All day long, Sally Lohan looks for signposts that would be easy to miss in the constant onslaught of visual information that comes your way on a typical Los Angeles street.
On a recent Wednesday, her first stop is the street art in the alley behind the Melrose strip. She points to the painted brick walls and uses terms such as "controlled color explosion" in a British accent that's a perfect mix of authoritative and adorable.
Lohan is a trend forecaster who tries to figure out where fashion is headed. So why is she looking at street art? She's not looking at fashion as measured by hemlines but fashion writ large: cultural trends, where people's heads are at, what they care about.
"We're seeing animals, trees, references to the environment, sustainability," Lohan says, studying one mural. "People obviously being concerned about that. It's uppermost in people's minds. It's not dark. It's optimistic."
Lohan runs a think tank at WGSN, which stands for Worth Global Style Network, a trend analysis and research firm with offices across the globe. Her job is not to make magazine cover–style predictions like "Feathers are hot for spring!" but to team with researchers in other regions to locate "macro trends" that will trickle down into what people are doing, wearing and buying.
A "macro trend" is something huge, like the upcoming "eco hedonism," which means incorporating sustainability into luxury goods. Or "radical neutrality," a new take on minimalism, which Lohan defines as "taking information away in order to express new ideas." In fashion, that might translate to dressing all in one color.
On a typical day in the field, Lohan will go somewhere like the Rose Bowl Swap Meet, or Coachella. She'll take maybe 400 pictures. Of those, she'll single out perhaps two or three people wearing something that interests her.
These connected dots wind up on a report or photo essay on WGSN.com, which then is accessed by execs, buyers, marketers or even designers for the firm's big-name clients, such as Target, Levi's and Adidas.
So is fashion top-down, or bottom-up? Do the designers tell people what to wear, or do people on the street tell the designers what to create?
Both, actually. Lofty designers used to tell people what to wear, but ideas now flow in all directions — from the street up, from bloggers in one corner of the world to readers in another, from designers to consumers. It's a huge feedback loop that encompasses past, present, insiders, outsiders. A fashionista may see the modern potential in a "dated" piece, and remix it with something current — pairing a vintage '60s shift dress with an '80s neon jacket, or giving swing-dance wear a goth twist. She isn't necessarily designing clothing from scratch, but she's creating memes designers can notice and integrate into their work.
There's a cynical view of fashion, the one that says hemlines go up and down just to keep you buying, buying, buying, to keep you living in fear of being unstylish. That designers do nothing but recycle looks from a few years ago again and again.
Lohan sees clothing designers as artists who are constantly trying to reinvent history with creativity and beauty while working within the constraints of the body, fabrics and movement. We could reject the fashion industry if we choose, and all wear the same uniform, year in and year out; many do. But Lohan finds it more fun to see fashion as the world's biggest game of mix-and-match — color, style, line, flow, past, present.
The next stop on her route is a crucial resource: an upscale La Brea vintage shop called The Way We Wore. Vintage clothing is tremendously important to Lohan, as sometimes designers will take just one single element or detail from a photo of a vintage piece Lohan provides and base an entire collection on that theme.
The shop has two halves. The door on the left leads to a lovely boutique where stylish, garrulous clerks with an impressively in-depth understanding of clothing greet Lohan warmly and offer her a Perrier. The prices aren't ohmygodareyouhighondrugs high but about what you'd expect for a shop so exquisitely curated. There are things here a commoner might purchase, but it's also the place to go if you need to find a vintage dress to wear to the Oscars.
The door on the right leads to something that looks at first glance like the more typical thrift-shop jumble — heaps and heaps of clothes, necklaces, bags. But spend a few minutes, and the method behind the madness soon comes into focus. Clothes are organized by era, style or fabric. There are ruffly clothes from the 1920s. A samurai helmet hangs in the front window, underneath a sailor suit. In the back, handbags are organized by type: whimsical, animal, detailed, embroidered, textured. It's like a physical reference library of fashion history, and designer clients can call the store to ask the shop clerks–cum–librarians to help them with research. One client has asked the shop to pull a selection of Pucci and Pucci-esque prints. A collection of dresses — one that has a faux-Japanese style, one with Native American motifs — stands on a rack in a backroom, waiting for his perusal.
Lohan frequently comes to both sides of the store for research — beautiful, beautiful research. And shopping is an occupational hazard, she confesses. After fingering a handbag that features ethereal bead work, Lohan tears herself away without succumbing to temptation ... this time.
The next stop is Silver Lake, where, sitting in the patio between Intelligentsia Coffee and Café Stella, Lohan spots a girl with latte-colored skin, a blond afro Mohawk, a hair bow reminiscent of Hello Kitty and earrings shaped like rhinestone-studded pistols. Her sundress exposes a tattoo of tiny angel wings on her back. Lohan strolls up and asks if she can take a picture, and the girl complies cheerfully, posing for several. "Now that it's 3 o'clock, the interesting people are starting to come out," Lohan says. "At noon, the people I want to see are still in bed." It's hard to imagine this girl's look catching on in any widespread way, but then again, in 1989, it would have been hard to imagine that people would put Mohawks on toddlers as often as they do today.
Some trends, if they catch fire in one region, will soon span the world, but each locality puts a unique spin on it. Things that are acceptable office wear in L.A. — flip-flops, for example — still wouldn't fly in London or New York. The monochromatic androgyny trend that's recently become big in London, Lohan says, hasn't fully arrived in Los Angeles — yet. But she's seeing the nascent signs of its emergence here.
One might wonder at times if Lohan's prognostications are mere grasping at straws, employing the horoscope technique of couching predictions in such broad terms that they can't help but have some ring of truth. Until you see the results of her work come together before your eyes.
Just minutes after describing the androgyny trend, she discreetly points out a guy wearing a short ponytail and vaguely feminine, flowing pants, all in black. Not 10 minutes later, she points again, to a woman with short, chopped hair and a distinctly ungendered ensemble, all in black. Just two people, but they're exactly as Lohan described, and they arrive as if on cue.
She's always trying to access the recipe to the soup that most of us, froglike, are so immersed in we don't even realize it's there until we're boiling. At some point, skinny jeans weren't here. Then they were. Same goes for androgynes. Have they been there this whole time? Maybe you didn't notice it right away, but someone else did.