Fortune telling for the noughties

Fortune telling for the noughties

Trend-spotter Joanna Feeley won her first job in New York while she was still a UK student. Still ahead of the game, she now has a prophetic niche business in the North East.

Anyone who doubts that three people filling one little upstairs office in central Newcastle can bullseye repeatedly against the big-guns of London, Paris and New York should meet Joanna Feeley. Feeley and her staff of two at Trend Bible are corporate soothsayers - trend forecasters of lifestyles and consumer inclinations.

They predict profitable approaches for retailers and brands, guiding design teams, buyers and merchandisers on which designs and styles of products are likely to appeal to customers in the coming months. Business is awash today with services that were once unimaginable, but Trend Bible’s activity is far from being mumbo jumbo.

Feeley, the founder and creative director, believes it’s largely a science, in fact. Remarkably go-ahead, she flew into a job in New York while a UK student, topped the experience with further jobs in London and now has her own company in the North East.

So how do her theories stand up? At Morrisons supermarket, where Trend Bible has been helping to build a stylish, cohesive selection of goods for next spring, it was allocated space in one of the store’s aisles to identify future lifestyle and trend drivers, create colour palettes and design directions, so building a range.

The profitability of the merchandising bays soared. Says Feeley: “We’re always confident our predictions of what the public will go for are accurate. They’re based on research evidence. Some people think we’re mystical, but what we do is quantifiable. There’s a science to it.”

The core business is trend forecasting for home interior retailers, but Trend Bible also forecasts food, automotive and beauty trends.

She explains: “We collect indicators globally from all sorts of corners in all sorts of places – pointers to what may influence consumers and so affect providers too.

“We collate and distil information we believe could influence what people may want in product design, colour and print material, say 18 months hence.” Her experience of sitting on the International Authority Colour Panel has enabled Feeley to forecast colours for anything, including Ford cars.

The results must impress. Trend Bible’s client list in the UK and the US includes Morrisons, Nokia, Next, Avon, LG, Daihatsu, Pottery Barn, JC Penney, TK Maxx, Tesco, ASDA, Disney and Mothercare.

They are not the sorts to swallow sales talk unquestioningly - and are catches indeed considering most of the 300 or so trend forecasters in business are indeed in London, Paris and New York.

On a brainstorm wall in Trend Bible’s Westgate Road office, any newspaper cutting, scribbled note or colour sample useful to forecasts is pinned.

Objects may be gathered: a piece of plywood, a corner from a carrier bag, an artwork. Social and cultural information goes into the crucible too: inspiration from exhibitions at the Tate Modern or the Guggenheim Museums in Bilbao and New York perhaps, and other influential places. Books about to be published, films nearing release.

Underpinning it all is evidence of what’s already happening: consumer reports, data; hard facts and figures. That’s the quantifiable. What follows is the skill derived from experience, and Feeley has 11 years of that in trend forecasting.

Knowing how other brands and companies work helps to define trends, too. The mix is then topped with team instinct, which has also benefited from observant input by a global network of informants built since business began in 2007.

Feeley explains: “We’ve excellent colourists, people experienced in design, other trend forecasters and people who work in retail. Some have worked for 20 years in fashion. Some are students, others graduates I’ve met along the way – people full of creative ideas and opinions. They help to form our picture.

“For all we’re in Newcastle, we have continuous information from London and New York – about interesting new shops opened, for example. Our eventual findings are put into straightforward, no-nonsense terms for our clients.” Even flea markets are combed.

“The ones in Paris are amazing, as is London’s Portobello. Then there’s Sydney’s vintage boutiques. People running flea markets are switched-on trend forecasters themselves. They have to know what people will be looking for.

We’ve noticed lots of nostalgia, with a lot of post-war design coming through from the flea markets.” So about 18 months ago Trend Bible forecast that consumers would seek items that made them feel nostalgic, safe, and optimistic this coming winter. Research had suggested it and, sure enough, Vera Lynn has returned to the top of the charts. Sales of chocolates have risen 7% as home becomes once more a retreat as people spend more time on interiors and on home entertaining rather than in restaurants and bars.

“Recession makes people think and behave in particular ways,” Feeley says.

“Our job is to predict how that consumer behaviour will translate into feelings when they shop. What types of products will they be drawn to?”

Trend Bible distributes answers both by consultancy and through its eponymous bi-annual publication, supported by monthly online trend updates enabling clients to work closely to the season. Each issue of Trend Bible covers colour palettes, fabric, wallpaper, flooring and trim samples and is accompanied by a CD of imagery. Some companies may have their own planners develop ideas from it; others may seek something specific inside.

“It’s one thing to know what future trends are, but another to know when exactly to put them in store,” Feeley points out. Seasons – and even recessions – have their own colour. Recession is working to Trend Bible’s advantage.

Although she is having to chase business now rather than simply gather it in, many supermarkets and chain stores, because trend forecasters are often among the first staff paid off in a slump, are finding that creative input is sadly lacking in-house.

The chief executives and product managers still have to ask, ‘what’s the next big thing, the next big consumer draw?’ and they need to know what will not sell, also. And they need reliable answers.

Their product development managers may attend up to six trade shows a year. Trend Bible will attend maybe 14 in Europe and the US.

