Louisa Smith on her successful career as an international textile trend consultant
With over 24 years of international experience in the global fashion and textile industry, Louisa Smith combines her creative know-how with market and product development intelligence to ensure an accurate forecast. Louisa shares how her intuition in the early days – followed by her curiosity, vision, and research – led her to where she is today. She gives insight as to how she anticipates consumer needs up to 3 years in advance. Louisa also shares her views on sustainability (a smarter way of thinking), top trend-inspiring cities, and how she stays relevant.
Louisa’s Interview Transcript
Nancy: Hello. I’m Nancy Fendler and you’re listening to Material Wise, your podcast on material matters. It’s my chance to talk to designers, product developers, and other guests about what inspires them to create, why and how they select the materials they choose, and the relationships they’ve built with their customers and industry.
My guest today is Louisa Smith, Textile Trend Consultant with over 24 years of international experience in the global fashion and textile industry. Louisa forecasts up to three years in advance in all sectors of the textile chain. From fiber all the way through to the final garment. Louisa’s vision and research, the monitoring of textile developments, and global affairs give her insight on delivering accurate product information for her clients.
In my conversation with Louisa, I realize her keen intuition has served her well throughout her career beginning early as a young fashion design grad from Manchester University in the early ’90s. For those listeners old enough to recall, there was a recession going on at that time and Louisa felt it. With no options of finding a job in fashion design in Europe, Louisa sensed that Hong Kong, at the time a gateway to garment and textile manufacturing in China, was the place to be for her.
In Hong Kong, she landed a job in fashion design with Vivienne Tam, and then later on as an editor with Inside Fashion magazine, which she said gave her wonderful overview of the fashion industry as a whole. At Inside Fashion, Louisa edited the magazine’s style book and ultimately directed trends in the fashion industry. Some of you may know Louisa from her eight-year tenure with ISPO Textrends, and her standing room only trend seminars that she conducts all over the world.
In our discussion, Louisa shares how her intuition, curiosity, vision and research has led her to her successful status today. She gives us insight as to how she dives into the consumer psyche to help her develop spot-on trends and products that they’ll anticipate in the future. Louisa also shares her views on sustainability, and how it’s all about a ‘smarter way of thinking’. She reveals her top trend-inspiring cities, and how she stays relevant.
My conversation with Louisa was recorded over a phone call to her home office in Granada, Spain. You can find the full transcript of this podcast and more about Louisa in the episode notes found on the Material Wise website. That’s MaterialWise.co. Thank you and I hope you enjoy.
Nancy: Hey Louisa, how are you?
Louisa: I’m fine, thank you. How are you?
Nancy: Very well. I’m very excited to speak with you, and I’ve let our guests know that I’m calling Spain. So, there might be just a little bit of a delay in our conversation. We’re going to go slowly here, and I’m going to just let you talk, okay?
Louisa Smith: Okay.
Nancy: Were you always interested in textiles?
Louisa: Yes. I think prior to textiles, I was always interested in fashion because since my teens up, I remember I used to make my own clothes and everything, and then it progressed into studying fashion textiles. So, fashion design and textiles. I originally went down the fashion design route more so for the textiles.
Nancy: What was your first job?
Louisa: Well, when I graduated from Manchester Metropolitan, there was a recession going on in the UK, and there were really just no jobs for graduates in any industry let alone fashion industry. I flew out to Hong Kong, and I just had this urge to go to Hong Kong because it was like ’91, and Hong Kong was a hub to China. Any sorting or garment manufacturing, anything, you had to go to Hong Kong. It just appealed to me that it was sort of like there was a liveliness there on the production side. I went over there, and I started freelancing for Vivienne Tam and doing some design work with her.
But also, I crossed over into textile journalism, and started as a junior with Inside Fashion. Based in Hong Kong, but one of the first business publications through the potential of China and it opening up. That gave me an opportunity to really get a bird’s eye view of the industry by working on the journalism side. It was really sort of interesting to see all different sectors within the textile chain, whereas when I started designing, I felt a little bit tied down. I could really flit around and just see what was going on in all different areas. Through that job, I eventually started editing The Style Book for Inside Fashion and directing trends in there, too.
Nancy: Wow, that sounds fascinating. It must’ve been a really inspiring time to be in Asia and Hong Kong and China at that time.
