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Fashion Forward: Cotton is in the Forecast

By Jayci Bishop

It’s rare to meet someone without an opinion about fashion trends in apparel. And, fashion means different things to different people. Whether we’re looking at something familiar from decades past or new styles that shock, we view fashion through the lens of how it fits into our style and practicality preferences.

But who decides what brands and retailers should put on store shelves each season? What factors are taken into consideration when those decisions are made?

Enter Cotton Incorporated’s Fashion Marketing Department. This group is comprised of five Fashion Forecasters, one of which is Rachel Crumbley. Crumbley earned a degree in International Business from the University of Georgia with a concentration in marketing and a minor in fashion merchandising. She has been at Cotton Inc. since 2002. She and the rest of her team are responsible for putting together forecasts for the denim, active, and general apparel markets.

“It is the role of the Fashion Marketing team to gauge the direction of fashion trends including lifestyle, color, fabric, and styling, up to two years in advance of selling season,” Crumbley said. “We put this information together into presentations compiling the visual inspiration and direction for the season, and then share these presentations with textile mills, retailers, brands, and apparel manufacturers across the globe. We look at how current trends evolve, as well as newer influences and direction for trends, and relate this back to how cotton and cotton rich fabrics fit into the trends for the season.”

Fashion trend forecasting directly benefits U.S. cotton growers as it promotes the use of cotton in upcoming textiles and products, and the competition for consumers is intense.

“Fashion trend forecasting helps to promote cotton consumption by showing how cotton fits with seasonal trends and through communicating how cotton is always relevant in fashion. Fashion designers and fabric developers are very visual and tactile people, so being able to show photos of fabrics or put them in their hands makes a strong impact and allows us to expand their thinking of what cotton can be and offer them direct examples rather than just talking about an idea,” she said. “It is important to note that in our trend forecasts, we focus a lot on the fabric portion of our trends, showing direction for both 100 percent cotton fabrics as well as cotton-rich fabrics to illustrate the advantages of choosing cotton. A cotton-rich fabric is a fabric composed of a majority of cotton blended along with another fiber.”

Fashion forecasting is crucial for keeping apparel industry professionals in the know and helping them in all stages of the design and development process for future seasons.

“We begin working on each forecast anywhere from one-and-a-half to three years in advance of the season in which the clothing will appear in stores or online for sale,” she said. “Where does the research process start, and where does inspiration come from? In a nutshell, everywhere. We look at every- thing from websites to magazines to exhibitions, covering a myriad of topics ranging from art and design to personal style and runway shows, to technology and the natural world.”

After all the research is gathered, they meet to discuss patterns they see in the data, including color, lifestyle, fabric, and styling. The lifestyle aspect also allows them to tell a story about what influences a consumer’s mindset, perceptions, and habits and what is important to them. The entire process takes about six months, from beginning concepts to completed presentations ready to be shared with clients.

“When forecasting, we always keep at the forefront of our message how many positive aspects of cotton play into and complement seasonal trends,” Crumbley said. “Top of mind are cotton’s comfort, versatility, and ease of care as key attributes that keep cotton as a favorite among consumers. Trends can also drive innovation which can expand opportunities for cotton consumption. For example, as consumer interest in performance apparel has grown over the past few years, so has the number of textile technologies that enable cotton to compete with synthetics in this sector. Combining benefits like water-resistance or moisture-wicking with cotton’s comfort expands opportunities to use cotton fiber, and wear cotton apparel.”

While the COVID pandemic has undoubtedly impacted how Cotton Inc. conducted business, sharing the positive message of cotton did not slow down. In 2020, the Fashion Marketing Department gave presentations to reach an audience of 300 various companies and clients. These sessions included almost all major U.S. brands and retailers and meeting with textile mills and apparel manufacturers and global brands and retailers, including Asia, Latin America, and Europe.

“Before COVID, we met with almost all of our clients to give in-person presentations. Once the global shutdown happened, we pivoted to giving virtual presentations and saw that demand for our presentations has actually increased as clients are seeking inspiration as they have not been able to travel themselves.”

Another aspect that changed was how the team was able to conduct research. Crumbley said pandemic travel restrictions forced her crew to pivot to online exploration and local NYC-based trends.

The pandemic also had an immediate impact on the type of apparel people wore on the job. Crumbley said an emphasis on comfort has arisen due to the work-from- home culture.

“Cotton sweats, jersey t-shirts, and other cozy knits fit nicely in with this trend, emphasizing cotton’s comfortability,” she said. “Crisp cotton shirts that are comfortable yet look business-appropriate are key for above the keyboard dressing. At the same time, with the relaxation of previous COVID restrictions and a return to in-person socializing, people are feeling joyful, exuberant, and looking forward to fashion as a form of self-expression. We see this through optimistic, joyful color choices as well as little details that make the wearer feel special. This might be taking a basic cotton terry sweatshirt or t-shirt and adding feminine ruffles or frills, or rhinestone details, or even tie-dye effects.”

Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle MonitorTM tells us that seven out of 10 consumers dressed more comfortably during the pandemic. They were wearing cotton-dominant types of apparel such as denim and sweatpants. Additionally, 87 percent of consumers say that wearing comfortable clothes helps them feel better.

“It could be that the pandemic and the search for comfort has helped to rekindle consumers’ love affair with cotton,” Crumbley said.

Did You Know?

  • Cotton as an Olympian – You will see U.S. cotton in this year’s summer Olympics as Ralph Lauren used verified U.S. grown cotton to create the apparel for Team USA. They also used a unique process that reduces water, chemicals, and energy needed to dye cotton textiles.
  • Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor tells us that 7 out of 10 consumers dressed more comfortably during the pandemic,
    and they were wearing cotton-dominant types of apparel such as denim and sweatpants.
  • 87% of consumers say that wearing comfortable clothes helps them feel better.