Katie Baldwin, a senior womenswear designer at G.H. Bass & Co., is currently immersed in research for the summer 2015 season. (The New York-based designer is responsible for knits and sweaters.) That means visiting museums and galleries, observing what other stores are currently carrying, compiling mood boards and just getting a general sense of where she’d like to take the collection. But before she presents her ideas to the vice president of design, she consults WGSN, a trend forecasting service that offers in-depth reports on what people will be wearing in the future. “It delivers a strong message to my management,” she says. “It makes my presentation stronger to be able to say that not only do I think we should add a boy-fit tank to our line, but so do market researchers.”
Baldwin first starting using WGSN in 1999 while working at Brooks Brothers. (The London-based service was founded in 1998.) She continued to use it during gigs at Ralph Lauren and PVH Corp. At some point, though, she switched over to Stylesight, the New York-based trend forecasting serviced founded by retail industry vet Frank Bober in 2004. When PVH sold Bass to G-III Apparel Group in October 2013, she continued to use Stylesight. A month later, WGSN acquired Stylesight for an undisclosed sum, combing the two businesses. After years of using Stylesight, she was back with WGSN -- and perfectly fine with it.
Baldwin, of course, is capable of doing her own research. She’s capable of spying the trends, predicting popular colors and sketching the silhouettes. But what WGSN offers is ammunition. If her superiors aren’t convinced that boy-fit tanks are the next big thing, it’s valuable that a group of purported experts are confirming her instincts. Indeed, that proposed value is why WGSN is today’s leading trend forecaster.
“We’re a real, trusted resource for validation,” says Steve Newbold, managing director of WGSN trends. “Things are moving so fast. We give you the tools to know that what you’re making is going to be commercially viable.”
Designers make up more than half of WGSN’s customer base: the rest are CEOs, visual merchandisers, buyers, marketing execs and students. Major retailers like Marks & Spencer and Nordstrom, as well as brands like Rebecca Taylor, are paying clients. How much they pay each year varies because fees are negotiated, but the number can easily reach the five figures depending on how many log-ins are required. (Students, obviously, are offered a discounted or free service, typically through their university.) WGSN, which is owned by the Top Right Group, says its subscriber base is currently 75,000. WGSN and 4C Group — a trend forecasting firm for the construction, environmental and political industries — brought in a combined £75 million for Top Right in 2013. The parent company says it has invested £50 million in the WGSN Group over the past three years.
It is thought that WGSN wanted Stylesight for its technology. (And also for its audience: Stylesight was able to lure many U.S. brands away from WGSN.) When I interviewed Bober — who has retired "but remains a close advisor and friend to the company" — for Fashionista in 2010, he emphasized the breadth of the platform, and why tech was just as important as the content. “We’re the only company in our space that actually has a development team. We’re doing our own coding,” he told me. Stylesight distinguished itself from WGSN and other competitors by, as I described it back then, creating “a Google Docs for your fashion stuff.” Suddenly, all those trend reports and mood boards and color forecasts were organized and filed in a way that made it easier for designers to create presentations.
When the WGSN and Stylesight’s combined platform launched in early August, all of Stylesight’s goodies were on hand. While the trend forecasting reports are valuable to users, what they really seem to be there for are the 65,000 CAD files, or computer-generated patterns. (It’s romantic to think that all fashion lines dream up new patterns every season, but it doesn’t happen much outside of ready-to-wear. Brands will even send designers out to buy competitors’ pieces so that they can copy a popular pattern. It’s not a pretty aspect of the industry.)
Unsurprisingly, Kevin Silk, WGSN’s chief commercial officer, sees it differently. “Color libraries, CADs, those are just gravy,” he says. “What we do is distill this massive amount of information through our experts down to usable, actionable insights.” WGSN is also pushing its InStock retail analytics service, which allows users to track what is selling, trending and being marked down at other retailers.
Few brands are willing to talk on the record about their experience with WGSN and Stylesight. There are many reasons for this. First, there’s the matter of trade secrets. They don’t want to publicly admit that they need “help” scouting trends or designing patterns. Some find it difficult to convince their superiors, year after year, to pay such a handsome sum for the service, so they don't want to draw attention to it once again.
Others are moving to cheaper services that might feel a little more like the “old” Stylesight. (While the technology is still there, much of Stylesight’s creative team was let go during the merger.) Editd, a UK-based, data-driven forecasting firm run by a hip fashion designer, earned itself a New York Times profile last year. And then there’s New York-based Fashion Snoops, which launched over a decade ago, but has shifted its direction as of late. “About nine months ago, we were really sensing the need to address the fast-fashion fatigue our clients' consumers were feeling,” says Michael Fisher, creative director of menswear, lifestyle and culture at Fashion Snoops. (He also happens to be a former Stylesight editor.) For Snoops, that means a more boutique approach to the process: along with frequent updates of trend reports, the team is focusing more on storytelling, less on design dictation. “Compared to our competitors who are literally becoming giant search engines of an overwhelming amount of information, we want to give our clients edited, expert-driven plans for the seasons ahead.”
While WGSN is certainly watching these competing firms, there’s no doubting that it still has the foothold on the market— and arguably because it bought Stylesight. The service’s next step is to break into other categories, such as interior design. “There’s crossover with the core fashion business, yes, but it’s also a new audience,” Newbold says. “We want to both increase users and increase penetration with existing users. The new website is obviously a massive step forward. It’s faster, better and more useful for our customers.”
Homepage photo: Kirstin Sinclair/Getty Images