Feeley says: “We can also add growth by helping them decide how to harness new customers, how to develop their product range. We’re not the only people to do this, but we have a specific target in the people we go for.”

It’s quite a leap from the tiny Northumbrian village of Gunnerton to New York, then on to running your own international business. But Joanna Feeley is obviously doing it with distinction.

There’s little around Gunnerton to stoke design enthusiasm, bar perhaps the legendary resting place of a dragon and the local church distinctively designed by a priest who, besides becoming a hermit, masterminded other buildings as far off as the US, Australia and the Bahamas.

But Feeley remembers a fantastic childhood in Gunnerton – she, her three sisters and a bike. It was when the family moved to Corbridge that she, at 12, became enthralled by design.  In Hexham, where she was actually born, two teachers at Queen Elizabeth High School nurtured her interest in graphic design and art. She did a foundation course in fashion at Newcastle College, went on to Kingston on Thames University – then straight to New York.

“I loved New York straight after university. I was full of energy and had a great time. I was young, though. I don’t think I could do it now,” she says, still only 33.

“I had a good job there, which I had secured before I graduated.

“I decided in the Easter holidays of my final year that the best way to spend my student grant would be to book a flight to New York. I didn’t even have my final project in my portfolio. But I went out and met with a recruitment agent who was due to visit our university after we had all graduated and were job hunting.

“My strategy was to get out there first. She said, ‘I love your work and love yourportfolio – how do you feel about going for an interview this afternoon?’ I was jet-lagged, but said ok. The firm loved my work and said, ‘you’ve got a job. Go back and get your degree and if you get a good enough grade we’ll sort you out a visa and get you back out here quickly’.”

A week after her course ended she was on another New York flight, now to work as a menswear design assistant. “But already, I knew trend forecasting was what I wanted to do, although a careers advisor had told me there were only maybe 300 trend forecasting jobs in the world.

“But in New York every night, when others had gone home, I’d stay late. I’d no money and they used to give me a pizza if I stayed late. I did my trend forecasts and board presentations then. It became a bit of a joke. People there would say, ‘oh, the trend fairies have been again in the night!’.

“Then they’d ask the future of graphic T-shirts and things like that. ‘Who’s the next big brand?’ They started to use me as a trend forecaster. I built a trend portfolio without a trend forecasting job.

New York was so much fun. But you could only live its very fast pace for so long.” Back she came to the UK after 18 months.

She became a designer for Topman in London, which was rebranding and therefore very interested in trends.

She then became a design manager for The Bureaux forecasting consultancy in London.

“I often tell students now you have to carve your own opportunities out of things. Jobs at the minute are not there. You have to take what is there, but from that you can create your own opportunities.” After 10 years in London and New York, which included subsequent freelancing, Feeley decided to set up for herself in the North East. She started in a spare bedroom at home and was supported by Business Link and UKTI. The workload, which was soon so much she couldn’t service all clients individually, inspired her to create a bi-annual publication with all the information necessary in print. Trend Bible the publication was born. Today, Joanna Feeley’s network of agents sells Trend Bible in 18 countries, doing especially well in the UK and the USA.

Fashion Forecasting, the online directory of companies in the field, describes Trend Bible as: “A new generation service using a ‘magpie’ approach to fuse work of up-andcoming designers with unique vintage finds.” Its third busiest centre is Japan, despite the English text.

More remarkably, perhaps, it is being promoted in the French market, where Feeley felt sure translation would be vital.

“But one of our agents in this country - who is French and does a lot of business there – says translation won’t be necessary there either.

“I had thought that if ever a market insisted on translation, it would be France. Now we are very excited because a couple of our biggest competitors are based there.” Does operating from Newcastle have a downside? “Definitely not. Here, for example, we’re able to tap into brilliant talent coming out of the design colleges and universities. We’ve a good placement scheme and some excellent students have worked with us. One girl went off to New York herself last year and now she feeds us information.” Feeley herself gained a Post-graduate Certificate of Education at Northumbria University, enabling her to teach part-time at Cleveland College of Art and Design and supplementing her firm’s income initially.

“It was like building your own raft; Trend Bible was the raft and security was on dry land. I had to build the raft strong enough to float while I kept one foot on the dry land!” With turnover nearing £200,000 in a three-year target of £559,000, she no longer needs to teach, but she does lecture and join university seminars and workshops at Northumbria, Nottingham and Trent, teaching students the benefits of forecasting. How though, does she ensure Newcastle can keep up with major capitals of the world? “I‘ve set up something more personal, more bespoke. Many of our competitors give out generic information and rely on company designers to interpret it.

“Also, particularly in recession, Trend Bible being not quite so big can come in a little less expensive, and with this added value of personal service.” Feeley, her partner Simon and their one-year old son Aidan live in Fenham.

When the couple go out, she admits, it’s hard to switch off. She’ll look around the restaurant or bar and think how she could make it look better. It even happened at a wedding reception the other week.

Fortunately, Simon is head chef at the Barrasford Arms in Northumberland and, as Feeley explains: “I get lots of nice food cooked for me. Simon is just as happy cooking at home as at work.

So there’s hardly any point in dining out now!"