Do we make fashion, or does fashion make us?

D Murali | Updated on January 24, 2011

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar   -  Business Line

In the past, retailers tried to figure out which styles would be popular by keeping track of what the major fashion designers debuted on the runways in Paris, Milan, London, and New York, reminisces Sheena Iyengar in The Art of Choosing (

Today, however, fashion weeks are held in every major city around the world, and thousands of micro-labels distribute through the Internet and word-of-mouth, and so retailers rely instead on forecasters to consolidate and report the hottest trends that have been shaped in part by the same forecasters' interactions with designers, she adds.

Predictions as causes

The end result of this coordination, as the author explains, is that the clothes on the store racks may share quite a few features, because even though they were created independently, they were all designed based on the same information. Noting, therefore, that the ‘predictions' are edging ever closer to becoming their own causes, she writes that if designers believe that white will be the new black and so only make white dresses, or if the stores only order the white ones, then that's what consumers will buy.

Mutual back-scratching

It may be disturbing to read the author's view that the various elements of the fashion industry and its auxiliaries largely operate on a ‘you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' philosophy to promote their goods. She begins by tracing how retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue gives writers from Cosmopolitan, GQ, and similar magazines advance notice of the styles that will appeare in their stores so that they can be featured in articles the instant they hit the shelves.

Then there are designers who hold fashion shows with exclusive invitations going to photographers and writers from magazines such as Vogue who, thus, ‘get a scoop on the latest trends'. Designers also arrange for their products to be featured on television shows and movies, and they often donate their latest creations to actors, musicians, and socialites; and these celebrities are photographed by the paparazzi at red-carpet premieres and nightclubs, Iyengar narrates.

Everybody knows everybody else

The author also speaks of how personal shoppers and interior designers meet with industry insiders over cocktails to determine what to recommend to their clients. “If there's one thing I learned from my meetings with people in the fashion industry, it's that everybody knows everybody else, and more often than not, they're all playing for the same team.”

The goal, as the author elucidates, is to expose consumers to the products through as many different media as possible, influencing them on multiple levels and taking advantage of the ‘mere exposure effect.'

She cites the 1960s research of Robert Zajonc, that the more we are exposed to a particular object or idea, the more we like it provided we have positive or neutral feelings towards it at the outset.

Exposure and acceptability

When a trend emerges, it sends the message that it is becoming increasingly accepted, instructs Iyengar. For, when we see the supplies of multiple independent retailers simultaneously shift in one way, we assume the demand has shifted as well. “Of course, the change may actually be driven by the prediction of a future shift in demand, which may or not materialise, but it still affects people's choices. The higher the exposure a product receives and the greater its perceived social acceptability, the more people will buy it, which in turn increases its exposure and acceptability.”

Published on December 22, 2010

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