A question of Order: The Role of collective Taste as a Strategy to cope with Demand Uncertainty in the Womenswear Fashion Industry

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A Question of Order: The Role of collective Taste as a Strategy to cope with Demand Uncertainty in the Womenswear Fashion Industry


Though strong branding and a distinctive product range are often identified as important factors for companies’ economic success (see, e.g., Robinson [1999]) many UK womenswear retailers offer surprisingly similar products. The author argues that product sameness amongst many high street womenswear retailers in the UK is a deliberate strategy employed by industry practitioners to limit demand uncertainty.

Based on an empirical study of UK high street womenswear retailers the author argues that the womenswear fashion industry, like other industries operating in markets faced by high levels of demand uncertainty (Crane 1992), has adopted strategies to minimise economic risks. The author explores how fashion information created by companies/groups in the quaternary industry sector is used as inspirational sources for fashion workers at retailing level and contributes to the development of a collective taste amongst them. Collective taste in the context of this research is seen not as a by-product of interaction as theorised by Blumer (1969), but as a strategy to cope with the inherent demand uncertainty experienced by firms operating in the womenswear market and as a means for establishing some orderliness in the fashion system.


Fashion industry; demand uncertainty; collective taste; information loop; quaternary industry sector

1. Introduction

Due to the nature of its products culture industries face high levels of demand uncertainty. Whereas producers, middlemen and consumers of ‘material’ goods – goods serving utilitarian rather than aesthetic needs – can reach an objective verdict on the quality of a product, for example based on its technical performance, cultural products or non-material goods, cannot be judged in this way, but rather have to somehow capture consumers’ imaginations and desires (Blumer 1969; Hirsch 1972). It is therefore not surprising that culture industries face high levels of demand uncertainty on their input and output boundaries. As Dempster (2005, 1) points out ‘there exists … one point of agreement amongst policy makers, practitioners and academics – … the creative sectors are characterised by extremely high levels of uncertainty. This makes participation (at all levels) risky… [,] rewards highly uncertain … [and] creative marketplaces … extremely difficult to predict.’ Indeed, Goldman’s (1984, 39) often cited statement that ‘nobody knows anything’ relates to the fact that cultural workers are generally unable to predict the success of current projects at an early stage. Demand uncertainty has been shown in the literature (e.g. Caves 2000; de Vany 2004; Thompson 2010) as being a fundamental property of culture producing industries and as shaping their organisational set-up and the working practices of its workforce (Crane 1992; Dempster 2006; Hirsch 1972).

Demand uncertainty is felt strongly in the fashion industry, as the very nature of this industry is centred on continual change – it produces temporal distinction on a synchronic level, by producing clothes that fulfil consumers’ desire for social distinction in any given season, as well as on a diachronic level, i.e. by producing garments that differ from the ones of the previous season (Bourdieu avec Delsaut, 1975). The level of fashion sensitivity of a fashion system determines the impact of seasonal fluctuations and demand uncertainty it has to face – this makes womenswear, which has a higher fashion content than other clothing systems, the most volatile segment of the fashion industry. Moreover, Braham (1997, 121) points out womenswear is unique, because ‘in no other industry is the management of fashionability so central to its institutions and structures’. In order to cope with the high level of demand uncertainty, the womenswear industry has developed flexible production processes, labour relations and interfirm arrangements conducive to coping with fluctuations in demand (Fine and Leopold 1993; Godley 1998). Moreover, similar to other culture industries (Hirsch 1972; Ryan and Peterson 1982), womenswear retailers employ sequential selection processes at key stages in the product development cycle to filter out and minimise oversupply (Schulz, 2008). This article seeks to show that collective taste can be seen as a further strategy to cope with demand uncertainty and to bring order to the fashion industry.

