If you want to see how far a fashion editor’s eyes go back, try and recite the cerulean speech at her. There is no fashion quotable that is more widely referenced, referred to, and used to “explain” “fashion” than the speech that Meryl Streep’s character, Miranda Priestly, makes in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada, when she chastises her assistant for assuming that there wasn’t a meaningful difference between two nearly identical blue belts.
As laid out in the scene, trends begin within one designer collection, and then followed up by other designers who offer their own interpretations. “In 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns,” Priestly editrixplains. “And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent who showed cerulean military jackets.” From there, a group of editors at glossy magazines determine which trends are worthy, which will inform department stores how to stock their shelves. Finally, “tragic Casual Corners” — or fast-fashion retailers, in 2017-speak — will dilute the trend to its frowsiest versions for the Andy Sachs of the world. Through it all, the puppet strings are pulled by fashion editors, jerking around those among us whose pockets aren’t deep enough for designer-designer. According to the cerulean speech, a blue sweater isn’t just a garment. It’s fascism.
It’s a speech that many people credit as the moment that they finally understood how the fashion industry works and why it matters. You yourself might think about it every time you encounter a wonky trend you can’t believe made it onto the racks. The “trickle-down” system the quote paints designers, magazines, and retailers in a symbiotic relationship as calculated as the outfits those orchestrating the charade always seem to be wearing. The quote is fashion at its most cynical and its most enlightened.
Unfortunately, it is also wrong.
Trickle-down fashion is the dominant theory of how the trend food chain works. And even though outlets like The New York Times dismissed the speech as oversimplistic when the movie first came out, the convention has somehow endured. “It is outdated,” says Red Godfrey, VP of the Nordstrom Fashion Office. “There is a complete mashup and melding of things at the moment, and it’s very difficult to apply a single timeline.”
Social media has replaced traditional media as our go-to form of entertainment. Retailers are able to rely on e-commerce to track consumer shopping trends to inform their fashion trends. And, frankly, our appetite for fashion as an escape, a subject, recreation, and form of expression have amplified in recent years. Fashion is as much a product of us as a product for us.
That’s not to say that trends just miraculously appear at Zara, a ruffled floral blouse from the primordial ooze. There’s a process, and it’s worth understanding if you like to know why it is you’re wearing a blue sweater, and if some lady with a severe haircut in a glass room made that decision for you. Good news: You’re no puppet. What’s actually happening doesn’t look so much like this (🚰), as it does this (🔥).
So — let’s retire the cerulean speech. Here’s what’s actually going on:
Phase One: The Firestarter
The idea that any trend worth disseminating starts from a typically rich, usually old, mostly white man with a chic accent dreaming up visions in cloth is absurd. Inspiration can come from film and art, but these days, inspiration generally tends to bubble up from real life.
“We typically see consumer trends originate in urban locations,” says Stacy Bingle, consumer trends consultant with market research firm Mintel. And like with food and music, the most compelling fashion is typically borne from incredibly creative people with little resources. For example, some of the biggest trends of 2017 — bohemian peasant dresses, Eastern Bloc athleticism, ‘80s drag — have their origins in inner cities, immigrant neighborhoods, and art-squatter communities. But what differentiates a fashion trend from folk garb is when these ideas are made available for communities outside of the one who wears it — understandably, this is also the stage where cultural context can easily disappear..
Take for example the recent trend of off-the-shoulder tops made of business-shirting material. The trend has two wildly distinct origins. The first are the suited workers of Wall Street, whose starched-cotton shirts in shades of blue and white are a standard uniform south of City Hall. The second are the traditional dresses of many warm-weathered locales; ranging from Afro-Caribbean quadrilles to Asian-Pacific muumuus to Nigerian ankaras. Of course, off-the-shoulder had moments in the ‘80s, the ‘60s, ‘40s in Western fashion — and Elizabethan and Victorian England, but the recent comeback has had distinct island design elements.
Indie designer Rosie Assoulin was the first one to meld these two ideas for this decade. She first showed an oversized, off-the-shoulder blouse made in crisp cotton in the spring of 2013. As a lifelong New Yorker who has reportedly made frequent trips to the Caribbean, she no doubt saw the blouses and silhouettes that have been worn by and riffed on by women in Jamaica, Haiti, and Saint Vincent for centuries. Assumedly, Assoulin translated these local trends for a global audience. (Assoulin declined to be interviewed for this story.)