Louisa: Yeah. Definitely. It’s amazing how it’s changing and how it’s growing. Now, it’s much easier to do business with China than having to go through Hong Kong, so you can go direct. But each time I go over to Asia, I’m sort of surprised and astounded by the development that’s going on. I think it’s really quite exciting over there at the moment.
Nancy: I bet. Could you tell us what a trend consultant actually does?
Louisa: Okay. Well, as a trend consultant, basically my focus is in textiles and trend consulting. What I do is try and prepare for what the consumer is going to want. Sometimes I track three years ahead. It’s really sort of like understanding what the attitude will be in the future, and how we can deliver through fabrics, but also through design as well – what will consumers be looking for then. It’s really like being aware of how things could change, and that sort of takes on board every time I’m traveling or working there. Just taking in different influences. Everything like that, and stuff like trying to get into the psyche of the consumer.
Nancy: Right. There are so many different facets to it. Where do you find … Well, you kind of answered that question, where you find your trend data. It seems like it’s through travel a lot, and speaking with mills, and consumers?
Louisa: Yeah. Finding the information, especially on a global level, travel is really important. I’ve been very fortunate. It feels like I’m embedded into sort of and in tune with a number of different cities. I’m not a tourist. I’m sort of taken in as one of the residents. That’s really interesting because you get, I think, a different perspective. It can be anything. It can be sociopolitical issues, music, theater, just walking on the street, people watching. Even at the airport. It’s like I’ll be on a trip, and I’ll be saying, “Oh, I’m going to Taipei.” We get to the airport, there’s thousands and thousands of people traveling. Everybody’s moving. There’s always some things to see and something to really try and pick up on.
Nancy: You have to be this sponge. You’re kind of absorbing everything, and to be in your mind must be amazing.
Louisa: I don’t know.
Nancy: I know you’re very involved with ISPO Textrends, and perhaps you even created it. How did you get involved?
Louisa: I was invited by a long-time colleague and friend, Stephanie Ledru. She manages the projects of ISPO Textrends, and she knew about my trend work so invited me onboard for developing the trend information. I think it’s now in the eighth year for the winter show, and it could be really popular. What’s quite unique about ISPO Textrends is the products to feature in the forum at the show and in the trend book at the end of the show. Everything is being selected by an international jury of textile experts. The products in the forum are there for a reason. That’s really important. It feels like a little bit of a push up that this is what textile experts found to be interesting or found to be new or reworked. It’s an interesting aspect.
I’m also excited for this summer because we’ve got ISPO Textrends at Outdoor by ISPO, the new outdoors and sports show in Munich. We’ve not got a European platform that we can highlight the spring/summer ’20/’21 developments as well as being at the ISPO Shanghai, too.
Nancy: It’s very exciting. Having been at ISPO, I hadn’t been for many years and went last January/February and saw the ISPO Textrends display. It was amazing. It was so well attended. It was really a focal point of the show.
Louisa: Yes, thank you. It really is attracting visitors. Sort of using it as a springboard to the season’s sourcing. Also, what we’re finding, which I think’s really interesting, is cross industries coming through. We’re seeing a lot more fashion brands coming through because ISPO Textrends was predominantly for the outdoors and sports sector, from skiing through equipment, sleeping bags, everything like that. It’s interesting to see the fashion sector coming through and wanting to learn more about these performance fabrics.
At the same time, we’ve got a really big push into sustainability. There’s more of a development and evolution in sustainability. Then, we’re seeing sort of the automotive industry come through and checking out what’s happening here. I think it’s really interesting that it feels like it’s developing itself as a pivotal point of multiple industries. How they can progress the coming season.
Nancy: Yeah. The cross-market function performance is very interesting, and I even see it a little bit at Outdoor Retailer. But I’m sure at ISPO it is so much bigger.
Speaking of sustainability, we were both at Techtextil a couple weeks ago, and it was very big topic there. The booth that I was working at/representing a client, I kept getting asked the question, “What is sustainability?” Or they were asking my client. It means so much to many different people, and what does sustainability mean to you?