2. Collective taste and (social) order

In his seminal paper ‘Fashion: From Class Differentiation to Collective Selection’ Blumer (1969) posits that ‘…the setting or determination of fashion takes place … through an intense process of selection (Blumer 1969, 278). He found that fashion buyers converge ‘independently of each other and without knowledge of each other’s selections’ (Blumer 1969, 279) on 6-8 out of one hundred or more designs. Blumer (1969, 282) sought to explain this ‘mysterious … process of collective selection’ through buyers’ intense immersion in the world of fashion and their myriad interactions with other fashion practitioners, which he believed facilitated the development of shared sensitivities and tastes that ‘guided and sensitized their perceptions and … channelled their judgements and choices’ (Blumer 1969, 279). This implies that taste is an active force that shapes social actors’ experiences and directs their lines of action, e.g. it guides their decisions to reject, select and form objects according to its standards. Indeed, for Blumer fashion is neither trivial nor inconsequential – it not only acts as a constraint to choice, but is a central mechanism in forming social order:

…fashion introduces a conspicuous measure of unanimity and uniformity in what would otherwise be a markedly fragmented arrangement. If all competing models enjoyed similar acceptance … there would be a veritable ‘Tower of Babel’ consequence. Fashion introduces order in a potentially anarchic and moving present ... [by] narrowly limit[ing] the range of variability… In this respect fashion performs in a moving society a function which custom performs in a settled society. […] Fashion should be recognised as a central mechanism in forming social order.

(Blumer 1969, 289-290, italics in original)

Although Blumer’s analysis provides important insights into the connection between fashion, collective taste and social order, he curiously omits to take the ‘elaborate institutional apparatus’ (Davis 1992, 120) of the fashion industry into account in these processes. Indeed, the institutional apparatus of the fashion industry only enters Blumer’s analysis briefly through his considerations of the role of prestige figures and the (fashion) elite1 and his observations (i) that their endorsement of a design can increase the likelihood of its acceptance and (ii) that they affect, not control, the public’s incipient taste. While he recognises the importance of interaction in the formation of collective taste amongst fashion workers, he does not consider the strategic dimensions of these interactions. As Davis (1991, 17) points out collective selection is ‘strategically bounded collective selection […] [as] fashions … are the product of elaborate processes of compromise, negotiation, adjustment and risk-taking played out within and amongst the subworlds comprising the larger social world that is the fashion industry.’ Schulz (2008), for example, has shown that fashion workers have different occupational (and individual) outlooks that impact on their garment selection and can give rise to conflicts. Practitioners seek to overcome these differences by drawing on a shared image of their (imagined) customers’ likes and dislikes (Schulz 2008). This latter observation points to another weakness in Blumer’s observations: he locates the fashion phenomenon at the level of mass taste and argues that for something to be in fashion it has to correspond to the fashion consuming public’s emergent taste. However, consumers’ incipient taste is ‘imagined’ (Schulz 2008) or ‘anticipated and interpreted mass taste, the anticipations and interpretations themselves having been filtered through the not altogether harmonious values and interests of the fashion industry’s subworlds’ (Davis 1991, 17, italics in original).

Meyer (2000, 33) also picks up on the role of interpretation and the importance of the institutional apparatus when describing taste formation as a ‘collective interpretive activity that … is shaped by culturally available rhetorics of aesthetic judgement’, such as ‘fashionable – dated’, ‘common – sophisticated’, and that is played out against the backdrop of institutional constraints. The notion of rhetorics directs one’s attention to the processes that are involved in legitimating and selecting specific features of an aesthetic object thus producing diverse taste judgements, while on another level it can be seen to organise and structure one’s reality. Meyer (2000, 51) observed that culturally dominant rhetorics impact taste-making ‘by steering the collective imagination and interpretation of new symbols one way or another’ and maintains that in order to understand these processes one needs to look at ‘the operating institutional context, the balance of power among participating collective actors, and their selective use of the available legitimating rhetorics’2.