That’s the firestarter. It can come from anywhere and by anyone. It can be an established designer (like de la Renta or Assoulin), a fast-fashion brand, a calculated scheme by a marketing agency, or a 9th grader at a high school.
Phase Two: Adding Fuel
But just like the one 9th grader at your high school who insisted that wearing plastic goggles outside of the lab was a cool thing to do, not all style ideas become trends. Whether it catches on or not depends on how much fuel gets added — aka, how many other places and instances confirm that the trend is not only attractive, but is easily replicable. Lots of trends start, but firestarters only become bonafide trends when a groundswell of fuel is added simultaneously.
Sure, this can happen on the runway — Yves Saint Laurent can show cerulean military jackets after Oscar de la Renta did. But what’s more effective than that is whether you see the trend in places where the people we admire are actually wearing it, and most of the time, that’s not on a Fashion Week runway.
That’s in your own neighborhood, on your commute, and in your favorite bar. If you live in urban environments, the chances that a trend will read more “normal” is much higher. The more new people you see during your day has a positive correlation to how quickly trends are adopted in your community. “For the average woman, seeing other people adopt a trend gives her the confidence to adopt it herself,” says Godfrey. “If you’re taking the subway to work, you’ve seen 500 trends before you even get to the office, whereas women living outside of major cities have to drive to work and maybe only see a few people.”
And whereas movies and magazines were paramount to the spread of trends a couple decades ago, in today’s digital age, our screens make it easier for us to see trends implemented by a variety of people and perspectives. “Geography and physical proximity [to trends] are beginning to take a backseat to technology when it comes to which important factors facilitate the accessibility of trends,” says Bingle. You’re familiar with those factors: Are celebrities choosing the trend for their red carpet appearances or paparazzi shots? Are digital publications including the trend in their roundups? Is the trend showing up in your popular feed on Instagram? In the banner ads you see online? In commercials you watch, the stock photos you glance at, or on the women you follow on social media? The more often you see it online, the more likely you’ll believe it’s a thing that’s happening in the real world.
The most crucial aspect is, by the time the trend has appeared in your consciousness, whether or not you’re actually able to get the look yourself. This is where stores come in. For trends to promulgate in real places, they need to be available in real stores at affordable prices. One aspect of trends is that many of them can be found in thrift stores and discount shops — one of the reasons that the earliest adopters of fashion trends are typically poor students with lots of time, freedom, and ability to play. And because of innovations in production, fast-fashion brands (especially overseas) are able to riff on trends they see on social media many seasons before established designers who operate with a six-month delay are able to get to it. That means thrift stores and especially fast-fashion retailers can be the first places where you can shop a trend.
In the summer of 2014, a full year after Rosie Assoulin’s first showed that firestarter shirt, and with the memory of Taylor Tomasi-Hill and Miroslava Duma wearing off-the-shoulder blouses during New York Fashion Week the previous September, I found an off-the-shoulder poplin blouse at a local Salvation Army. At the same time, a few friends of mine were purposefully seeking out the style on nouveau-vintage sites for specific spring ’11 Carven collection, and spring ’13 Kenzo. Western fast-fashion brands like H&M were selling soft-jersey off-the-shoulder tops, while East-Asian sites like Stylenanda had already made their own versions of off-the-shoulder blouses with finance-guy shirting.
The spark was officially a bonfire.
Phase Three: Maintaining The Burn
Certain trends end here — like baby bags, fringe-hem jeans, and septum piercings. But for a few trends that come to define an era (think statement necklaces, neon tank tops, and skinny jeans), the ultimate factor of whether a trend has the chance to spread has to do with whether it can be sold across a variety of levels and price points.
A trend that only exists in fast-fashion (plastic panel jeans) or luxury fashion (off-the-shoulder jackets) will never enter the canon. In order for that to happen, the trend needs to be as attractive for the consumer to wear as it is for the retailer to produce. It needs to be practical, accessible, and conventionally flattering — and it also needs to be uncomplicated to construct and endlessly mutable. The off-the-shoulder blouse checks all those boxes.