Louisa: To me, sustainability is I find it feels like for the consumer to think sustainability they immediately think recycle plastic bottles. For me, sustainability is so much bigger than recycling within the textile industry. We’ve been warned, all industries have been warned the last 40 years the damage we’re doing to the environment, and I think the textile industry gets more battering than other industries purely because consumers can associate with it in a much easier manner.
But what I find as well, being sort of like embedded in the industry at all levels, is sort of like the sustainability that’s been going on for years, we don’t get any sort of like [inaudible] from the textile side. We’re using much cleaner textile processes, reducing chemical usage, recycling, upcycling, and just becoming a lot cleaner in production. There’s a big development. Everybody has to be sustainable. No one can ignore this. But what’s interesting is that sustainability is becoming more the norm than something special. I think that’s very important as the textile industry moves forward.
When I was at the jury meeting the other week for ISPO Textrends spring/summer ’21, I was talking to a jury member Julie Butoni. She’s the CEO of [Class] which is a platform for companies used to develop sustainability in the textile sector. I said to her, “What’s another word for sustainability? Because it’s really overused, and how do you define it?” She said, “Smart.” I thought, well that’s really what it’s about. It’s about a smarter way of thinking. I personally don’t think we’re all going to be walking around in recycled polyester. I think there’s great developments out there, but I think there’s room for everyone because there’s no real winner in sustainable solutions.
On the natural fiber side, yes you can hold hands up and say, “Yeah, we’re cleaner, greener.” Not necessarily so. Even the recycled synthetics, the processing, the shipping. Everybody has some positives, and then they also have some negatives. There’s no clear winner. For me, I feel that it’s sort of a bit middle of the road, but I feel that all sectors have got to work together, the virgin synthetics sectors as well, and really sort of push forward and collaborate. That’s a big word coming through. Really got to collaborate through the textile chain and show a cleaner future for our industry.
Nancy: I think just being aware of it, and doing something about it, and even starting however way you can makes an impact.
Louisa: Yes. Definitely, and I think consumers expect their brands to be more sustainable. They don’t necessarily want to know what they’ve done, but they expect them … If you want loyalty, you’re going to have to be a lot cleaner and more transparent in what you’re doing. But the jury’s out on … You can’t just say recycled synthetics rather than virgin synthetics because I’ve spoken to brands about it saying, “Well, we’ve got good recycles, but then again we’ve got good virgin synthetics.” But again, they’ll last longer, so you’re going to have a longer lasting product. That falls into the sustainable aspect, too. But the one thing is on sustainability, it’s not a trend. It’s here to stay, and it’s a really significant part of the textile chain’s DNA.
Nancy: Yes. Yup.
You’ve worked with so many companies, both from the fiber to the mill to brands. What companies do you think are doing a good job with taking trend advice and turning it into sort of a sales advantage/benefit? Meaning that they take these trends and implement them into materials that help brands differentiate their products to a retailer or consumer.
Louisa: Well, I could name all my clients because they’re a doing great job on these trends. But I think it’s interesting to see that fibers in particular, fiber companies are creating this service around trend information. The fiber companies, or the ones I deal with as well, they have some really great products, really great ingredients.
What we’ve done in the past it feels like we’ve gone in to create the trends and suggested feel – like touch and composition and the performance that will be delivered, and connecting the textile mills, the manufacturers with the trend information because what it’s doing is making a much more efficient sort of thing. Because in the past, a design team or brand developers would go into a textile mill with a swatch of fabric and say, “Hey, we want this.” What my job is with different companies is really working with them early down the lane, and going in, preparing the textile mills so when their customers come in and say, “We want this,” they can go, “Well, this is what we’ve got.” It makes it a much more efficient delivery and feels like really speeding it up.
Today, not just society, but everybody’s fast, fast, fast. Sort of like this instant of wanting things. So, quickening everything up is really (inaudible) if it’s done in an efficient way. I do also think as well when developing trends, these are ideas and moods that [inaudible] for information that’s being collected, and ideas and colorways. But we don’t say this is it. It’s purely about sharing information and ideas. We expect textiles developers or brand developers to come in and pull from some of their own some developments for the season. Yeah, that’s how I think sort of make people use the trend information.
