Learning from the world of fashion

GucciGucci, the fashion house, is embracing some of the basics of marketing research and a new consumer-centricity.  This innovation is the work of Robert Polet, formally of Unilever PLC.

This is a sensible way to manage risk in a volatile marketplace…and a good idea.  Most fashion houses continue to adhere to the "muse model."  Great talents  like Tom Ford are hired for their ability to call on their muse (or perhaps more exactly to serve as one), and anticipate where the market is going to go.  In this model, marketing intelligence does not come from the focus group and other kinds of marketing research.   It descends from on high, as the fashion genius divines what lies ahead.

Clearly, fashion has lots to learn from non-muse marketing, but I wonder if learning shouldn’t run both ways.  While fashion houses are learning from marketers, shouldn’t marketers ask what they can learn from fashion?

Here is the problem.  As the rate of change increases, lots of markets are taking on the long standing characteristic of fashion ones, specifically, that consumers often cannot tell you how they are going to react to an innovation.  This is especially true in tech markets where people tell you that they have no interest in a "personal computer" or a "modem" and 6 months later can’t live without them.  In these cases, it really doesn’t matter how good the research is.  The consumer just doesn’t know. 

Fashion has struggled with this order of dynamism, and the designer has proved an extraordinary asset.  Designer listen carefully to the market, to one another, to contemporary culture.  Mostly, they listen to themselves.  Their intelligence is an extraordinary winnowing system.  They comb the heavens for  possibility and more often than note, they can see five years ahead of the rest of us.   

Joan Kron is the best postioned purpose to investigate the intellectual system at work here.  But she tells me that the research is almost impossible to do.  When asked how they do it, designers are inclined to say they "just know"  what they know.  And they can’t say how they got there. 

This is a pity, because the world of marketing would be well served by seers of this kind.  And I guess we have them.  Faith Popcorn is clearly one.  I am not sure who else qualifies.  And of course the whole idea makes us uncomfortable because it has the effect of black boxing the very thing, forecasting, we want so much to make manifest.  But this is a real resource and, as I say, an increasingly valuable one in dynamic markets. 

Muse marketing is too important to be ignored. 


Galloni, Alessandra.  2005.  At Gucci, Mr. Polet’s New Design Upends Rules for High Fashion.  Wall Street Journal. August 9, 2005. 

7 thoughts on “Learning from the world of fashion

  1. Lynne


    Sounds to me like an instance of tacit knowledge combined with innate skill. Designers know *what* they do, but cannot articulate *how* they know to do it. I think Michael Polanyi applies here (which would still be interesting research, just not as marketing-valuable as the research you suggest!).

  2. Tom Guarriello

    I spend most of my time in this world, Grant, and it is a fascinating process in which to be embedded. Headline: muses can articulate some very important aspects of their experience, just not in the kind of language most marketers are comfortable working with.

  3. dilys

    It may be true that customers cannot tell you what they will respond to as the next big thing. But on a fairly mundane level they can identify hate-or-love features, and respond to extremely open-ended question sets that will allow further inferences as to various temperamental styles and the tastes/fantasies those imply.

    Customers representative of the target market could be engaged for interviews, given time&space to wander and rant, even ethnographically shadowed for days at a time. Is this happening?

    The musing of the designer-“muse,” as I see it, is relevant primarily as it meshes with the musings and actions of the target market. Not independently important, except as a study of creativity, etc.

  4. Peter McB.

    One reason why people cannot say accurately in market research how they will react when a new product hits the streets is that lots of products are what economists call network goods: goods where the utility received by one consumer depends upon the utility received by others. The classic example is the fax machine: being the only person in your business network with a fax is not much use; it only makes sense for you to buy a fax when others you know have one too.

    Fashion is clearly also a network good — almost no one want to wear clothes which other people disparage, so my utility from a particular fashion depends partly on your utility from the same fashion — and so we all wait to see how others are choosing before we make our own choice. After two decades working as a marketing consultant, I came to the conclusion that ALL products and services have a network-good component: even so-called commodities such as coal are subject to peer-constrained purchase trends.

    As a consequence, new products may suffer a stalemate period, with everyone waiting to see how everyone else in their peer group will decide. When you take this perspective on new products, it is clear that one crucial function of advertising is to help break the stalemate, by informing potential buyers what their peers (actual or aspired peers) think of the product.

  5. Edward Cotton


    You mention Faith Popcorn. I think many of the top fashion houses use Li Edelkoort’s Trend Union. Li used to be one of the most influencial people in the fashion world. She predict colors and trends- most of the top houses use or used to use her.

    Trend Union’s work can be seen in magazines like View on Color and in the trends presentations they give several times a year.

    There are others like her that do the same kind of thing. They combine intuition, creativity with knowledge about what’s happening in culture and society. They are the “researchers” of the fashion world.

  6. Tom Guarriello

    And, Li Edelkoort’s as close to a muse as anything you’ll find out there today, that’s for sure. Very interesting work, although designers sometimes scratch their heads over her more esoteric elements.

  7. Roger Tredre

    Polet’s approach is fascinating. Other companies have tried this before in the fashion world – I recall reporting on Mexx (based in Amsterdam, now owned by Liz Claiborne) back in the 1980s: they brought in McKinsey-trained people and tried to reduce the fashion design process to statistical analysis (it didn’t work).

    The danger is that when the emotion and personality gets removed from the design process and it is driven by market research and data, then the final product may be on the button but super-dull.

    Re muses: since the late 1990s, the company I work for as ed-in-chief (WGSN) has dominated the (primarily fashion) trends research industry by pushing none of our individuals as muses or gurus but believing that the sheer volume, depth and speed of online research blows that away.

    There is an internal debate as to whether we should create a “muse” of our own or keep to Economist-style relative anonymity. Li Edelkoort is usually cited as the classic example of a muse, but I do feel the game has moved on a bit. From a marketing perspective, though, it may make sense to create our own Li.

    Brilliant blog, by the way, Grant – I only just discovered it.

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