It even worked at all price levels of brands and retailers. “We [at Nordstrom] saw every single department from [Junior’s] BP to designer all selling it super well,“ Godfrey explains. “You saw it with really credible luxury designers, and you also saw it with contemporary brands, and women on the street were wearing pulled-down men’s shirts. That’s created new interest around these shirts that’s lasted — we’re on the 4th or 5th season of that trend now.” When a trend has hit all price points at the same time, it will become massive.
And contrary to the trickle-down theory, trends do not always start at expensive price points and get knocked off down the chain of command. Multiple sources I talked to who work across production and design at contemporary fashion labels where dresses cost between $200 - $500 mentioned that they keep Zara campaign imagery tacked on their moodboards for guidance and inspiration. (These sources declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the press.) Fast-fashion brands riffed off Rosie Assoulin’s original. But luxury designers then looked to Zara to see what customers wanted. The knock-off relationship is no longer top-down; it happens in circles.
Phase Four: Rekindling Desire
Because fast-fashion retailers operate on an accelerated timeline and can accurately track sales in minute detail, they’ve become machines at identifying trends that are hot sellers and giving shoppers more of what they want, while they still want it. (A Harvard Business School report found that it takes Zara just 15 days from the time designs are first drawn up to out for sale in international stores.) A certain off-the-shoulder blouse style that sells well one week will lead to a half-dozen other styles that provide a new, but familiar, spin on the original.
“Trends that are happening are collapsing on top of itself and being reinvented,” says Godfrey. “Off-the-shoulder went from a shirting trend to a ‘70s trend to an asymmetrical trend that’s very ‘80s and ‘90s. The sweetheart and portrait necklines are more historic. What was an idea has evolved and evolved and evolved. Because of this accelerated speed, we’re actually seeing some trends last longer than what you would have anticipated.”
These days, multiple brands situated at multiple points on the price and indie spectrum are responsible for some recognizable, unique takes like Tibi’s ruched-arm top, Johanna Ortizez’ wrapped and ruffled blouses, Proenza Schouler’s halter neck spin, Loeil’s surrealist version, and Zara’s three-tiered poet sleeve. Each version has increased the lifespan of the trend, inspired more spin-offs (and straightforward knock-offs, too).
Phase Five: Flaming Out
All good things come to an end. Some trends, like skinny jeans, have been burning for over a decade. Others like peplums blazed bright for a couple seasons before being completely extinguished. The key to longevity is the difference between trends that read as frivolous and those that appear as the better option to what already exists — it’s minimalism versus athleisure, slip dresses versus sneakers, and baby bags versus backpacks. Some trends become so big that they then just become staples; we’ll be wearing jeans, bikinis, leather jackets, and leopard print until we’re all living in space pods in matching jumpsuits.
The flame-out theory takes into account the very real and very persuasive tech-driven hype machine. It doesn’t ignore how savvy “casual corner” stores are to the actual wants and whims of consumers. And, it takes into consideration the complicated acts of theft between people, companies, and brands that need to happen in order to coax the general consumer to consider clothing items as fashion trends. It is also how food trends, media trends, and music trends are generated — they can happen without a prescient runway designer or an all-powerful Miranda Priestley.
In the 2006 NYT article about the movie, Eric Wilson points out that the specific cerulean references — Oscar de la Renta’s 2002 collection and Yves Saint Laurent’s subsequent show — didn’t actually happen. “In 2002, de la Renta showed Russian Cossack hats, lavishly embroidered coats trimmed with fur and some beautiful pale pink and gold gowns, but no cerulean. Saint Laurent announced his retirement in January that year; his final couture collection was a retrospective. Tom Ford, who was then designing YSL ready-to-wear, was busy making leopard-print caftans and black velvet skirt suits.”
In fact, the trends that Oscar de la Renta and Tom Ford presented in those collections were part of the machine that helped fuel a half-decade’s obsession with the Victorian aesthetic — recovered velvet blazers and brocade pants, deer-head mounts and hipster men with mustaches. While it may have started within indie music communities and thrift-store aesthetics, it quickly spread beyond to high-fashion runways, mass retailers, and pop culture at large. It was the aesthetic that led to a very distinctive “Brooklyn” look — it’s The Dresden Dolls and Panic! at the Disco and half of all the bespoke cocktail bars you’ve been to. While cerulean may have indeed been a minor trend, this Williamsburg Victoriana look that romanticized nostalgia has largely come to characterize alternative culture in the mid 2000s.
The cerulean speech tells a good story. But what really happens, as always, is a better one.