What’s Out: the Fashion Trend

Prom DressesDavid Wolfe has been analyzing style trends for 41 years. But last week, Mr. Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group consultants, stood up in a room full of retail executives and told them: “There are no more trends. Everything is in style.”

Even as the fashion press gears up for an orgy of trend-spotting at New York fashion week, which starts Feb. 11, many observers feel Mr. Wolfe is right: We’ve reached the end of the trend as the guiding stricture in fashion. The “must-have” currently being attached to certain styles—The trench coat! The one-shoulder dress! Metallics!—is little more than a marketing pitch.

The trench coat and formal gowns has been “in” for the past five years, and will be hot next year, too. Indeed, it’s a safe bet that next month we’ll see every possible length of skirt, width of pant and cut of blouse walk the runways—sometimes all in the same show.

Rather than fuss about skirt lengths or the season’s silhouette, people now dress the way they see themselves, choosing looks that flatter their bodies and fit their lifestyles. Most of us dress with our social groups or professions, rather than fashion trends, using clothes to flash messages about who we are.

A chief executive in the tech business may don Gap chinos and a blazer for work, while investment banking chiefs remain loyal to their Zegna suits. Others dress according to the mores of their own personal tribes: If you don’t dress steampunk, you may not even know it’s a style (think 19th-century mad scientist in leather waistcoat with goggles and a pocket watch).

There was a time when luxury retailers Stanley Marcus and Andrew Goodman, of Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, determined what women would buy each season. That was back when nerds weren’t cool and, for some reason, a lady’s coat had to be longer than her skirt. Women who wanted to be fashionable bought the fashions whether they wanted to wear miniskirts or not. Though fashions changed, the primacy of trends didn’t: Until just a few years ago, no self-respecting teenager would have been caught in the wrong denim wash. Part of the fun of watching old movies was seeing the funny old fashions.

Now, most old film fashions look pretty current to me, from Katharine Hepburn’s swishy man-tailored pants in 1940’s “Philadelphia Story” to those skinny ski-lodge capris in 1963’s “The Pink Panther.”

“Trends are diluted,” says Doris Raymond, owner of the Los Angeles vintage store The Way We Wore. That’s because designers have in the past two decades “referenced every possible fashion period for inspiration.”

The style consensus has been splintering for nearly a decade as workplaces have grown more casual and fields like tech have pursued their own tribal dress codes. Meanwhile, young celebrities have championed a mix-and-match aesthetic. “The industry is fragmenting, reflecting consumers’ desire to create their own style,” says Marie Driscoll, director of consumer discretionary retail coverage for Standard & Poor’s equity research.

Retailers like Zara, H&M and Forever 21 have contributed to “fast fashion,” gobbling their way through looks. Last week in New York, H&M sale racks displayed blurry-print floral blouses based on designer looks that were shown on the runways in September. When those designers’ own clothes arrive in stores in March, H&M customers may well view the originals with déjà vu. Runway looks are now accessible to everyone—but their cachet disappears a lot faster.

I welcome democratic fashion as one of the many benefits of being alive in 2010. But it can be a headache for the fashion industry, which once could depend on trends to lure customers and still maintains a trend-spotting infrastructure to figure out who will buy what. Predicting trends is “more challenging every year,” says Sharon Graubard, a trend analyst with fashion consultancy Stylesight. “With fewer ‘must-have’ items, retailers and designers have to try harder,” she says.

Some new retailers are letting customers dictate the details. “Fashion has traditionally been this top-down industry, but we saw that technology” could allow consumers to choose their own details, says Abby Holtz, director of marketing for indiCustom, a San Francisco retailer of custom jeans and shirts that launched in 2008. Its IndiDenim brand lets shoppers pick fabric, leg shape, pockets and other details for customized jeans.

But there’s one fashion segment where trend is increasingly dominant: menswear, where pleats are “out” and trim, flat-front pants are “in,” says Andy Gilchrist, author of “The Encyclopedia of Men’s Clothes” and founder of the “Ask Andy” Web site. “It seems,” he says, “that the designers and retailers are trying to get men into that ‘old’ women’s fashion trend cycle.”