As for a company that’s really standing out for me at the moment, I’ve got to say it’s Everlane. I love what they do. I think they’re a really good business model and are being completely transparent. When you look onto the website, I think it’s really great that they’ve got the manufacturer at the bottom of the item. Where it’s been manufactured whether it’s in China or somewhere, and you can click through and see the sites where it has been manufactured. I think this sort of transparency for brands through the textile chain is very important, especially to the consumer.
With working in China a lot in the past, and Taiwan, and working, when I meet people and they’re not sort of with the industry, but some of them say, “What do you do?” And I say, “Oh, I work in China quite a lot.” They’re shocked. It’s like, “Oh no.” Especially when you mention fashion and textiles. There seems to be this sort of concept that anything over in China is child labor. It’s not. The factories I go to are state-of-the-art. They are really well-invested, have fantastic equipment, very good creativity, good design departments. I think they get a bit of sort of bad press. Not to say there aren’t bad factories there, but then again, there’s bad factories everywhere. There’s good and bad. I do think over in China that the development has really improved, and the understanding of trend information has increased as well.
Nancy: That’s really good to hear. That really is. There are many facets of your job. What do you like best about it? What do you like most?
Louisa: I like to travel, and I go to trade fairs, and I really like meeting people and chatting with them. I think textile people once they get together under one roof it’s really … The non-textile people, they probably think we’re weirdos, but it’s all the talking about fibers, things like that. I think that side of it, the travel and trade shows is really interesting.
But additionally, I get a boost from… Each season, you can’t be 100% correct. Sometimes we’ll release and maybe they’ll be too early for a particular market. Then, we’ll develop and release it when they’re ready, or some just really hit the spot. When we hit the spot, it’s real like, “Yay!” But we [inaudible] with the trend information that we provide, but people take something from it and developing sort of more efficient products for the future.
Nancy: Right. I don’t want you to reveal anything that you shouldn’t, but do you see sort of a big, overarching trend for say spring/summer ’21 which we’re kind of going into, or is that a very big question?
Louisa: The trends we’re going into for spring/summer ’21, especially for the sports and outdoor sector, we’re seeing sort of a big, I think a beautification coming through. When ISPO Textrends first started, performance fabrics were so flat, basic, and boring. Really dull. We really tried to encourage mills to get creative. Don’t just focus on the sustainability of a product. You can’t leave the creativity behind, too, and it’s really interesting to see during the fall, and how this has changed over the seasons. How we’re seeing some really innovative membrane technology and colors coming through, optical textures, things like that. I think that’s sort of really interesting to see how it turns out. We do need basics at the end of the day. It’s fact, but they can be adapted seasonally.
I think also retailers need to be a little bit up to having a bit more color. We’ve got a lot of black and gray in all aspects, all sectors of the industry going in stores. Yeah, we really want to try and energize, and jazz up the consumer’s attitude. This can be done through trim technology or through inserts, but just really sort of like stimulate the consumer. Really get them kind of going on a piece and thinking yay. Feels like a repeat buy.
Nancy: Thanks. That’s exciting. I saw your presentation at ISPO, and it was just … First of all, it was only standing room only, but it was fascinating how you take all this information and make this really concise overview. You give these trends, but you have this really great image to illustrate it. I was very impressed.
Louisa: Oh, thank you.
Nancy: Yeah. You mentioned you travel all over the world. Is there any one place where you feel that’s just wow, this place is really got it, or there’s more innovation and you go there and you just feel like whoa, this is really happening?
Louisa: Yeah. I spend a lot of time in London and that’s always a good source of creativity. Then, if you go to Paris then you get a different sort of vibe which feels like fits in more fashion apparel and maybe ready-to-wear. But a few places that really stand out at the moment in the east and west…I was just in New York the other month for a bit of a time out, and just walk the streets, and it’s fantastic. There’s an energy, a vibe there. I managed to walk down to FIT as well, and that gave me a real buzz. You feel like the next generation coming through, and it was really exciting. It was like, “Oh, I used to feel like that when I was at Uni.” But it’s sort of interesting to get the buzz there. But on the streets in particular, some interesting ideas and concepts that I can see coming through.
Then additionally, South Korea and Seoul really interesting developments. In a way, 20 years ago people would go to Japan to implement their inspiration. Go to Tokyo and have a look what was happening on the streets. Now in South Korea, it feels like the designers there are already coming through. They’re already quite funky and having a bigger influence on some of the international brands, too.
