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How Trend Forecaster Sarah Owen Taps Into the Minds of Teens

As WGSN's Youth Editor, Owen spends her workdays traveling around the world, attending music festivals and scrolling through Instagram.
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Sarah Owen. Photo: Caitlin Mitchell

Sarah Owen. Photo: Caitlin Mitchell

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Over the past seven days, Sarah Owen has already taken a yoga class in a Himalayan salt room in New York City, attended an Instagram event after-hours at Dia:Beacon in Upstate New York, explored street art in Oakland and participated in a presentation on the future of youth trends in Los Angeles. The Australian native broke into trend forecasting from the editorial side, following up an internship in Vogue's fashion department with writing gigs at The New York Times and New York Magazine. She joined top forecasting agency WGSN over four years ago, and is now the company's youth editor. It's her job to delve into the lifestyles and shopping habits of millennials between the ages of 15 and 25 around the world, which involves a mix of traveling, photojournalism, reporting and editing.  No week is ever the same. 

We visited Owen at the WGSN headquarters in New York City to learn more about her recent travels for work, how she keeps up with the millennial market and what makes a well-rounded trend forecaster.

How do you report on trends?

I cover youth trends across the globe from design capsules and emerging trends to consumer attitudes and cultural influencer reports. I also cover New York Fashion Week, finding key themes from the runways and then breaking that down into key looks, colors, prints, materials and inspirations. We do a lot of trend reporting for the fast fashion market and attend events, such as the Las Vegas trade shows, where I look at the designers' collections and figure out what buyers should invest in for the upcoming season. 

I also go to a lot of festivals for street style reports. Coachella, SXSW, Governors Ball, Afropunk, Osheaga in Montreal and NXNE in Toronto, just to name a few. Afropunk this year was my favorite. I met the coolest people, got the best photos and asked about their style.

My favorite aspect of my job are consumer insight reports, which I call a head-to-toe, inside-out take on a consumer. What apps do they use? Where do they eat? What are their favorite hashtags? Really nailing each facet of their life from an anthropological aspect.

You recently traveled to Cuba — what was that for and what did you learn there?

In August, my colleague Andrea Bell and I went to Cuba for a research trip. We saw that Stella McCartney and Proenza Schouler created collections inspired by Havana and noticed that Rihanna went there to film a music video. So there are little triggers that influenced us on a destination, which ties into the company's ethos of using "math and magic" to forecast. We see the triggers but it also has to resonate for us. When we got back, we learned that Chanel is going to show its cruise collection there, so it's nice for us to get that confirmation.

In Cuba, we did a few different reports but another aspect of my job involves finding "style tribes." I find subcultures around the world, infiltrate them and articulate that back to clients. We discovered this skate group in Havana and met with them every day for a week to photograph, film and interview them. But there's always that level of trust that needs to be earned first, so we had to get to know them, and by the end of it, I actually became really fond of the group. The next research trip is in Seoul in January.

What's your process for spotting trends?

I think my eye takes in so many more visuals than the average person. I have interviewed and photographed thousands of people at music festivals and events around the world, and I'm constantly glued to a Tumblr or Instagram. I'll go to Coachella and while others are enjoying the event, I'm scanning and reading and interpreting so many people's faces and outfits.

I notice myself getting better at pattern recognition, too. I can experience a situation and connect different elements, whether it's a scent, song or an artist. I'm piecing together so many different elements of what I've captured and I think that ability is so important because it helps you track the evolution of trends over time.

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How do you manage to forecast trends years in advance?

I work on real-time trends and also have reports two years, one year, six months and three months ahead. I don't worry about the furthest one out, it's about timing and making sure my message hits at the right season. So when I say the bomber jacket is coming back for spring 2016, I have to be sure it's not for fall 2017. You have to be precise about what you're telling a client to invest in, as well as knowing how quickly things evolve, when pieces drop into stores and whether things will have more traction over time.

Last year, I was working on a report that would impact this year, and I looked at IMDB — another important resource because film impacts this industry monumentally — to see what movies are dropping in cinemas. We were talking about Star Wars and how that will affect star prints and inspire graphics. Data is also powerful, so there has to be an element of statistics and studies. People think the future is so unimaginable, but it's there if you do your research.

What publications help you stay informed and inspired to do your job?

A few of my favorite magazines to this day, in order, are Time Magazine, Wired, Fast Company and Harvard Business Review. I love fashion, honestly; that's the industry I'm in. But I don't personally like fashion magazines. My mentality is that I know so much about fashion, why would I read another fashion magazine to confirm what I know? Taking the elements of industries I know nothing about and helping them make sense in what could happen in fashion is really important. You need to have that external wide lens on the world, otherwise you can't forecast.

So many brands are trying to tap into the millennial market right now. How do you keep up with what's going on with this type of consumer?

The best way to do my job is having direct peer-to-peer time. I have a handful of young consumers around the U.S. who I've met in person or through Instagram and Facebook and I stay interested in what they're doing. The first year I went to Coachella, I saw this young bunch of 14-year-old girls. They were super cool; something was happening there, I could just tell. So I went over to them, introduced myself, got their photo and details and I stayed in touch with one of the girls, Wesley, who, over the past five years, has become my muse. I can't always be ingrained in every subculture, so I need eyes and ears on the ground. I did a report recently called "Slanguage." It was on the coolest hashtags among kids. I know the key hashtags that are relevant for the market but there are many I learn from the younger pool of consumers I tap into regularly.

What's the creative process behind your Instagram account?

Instagram is basically my platform to show the outtakes of my job, my travel diary and what my eyes are drawn to, like texture or color. My friends say I only see in squares. I mostly post the things that I enjoy in life, but for my followers, it's somewhat of a city guide as well because my photos are tagged with my favorite museums, restaurants and shops.

Do you have any favorite Instagram accounts that you love to go through every day?

They change on the daily and as hard as it is to narrow it down to a handful, I'd say these are inspiring me at the very moment: 

For those interested in your field of work, what type of background makes for a good trend forecaster?

Ultimately with WGSN, it's part publishing platform, part fashion house. If you can bring a skill set from either side of that scope, or a balanced background of editorial work and design expertise to navigate both of those worlds, then you're the ideal trend forecaster.

This interview has been edited and condensed.