You go to your closet and you select... I don't know... that lumpy blue sweater...but what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise. It's not lapis. It's actually cerulean. And you're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.
- from The Devil Wears Prada
This snarkily-fabulous snippet from the 2006 movie sparked more than just lumpy blue sweaters by the bin-load. It also gave Heng Xu a cool idea. “In the scene, Meryl Streep describes how one major designer can use a shade of blue and then another major designer can use it again,” explains the associate professor of information sciences and technology at Penn State University. “Before you know it, all department stores are selling that shade of blue. My team and I were interested in discovering if this type of phenomenon could happen with more than just colors. We wanted to know if the same type of trending could also happen with designs, fabrics, shapes and patterns.”
So she and her research team sliced and diced 15 years worth of data from sources including Style.com, high-end fashion magazines, runway reviews and relevant social networking accounts. For example, if Saks Fifth Avenue tweets one of its purses with lace and then later tweets one of its jackets with lace, the research team keeps track of whether or not other department stores follow the lace trend. They also make a note of who retweets in order to get a handle on what kinds of customers are drawn to certain styles.
The obvious use for these data is predicting demand, but Xu has something more lofty than just a cash-generating crystal ball in mind. “There will soon be a website to disseminate our discoveries,” she says. “The site will include an in-depth breakdown of each season’s trends, such as specific designers and fabrics that are most popular during that time.”
And the purpose?
To make fashion friendlier to the non-Prada-wearing set. "Giving everyday people the information and resources they need to follow fashion trends by making smarter purchases or remixing what they already own is part of my motivation for this project," says Xu, noting that the site will be easily searchable and understandable as to what will soon be in style. “To some people, ‘fashion’ only belongs on the runway,” she adds. “To me, fashion should be wearable and affordable for everyone. As an information system researcher, I work toward designing systems that people can better understand. I view fashion in a similar way. I believe fashion is a form of wearable art that anyone can create if they have access to and understand the information that’s available. It’s all about communicating that information so more people can appreciate the beauty of it. "
- Lesley Scott