Applying these observations to the fashion industry it could be argued that the quaternary sector of Western fashion systems, which includes fashion information and consultancy services, is dedicated to the shaping of culturally available fashion rhetorics and communicating this information to clients in the primary, secondary and tertiary sector3. In this respect the quaternary fashion sector performs important functions both as a gatekeeper to and distributor of information. Finkelstein (1998, 80), for example, argues that ‘fashion is an organisation of knowledge based on restricted access to goods and services’ and that social actors’ ability to identify the fashionable reflects their cultural capital. This suggests that well-connected, dedicated providers of fashion information can gain expert status in the fashion system and enjoy high ‘fashion capital’ (Rocamora 2002), which may prompt less well-informed players to follow their advice. Indeed, drawing on Moureau and Sagot-Duvauroux’s (2010) work on contemporary art, Sagot-Duvauroux (2011, 44) argues that differential knowledge may led social actors to follow the opinions of those ‘agents who are believed to be in the know … These informational cascades may be strategic when the opinion leaders are interested in the result of the cascade.’ As the following discussion will show it is not only the various dedicated providers of fashion information who have a strategic interest in the formation of collective taste, but also the recipients of this information who use it to follow the ‘herd’ rather than to carve their own niche of distinctiveness.

3. Sample

This article is based on (i) documentary research of primary data collected from websites of key groups and companies within the quaternary sector of the fashion industry and (ii) empirical research of UK womenswear retailers. The empirical data stems from nineteen semi-structured interviews4 with designers, buyers and merchandisers of UK based multiple womenswear retailers (N=12) with ten or more retail outlets. As the majority of womenswear retailers do not manufacture their own garments some insights into retailer-manufacturer relationships were gained by conducting a small number of interviews with manufacturer-based designers (N=3). Interviews lasted between 25–75 minutes and were conducted at interviewees’ place of work. Interviews covered six broad themes, namely (1) interviewees’ biography, (2) organisational structure of company, (3) forecasting, (4) garment selection, (5) conflicts and (6) technology. In order to ensure that the questions were of interest and relevance to interviewees two slightly different interviewing guides were devised: one for retail- and manufacturer-based designers, and a second for buyers and merchandisers. The data was analysed using thematic analysis (May 2011).

3.1 Design-led and buying-led retailers

Following interviewees’ own explicit or implicit definition of their company’s organizational structure, the sample was divided into design-led (N=7) and buying-led retailers (N=5). The prefix ‘design’ and ‘buying’ indicates which occupational group is most influential in shaping a company’s garment range and reveals basic differences in the organizational set-up of companies (Schulz 2008). For example, in companies that have been categorized as ‘design-led’ the designers are the occupational group whose choices determine the characteristics of the product range to a greater extent than buyers and merchandisers’ decisions. Designers in design-led retailers design the majority of the range themselves and are largely responsible for creating the style and brand image of the company. In contrast, buyers in buying- led retailers are not only the largest occupational group5, but it is their decisions that shape the range: they liaise closely with manufacturers, decide what is being designed and which garments will be selected.

Another key difference between design-led and buying-led companies lies in their approach to garment design. Whereas design-led companies predominantly design in-house from ‘scratch’, buying-led companies’ ranges are ‘bought in’, i.e. built from various buying samples. The differences in methods can be highlighted by the following statement:

…we do a lot of sketching… I start with a blank piece of paper, whereas some people tend to start with a bunch of garments [manufacturers’ buying samples or garments bought from other retailers] and they kind of piece them together.

(Sophia, Designer, design-led retailer)

This difference between design-led and buying-led retailers’ approach to garment design will be revisited in the context of fashion workers’ practice of copying others (see section 4.2.1).

4. Findings and Discussion

4.1 The role of the quaternary sector in legitimising taste

The various fashion information and consultancy services of the quaternary sector of Western fashion systems perform important functions both as gatekeepers to and distributors of fashion information. They are instrumental in shaping and legitimising culturally available fashion rhetorics and in communicating this information to clients throughout the industry system.

In terms of the timing of the fashion cycle the earliest impact of such institutional gatekeepers on the formation of collective taste can be felt in the selection of colours. Colour forecasts were first commercially produced in 1917 and have become more widely used in the 1970s (King 2011). Colour forecasts aimed predominantly at the primary sector (i.e. yarn and fabric manufacturers) are released approximately two years ahead of season. The role colour forecasting agencies play in the formation of (colour) taste can be seen by looking at the working practices of the International Colour Authority (ICA), Intercolor and the British Textile and Colour Group (BTCG).