Nancy: You mentioned university and FIT. I have a number of students that listen, or I’ve been told that are listening to my podcast. How would you encourage someone to get involved in being a trend consultant?
Louisa: I think you’ve got to have the background behind you. Quite a few years in the industry. That’s how I perceive it, and then you kind of evolve into the trend consultant. I think you’ve got to really love what you do. Any job actually in the fashion and textile sector because as much as it looks very glamorous, it’s not a lot of the time [inaudible] share with me. But it’s interesting and exciting, but you just sort of got to stick it out, and just be aware of what’s happening around you. This is really important in terms of inspiration, but also really sort of understanding how we’re going to move forward, how we’re going to work in the future.
Nancy: Speaking of inspiration, where do you find your personal inspiration?
Louisa: Personal inspiration, I don’t know actually. I try to switch into nature. I’m really pushing nature at the moment, and it really astounds me sort of the construction and things that happen in nature. My studio space in Granada in Spain, in the camper, the orange grove, you see the engineering that nature can create. I’m really trying to bring that through into work. Sort of like honeycomb structures and things like that. It’s just interesting to see how it crosses over. Yeah, I do try and take some personal inspiration and really look at that just because I think ties in with the health, and well-being, and the yoga, and meditation. But I do love being in a city. I love the buzz and the noise of the city. Yeah. Feels like two contrasting vibes. A bit like Jekyll and Hyde.
Nancy: Well, I think we all have that a little bit. We’ve both been in business for quite a while now, and just conversations that I’ve had with women or men, relevancy keeps coming up because we have a younger generation coming in and knowing all this. How do you stay relevant?
Louisa: I was thinking about this the other week what is my purpose. It feels like trying to develop using forward [inaudible] work and everything. Then I thought, well, what is there? Then I thought, well, I contribute in an industry that’s a massive industry. Millions of people are involved in the textile and fashion industry. I just feel that my involvement there, and if anybody takes the trend information and develops a new line, and it has a knock-on effect with the supply chain, people are involved, I think that feels like how I see myself. It feels like part of the textile chain that constantly keeps evolving, and embracing sustainability, embracing performance, and also embracing creativity. So yeah, I feel very honored as being part of the textile industry for so many years.
Nancy: Thank you. What’s next for you, Louisa? What’s coming up?
Louisa: Okay. Well, coming up now, I’ve got a few projects I’m working on at the moment in the studio there. Then, I’m off to Planet Textiles in Barcelona which is this new … Well, it’s not new. It’s been going for 10 years. It’s an interesting conference and different speakers coming up. I’m really looking forward to it because it’s different industries as well, so it’s going back to that feels like cross industries perspective. That’s just for the day.
Then after that, we’ve got Outdoor by ISPO at the end of June in Munich so that’s there. I’m looking forward to doing that because it is the first time, or it’s the first time in a while that Munich’s had this spring/summer show for performance textiles.
Then, before that ends, I head off to ISPO Shanghai to be part of the fashion forum there, and then to ISPO Textrends. Then, I think I stop for August. But ISPO Shanghai it’s really interesting to see how that’s developed, and how the local market and domestic market has developed is massive over there. It’s really interesting to see this switch from the winter sports to summer sports. Even in the cities, working out in the parks. In the past, you’d drive past in a taxi and see people do Tai Chi. Now, you’re driving past and there’s flashes of color because people are running and competing on apps and things like that. It’s quite an exciting show, ISPO Shanghai. It’s got the mood and the energy of ISPO Munich but geared towards the Chinese market.
Nancy: Well, you’re one busy woman. Louisa, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I’ve learned so much just listening to you in this half hour, and I hope our listeners did as well. Thank you very much again, and I hope to see you. I won’t be at ISPO Summer, but hopefully next ISPO.
Louisa: Thank you very much for inviting me onto Material Wise.
Nancy: Okay Louisa. Take care.
Louisa: All right, take care.
Thanks so much for listening to Material Wise. I’d like to thank the incredibly talented Woods Creative for their help in producing this podcast. Jake Nevrla mixes our episodes, and our theme music is by Activity Club. For more information on Material Wise, please visit MaterialWise.co, and please subscribe, rate, and review wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you again, and until next time, take care.