by Jincy IypeDec 27, 2022
Remarkably prescient, Lidewij Edelkoort’s comments in early March 2020 on the likely impact of COVID-19, went viral. Before Coronavirus was declared a pandemic and most countries went into lockdown, Li foretold that the world would see a “quarantine of consumption”. She advised people to stop planning mega-events, that air travel would reduce significantly, and the virus would bring fundamental changes in lifestyles, giving humanity the opportunity to slow down and reset goals and needs. The accuracy of that forecast has added even more heft to her already formidable reputation of being one of the finest trend forecasters globally.
Trend forecasting was a developing concept in the 1970s when Li came on the scene. One of the early pioneers that helped establish it as a significant profession, she predicted fashion trends while still a student. Over the last 50 years, she has projected shifts not only for the fashion industry but for design and lifestyle, predicting form, materials, and colour along with important social and cultural currents. Creative director of several trend magazines and founder of Trend Union, her Paris-based company, Li creates trend books two to three years in advance that are then used by designers, brands, and marketeers the world over. The consistency and reliability of her forecasts have earned her clients as diverse as Coca-Cola, Siemens, Estée Lauder, Google, and Hyundai, besides numerous fashion and design brands, all of whom she advises on understanding societal perceptions and development strategies.
In the 1990s, the Dutch forecaster expanded her field of offerings by becoming an educator (“I was naturally drawn to it“). Li became Chairwoman of Design Academy Eindhoven in 1998, a post she held till 2008. She was also “founder mother” of the School of Form in Poland in 2011, while from 2015 till 2020 she was the Dean of Hybrid Studies at Parsons School of Design in New York.
Of late, Li has increasingly donned the mantle of an activist (“I feel there is not enough compassion, nor enough being done for our planet and people”). In 2020, she, along with her business partner Phillip Fimmano started the World Hope Forum for a more equitable society, “envisaging an economy that puts people before profits”.
So, we were really excited when Li agreed to a conversation over zoom. Ensconced in a hotel in Florence, where she is establishing a radical, sustainable textile masters at Polimoda, she expounded on a range of issues from memories of her first fashion forecast, to thoughts on the metaverse, to what she foresees will be important shifts as we emerge from the pandemic. Excerpts from the riveting interview follow.
Sonal Shah: What made you decide on a career in forecasting? Do you remember your first effort?
Li Edelkoort: That perhaps I had a special talent to intuitively forecast arose when I was a teenager. I participated in a newspaper competition to design a carnival costume. My sketch was of an extremely short dress with a pair of shorts underneath and a diagonal sash across the bodice with the word carnival written boldly along it. I had never seen anything like that, so it was absolutely an intuitive design. But the judges who were from Paris were extremely surprised by it. They had recently seen something similar on the catwalks and were astonished that a girl living in a village, in the middle of nowhere, could have created the latest fashion. I didn’t win the prize, but they encouraged me to develop this talent of forecasting and make it my profession…. So I did!!
At 21, I joined a department store in Amsterdam as a fashion coordinator and forecaster. At that time, in 1971, I predicted we would need garments in different sizes; that leisure wear would become important, in fact even proposed a boutique for bigger sizes! All of these forecasts have come true. I identified big tent dresses as the next popular garment and we sold thousands! I realised soon enough the need to relocate to pursue this profession, and moved to Paris.
Sonal: Of your predictions, you have said, “I dare to say things earlier”. How do you determine what are likely to be the significant new trends?
Li: You can say I am tuned into the ambient thought processes of the universal world, and the more I tune in, the finer my instinct becomes, and so I just know when something will become a fashion. I keep my antennae up, studying nascent concepts globally, analysing the collated data to interpret current thinking and intuitively forecast their trajectory. Some fashion concepts metamorphose into major shifts more rapidly, cultural currents tend to evolve over long periods, perhaps take several years and even decades to become visible.
Instinct is a gift that all humans possess but the majority of us do not use enough. It is vital to know you can train your intuition and the most important ingredient you need is your belief in it. I have trained mine, similar to how we train our bodies, so I am able to see things clearly much earlier, and I dare to say what my intuition tells me.
Sonal: What would you dare to say now?
