YES I had a little over 11 years of experience as a Senior Fashion Designer and Design Director. But this was a new lay of the land. I was lucky to be mentored by my counterpart who showed me all the steps in how the team and company worked. Now a huge focus of my work was pure research. And alongside this I was sketching for clients to download my designs. My main job was to digest concepts delivered in our Macro Trend Reports and interpret them into Future Fashion Collections for our subscribers.
I was in heaven, but I also had to learn how to methodically research, how to find the unfindable, how to brainstorm with my team, how to edit. Another key aspect was that I had to write much more than in my job as a designer.
From what I learnt at WGSN, what was once an instinctive way of researching as a fashion designer became a clear method I had to apply to meet deadlines and manage my time whilst delivering an impactful level of content.
Within 2 years, I was working on the Fashion Forecasts, cross collaborating with the Colour, Denim, Textile departments (as we all were it was a necessary part of the job). And I was learning how to speak in Public. My boss at the time enrolled me in a public speaking course. It was nerve wrecking but necessary as she wanted me to present the trends at events. Her belief in me led me a long way, as today a big part of what I do is speaking at industry events, for PR agencies and conferences.
But if it wasn’t for other people’s curiosity in the mechanics of trend forecasting, I would not have created my 3-pronged methodology. It all started with a chance meeting with the British Library head of Marketing at a Julie Verhoeven workshop. I introduced myself at the end and one thing led to another, I was asked to be interviewed to discuss how trend forecasting works. From this interview started a 2 year collaboration where I hosted future trend seminars at the British Library.
This platform allowed me to discuss my proven methodologies used as a designer and forecaster. But it also forced me to flesh out exactly how, into steps that were digestible for a diverse public at different knowledge levels. This is why I created my guide “Fashion Forecasting: Trend Hunting and Gathering”.
While creating a methodology for others to easily apply trend forecasting methods, I have focused on consulting, teaching, writing and designing. It’s not always easy. When I was commissioned to write about the next 100 years in Beauty by Dazed Beauty it was, let’s be honest, a bit daunting.
The level of research was hard to measure and ultimately, I had to dive into what I knew, and accept that I had to project very far into the unknown, in order to create a speculative future.
The title of Futurist was given to me by Saher Sidhom, the co-founder of the multi-faceted innovation agency and community Hackmasters. I am not one for titles and even the role Trend Forecaster is one I sometimes struggle with as “Trend” is such a general and overused term now. But I embrace the fact I can foresee domino effects based on the past, the present and the emerging. It is what is commonly referred to as “Expert Intuition”.
However, working intimately with the methodology of trend research has also shown me how accessible it is to many. Time and time again I have seen a light bulb turn on in someone’s eyes when the student or client gets it, when they get inspired by what they find and create the links. And this sounding board has been made of Designers, Marketers, Film makers, Suppliers, Advertisers, Makeup artists, Landscape artists, the list goes on. It’s been fascinating to see how valuable trend research is to a variety of practices.
Advanced research skills can be developed by anyone with the right methods and discipline. My road to becoming a futurist was built from emotional passion mixed with a pragmatic and analytical brain, a series of chance meetings, the enabling of mentors and the curiosity of others asking me to break it down for them. After 20 years, I have refined a methodology and I am fortunate to share it at leading universities, seminars and events.
Ultimately the goal of trend research should be to be precise and factual, whilst maintaining creative originality and breaking boundaries. Trends will show us how to follow but not necessarily how to lead. The trick is to identify the changes in the values, cultural paradigms, technological boundaries and decide for ourselves what is the preferable future for our audience, our client and ourselves.
- Geraldine Wharry