Established in 1966, the International Colour Authority consist of delegates from international textile and paint companies as well as self-employed consultants who select approximately 30 colours that are divided into trend moods or seasonal variations (Costantino 1998) to make up colour reports which are released 24 months ahead of season. The arrival of the ICA and similar organisations in the mid-1960s coincided with the entrance of large international chemical companies into the textile industry – both events changed the textile industry and the way colours are predicted dramatically. Prior to the mid-sixties

…the situation for predicting colours was akin to the legendary Tower of Babel, there was no leadership and no co-ordination. Trade associations, yarn producers and a multitude of manufacturing companies throughout the world all issued conflicting 'colour cards' forecasting trends six to twelve months ahead of the season.

(International Colour Authority 2012)

Thus, the emergence of the ICA’s and other colour forecasting services can be seen to have brought a degree of orderliness and stability to colour forecasting, without which large-scale businesses would struggle to operate economically far in advance of the season. Indeed, this desire to impose order on the colour taste formation is echoed by Intercolor6 (2014) which produce a bi-annual international colour card reflecting the consensus researched by its members:

For the purpose of seasonal coordination and standardization of colours in the textile and fashion industry … it was decided that information would be constantly exchanged between each nation through discussions on the basic fashion trends and through activities of the standing secretariat.

Currently, Intercolor has 14 member countries from across Europe and Asia which are represented exclusively by non-commercial national organizations ‘specialized in color coordination for the textile and fashion industries and working in that field in their own countries’ (Intercolor 2014)7. Great Britain, for example, is represented by a member of the British Textile and Colour Group (BTCG), which itself consists of textile designers from Scottish and Yorkshire mills who establish seasonal palettes in bi-annual meetings. These palettes are then shared with global colour forecasters and eventually published by the ‘UK Fashion & Textile Association [which] is the most inclusive British network for fashion and textile companies’ (UK Fashion and Textile Association 2014).

The above discussion suggests that there exists a complex information loop between the various national and international groups that are tasked with the development of consensual colour cards or palettes and that these groups are highly influential in the formation of collective colour taste. This is summed up well in a comment posted by a member of the BTCG to The Women’s Room Blog on November 3, 2011:

Yesterday I spent the day talking about colours for Autumn Winter 2013 /14 with the British Textile and Colour Group. […] If you’ve ever wondered just who comes up with the colours that you buy in the shops each season, it’s us. So next time you get annoyed that the shops are full of a green that reminds you of your fifth year school uniform, you can blame us!!

While organisations such as the ICA, Intercolor and the BTCG work up to two years ahead of season and aim their predications at the primary sector, there are also numerous specialized colour forecasting services aimed at the secondary and tertiary sectors. These agencies provide companies with both long-term colour predications as well as updated colour cards8 that they issue between 12 - 6 months ahead of season. For example, Pantone publishes a series of colour cards aimed at different industries or market segments 18 months in advance, while also publishing the PANTONE® Fashion Color Report approximately six months ahead of season. This report is based on the analysis of trends from New York Fashion Week and identifies 10 key colours for women’s and men’s fashion alongside designer sketches and other visual materials. Thus, by the time high street womenswear retailers finalise their colour selection (approximately 6-3 months ahead of season) they can draw on updated colour palettes, examples of how colours have been translated into actual garments on the catwalks and a plethora of reports and representations in various types of media aimed at both fashion practitioners as well as the fashion-interested public.

Of course colour is only one aspect fashion practitioners consider when putting collections together and similar fashion information loops exist in relation to materials, themes, silhouettes etc. Fashion forecasting services are instrumental in providing the retailing sector with long-term trend predictions (ranging from 2-10 years ahead of season) and up-to-the-minute trend reports containing observations, depictions and analysis of the latest fashion shows, red carpet events or street fashions (Rousso 2012). Trend reports contain concrete, ‘tangible’ information of what fashion trendsetters are actually doing and allow retailers to identify key trends and seasonal ‘must haves’ easily and with a view to adapting them to fit their market. One fashion forecasting company, for example, describes their reports as ‘Runway Roadmaps’ set out to help clients

…make sense out of the myriad of runway messages each season. The Runway Roadmap presents four viable trends for the season ahead, each with color palettes, key items, accessories, and inspirations from art, fashion history, pop culture and film. [As well as providing] ‘speed to market’ … reports to develop items for quick turnaround. We call out the apparel and accessory items that you need to get to your customers now. Each report includes flat sketches, fabric and detail suggestions and styling direction to spark multiple item sales.