Li: There is a lot of noise about the metaverse, bitcoins, NFTs. This is a risky form of escapism. I am worried about what it will do to our minds…it is the ultimate doll playing! Barbie was one thing but with our avatars, we disappear into them and the distinction between reality and fantasy gets blurred. Young people love to have their avatars. They are so engrossed in their phones, they don’t “exist” anymore in reality, they are totally in the virtual world. So there will be a real problem with the dematerialisation of the self, which will create greater mental problems and more suicides. This could be a real threat to our existence.
Also with the metaverse, data storage is going to be an insane problem. We do not have enough energy and electricity in the world to store all this data that people just assume is free. We need to develop our renewable energy and solar power before we develop the metaverse further.
Sonal: Your Anti-Fashion manifesto of 2015 was another dare on your part. How challenging was it?
Li: Writing the manifesto was one of the most difficult and controversial predictions I have made. I felt compelled to write the truth about the fashion industry, the need to point out all the painful aspects so we could start healing. It took a long time to write as I wanted to be precise. In my career, fashion has always been at the forefront of change. To see that fashion had become unfashionable and was no longer avant-garde was tragic. In a way, it was like denouncing my own world. I was afraid I would lose all my clients. I asked my team if I should dare to launch the manifesto as it could mean the demise of the company. And they insisted I must! Instead of brickbats I actually got a lot of acclaim and actually gained clients! There were many who told me I gave voice to what they were feeling.
But that was a turning point in my life. From that day, I became more of an activist fighting for the restructuring and recalibration of all the aesthetic work we create and use. There has to be some responsibility towards the creators of the beautiful goods we consume, and that they are paid fair wages. I am hoping at least in Europe, we can have a base tariff in fashion.
Sonal: In March 2020, you had predicted a quarantine of consumption, but as we emerge from lockdowns, there seems to be a real scramble to buy and travel….will we go back to our old ways?
Li: We are in a moment of bingeing as we come back to life. So spending, travelling, holidays, eating out, etc have taken the world by storm. We will need some time for this to settle, before we can see the ultimate fall out of the virus. Because there are major changes in the world.
The first major change I see is what I call the “great migration”, where many will leave urban areas and adopt a rural lifestyle. When you go rural you change your attitude to almost everything. Family, outdoors, farming, a slower pace, all become more relevant. There will be many who will become nomads, not wanting to possess anything and going wherever the wind takes them.
As the cities empty, there will be increasing spaces to create parks, even in high rises. There will be a greening of the cities and a minimum urbanisation of the rural areas, leading in smaller countries like mine (the Netherlands) to a hybridisation where rural and urban areas join to be one big parkway.
The second big change I see is the “great resignation”, where many will quit the workforce and opt for a less financially secure, a slower-paced life with less money. This will have a direct impact on buying patterns. A reverse trend will be seen, with governments actually bringing in migrants rather than refusing them, in order to keep certain industries going.
Workers will also demand flexible work timings. Work from home in some modified form will continue and many will also demand their employer’s position on ecology and sustainability. The Great Generation, who are in their early teens, will bring planetary concerns to the forefront. Another change is a simplification of lifestyles - people are undoing their cupboards and reassessing their needs. In five or six years, we will be able to see how the pandemic has overhauled society.
I believe we may live in two societies. There will always be a section of the super-rich which will continue being bling, spending billions. But I am focusing on the vast majority which is more concerned with the planet, with humanity.
Sonal: What role do you see for yourself now?
Li: Activist-educator-forecaster…. Going forward, climate change is going to be a very important factor. I have resolved to travel less! We also believe there has to be an ethical sustainable future. And so, we have launched the World Hope Forum. We feel there is hope and we can connect people and work to develop the world in a more humanistic, sustainable way.
I am also founding an MFA in textiles. A two-year course at Polimoda where students will learn the fundamentals of fibres, before they work with textiles. It’s titled - From Farm to Fabric to Fashion.
Sonal: Your motto?
Li: Never take No for an answer.
Did You Know? Li Edelkoort
- Set up a forecasting service Trend Union in Paris in 1986, which continues to publish trends in concept, colour, form, and materials twice a year
- Was voted one of the top 25 fashion influencers by Time magazine in 2003
- Her new book “Proud South” showcasing photography and creativity of the countries of the South is due out in late 2022
- Is highly inspired by William Morris’ utopia of an Arts and Crafts society
- Turns 72 on August 29th, 2022
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