CRASH COURSE #2: How Trends Spread (The Three Big Theories)

CRASH COURSE #2: How Trends Spread (The Three Big Theories)

In our first “Crash Course” we discussed Fads (easily forgettable short term styles) verses Trends (over reaching themes in fashion that last for multiple seasons). Now, let’s break it down further and talk about how trends spread and become cultural crazes.

Previously, we mentioned “Product Developers”, the people who create the pieces that go into stores, but where do they get their inspiration from? How do these few people in one particular job convince whole generations or groups of people to dress in a similar manner? How do trends spread?

First know the classifications of fashion brands, (from highest price point to lowest) they go as follows:


The most elite brands at the top, and the cheapest or most accessible brands are at the bottom. Trends typically have to move in one way or another through all these store tiers with slight style variations and differing price points and timing.

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There are three main ways trends spread, and yes these terms also are used in economics (you’re welcome we are double educating you today). Here they are: Trickle-Down Theory, Trickle-Up Theory and Trickle-Across Theory.

Trickle-Down Theory

The shortest definition to remember is “runway style influencing street style”, however there are more layers and examples to this theory.


Iconic scene from The Devil Wears Prada, which perfectly explains how the “fashion elite” influence trends. Look up the scene on YouTube if you want the full effect! (Our cover image also pays homage to this iconic movie)

This is considered the most traditional and old fashioned way for trends to spread. The term originated in 1899 by Thorstein Veblen, an American economist and sociologist in The Theory of the Leisure Class. He theorized that the upper classes fashion choices were imitated by middle and lower classes.

In the age of the internet, some people will say this theory is becoming obsolete. In actuality, it is just changing and still a very relevant way that trends to spread. When the fashion “gods”, (think the big high fashion houses (Louis Vouttion, Chanel, Dior, etc)) release clothes or influence a trend, and then department stores and other brands follow lead within a few weeks, months, years. The “fashion cycle” or how many pieces companies release has sped up in recent years so a fast fashion brand like Fashion Nova or Forever 21 can copy a brand like Versace within days of Versace releasing something which has made the “trickle” down part of this trend seem less effective (cue scrolling down to Trickle-Across Theory). Many companies still take lead from the big houses.

Another way trickle down method works is when influential people wear something and then other people aim to emulate that particular style. Historically, an example of this could be Jackie Kennedy or Princess Diana influencing and pushing the boundaries of fashion for their time period. In modern day terms, when a Kardashion, Jenner, Hadid, etc wear something it immediately blows up into a mega trend.

Trickle-Up Theory

The brief definition is that fashion starts in the “streets”, or with the “common” people before getting picked up by fashion houses and the upper class.

The biggest example of this which gets drilled to no end in fashion business courses and across the internet is the “punk” movement or grunge culture. This theory is the one focused on in most classrooms, and internet articles.

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Grunge fashion originated in youth culture in the 1980s and 1990s.

The grunge scene of the 80s and 90s was an act of rebellion against the status quo featuring leather jackets, flannels, DIY looks, and hair die. Designer Vivienne Westwood is best known for adapting this cultural movement to her runways. To this day her and many other designers still pull influences from grunge culture.


Vivienne Westwood Fall 2010 Ready-to-Wear Collection via

In 2014,  I took a stab at grunge culture (shown in the picture of me at a Greenday concert below).


Other examples, “Chanel, who believed fashion ideas originated from the streets and then were adopted by couture designers. Many of the ideas she pursued were motivated by her perception of the needs of women for functional and comfortable dress. Following World War II the young discovered Army/Navy surplus stores and began to wear pea jackets and khaki pants” (Theories of Fashion, Love to Know.)

Something important to note in this theory is that most trends that follow the Trickle-Up Theory trajectory are strongly related to a cultural movement. The people’s decision to dress a certain way seems to almost always correlate with a purpose or an act of rebellion before becoming a cosmetic aesthetic choice later on. Trickle Down or Trickle Across theories serve more of a trend for popularities sake while Trickle Up is rooted in purpose, meaning and culture prior to being accepted by everyone.

Trickle-Across Theory

In short terms, the theory that trends happen everywhere at once, all levels of fashion are being influenced by each other at the same time

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Screen-grab of one of the many cases companies have made against each other in regards to copying. Via The Fashion Law

It could be argued that our modern society is a trickle across model where a trend spreads at hyper speed due to “knocking off” and how fast fashion has caused the entire fashion cycle to increase speeds. It becomes hard to trace where a trend comes from an dit does not originate with one group, social class or movement. Companies that put on fashion shows despise this theory and implementation of this theory because it cheapens their work. In the past, a company would have a fashion show, then buyers would place their orders for stores, and the fashion house would have 6 months (give or take) to produce their orders and ship out to stores. Now? They show a collection and before they can even blink many lower price point brands have replicated, in some cases almost exactly, the trends.

While the fashion elite have been known in the past to safe guard the industry and it is nice to see fashion becoming less exclusive, this process also can be disheartening for emerging designers or creative directors who put originality, and tons of time into developing a collection just to have it under bid by fast fashion brands who don’t care about craftsmanship. Imagine spending months trend predicting and working on a collection to have a $14 version sold days after your show.

Mansur Gavriel’s show in February 2018, all pieces shown could be purchased immediately. Image via Forbes (here)

There definitely needs to be a balance and the industry is becoming more strict about knock offs and trying to adapt to this culture. Companies such as Burberry or Mansur Gabriel (as of 2018) introduced the model of buying the clothes from their runway shows the same day as the show. This disrupts the typical buying and selling model but by focusing on Direct-to-Consumer marketing through their own stores and websites, these brands are able to reserve their artistic integrity and give their customers and more satisfying experience.


No matter which theory a trend develops through, every demographic features the above groupings. The innovators are the people who try a trend out, sometimes these people flop and a trend won’t catch on. They would be the people who can be traced back to originate the trend. The early adopters are people who make the trend more acceptable, the first of a more accessible people to try it out. The majority is split through the early and late. The late is when a trend is beginning to get marked down and is no longer peak craze, and people buy it on sale after it has peaked. The laggards are people who are late to the trend. This chart can be applied to all the theories, it would just depend on where the innovators are identified (fashion houses vs outcasts).

Fashion is always changing, and there are 100 different ways trends can move. These three still stand as the main pillars for how a clothing trend moves through society. 

Sources: LoveToKnow |Forbes |Vogue | The Fashion Law

In the day and age where it seems like anyone and everyone is involved in fashion (influencers, bloggers, etc) we thought putting together an educational series would be beneficial so we happily welcome you to our mini series on fashion education!!! One of the biggest problems in the fashion industry is a lack of transparency, knowledge, and understanding between the business and the consumers. Read the FIRST article here.

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1 Comment

  1. Aunt Sandy
    February 12, 2020 / 3:38 am

    Interesting views.

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