Stylesight (2014)

By selecting a small number of ‘viable’ trends, i.e. trends that can be easily adapted for the high street, Stylesight seek to legitimise them as fashion.9 Although no cross-comparison between forecasting reports has been made to ascertain the extent to which forecasters overlap in their proclamations of what is fashion (and by extension what is not fashion), the fact that many (buying-led) retailers draw on the same, narrow range of forecasting services (as we shall see in the next section) strongly suggests that forecasting reports contribute to the formation of collective taste amongst retail clients. Indeed, as Wilson and Taylor (1989, 219) point out the widespread use of professional forecasters since the 1980s has created a paradox, because it ‘has led not to more choice but to greater conformity and sameness as the results of the predictions are mass marketed and retailed all over the world’. This link between the use of forecasting agencies and conformity is also evident from the interview data. One interviewee maintains that, while designers

…in the past … used to say ‘Okay, it’s going to be flowers and it’s going to be these colours …’ … now it’s much more cut-throat than that … [and we] have to have … [a] particular type of print cause everybody else will have it.

(Faye, Designer, buying-led retailer)

So, while forecasting agencies used to provide fairly vague long-term predications that required considerable interpretive input from designers to translate into concrete patterns, silhouettes and so forth, today’s web-based fashion forecasting agencies provide almost instantaneous coverage of key fashion events. Although this up-to-the-minute coverage and trend analysis allows retailers to converge on viable trends and eliminates some of the risks associated with forward production, the above quote also suggests that technological innovation can stifle the creative process. It is interesting to note that product sameness, which is commonly associated with Fordist types of mass production, occurs in an industry whose reactivity and reflexivity would make it an ideal example of an industry system adhering to the principles of flexible accumulation (Harvey 1989) or reflexive accumulation (Lash and Urry 1994). It can therefore be argued that todays’ tighter information loops allow for greater reactivity to demand, speed-to-market and short shelf-lives of commodities, but do not in themselves guarantee greater product variety and differentiation. On the contrary if used merely to imitate, i.e. to produce a version of a garment that has been created or is being worn by an iconic fashion trendsetter, than these technologies are ideally suited to churn out countless copies. It is of course not just companies’ technical ability to (re-)produce garments seen on the catwalk or elsewhere that causes product similarity, but fashion practitioners’ willingness to copy – a theme that will be explored further in section 4.2.1

Fabric and trade shows, such as Moda In and Première Vision10 which are staged approximately one year ahead of season, provide yet another example of how selective promotion legitimises specific trends as fashion and how information loops are used to effectively channel collective taste. For example, the organizers of the three day long fabric show Première Vision guide visitors in their buying decisions by providing them with so-called ‘Bests’ of each day. By consulting approximately 300 companies (40 per cent of the exhibitors) on a daily basis, they compile information on which colours and fabrics have been most frequently bought that day. They argue that this information provides ‘buyers… [with] a powerful tool … one directly plugged into both the market and the realities of fashion trends’ (Première Vision 2009). Providing information on the daily bestsellers makes the show more user-friendly as it helps manufacturers and retailers to identify the colours and fabrics others have chosen while, by the same token, this practice promotes a feeling of confidence in specific colours, fabrics etc. and raises the shows profile as being the event of the fashion year where one can see and be part of emerging trends.

As the above discussion has shown, there are several key junctures within the fashion cycle at which companies, groups and organisations in the quaternary sector limit fashion diversification by selecting and legitimating specific colours, fabrics, silhouettes, themes etc. and promoting this information to clients on the primary, secondary and tertiary sector where it functions as important sources of inspiration for companies. The discussion will now shift to the retailing sector to show how an overlap in inspirational sources and strategically perused product sameness further contribute to the formation of collective taste and the establishment of order in the fashion market.

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