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The Next Fashion Trend: Weather Forecasting

Wall Street Journal
By: Ray A. Smith

At a recent class at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, students were asked—and promised a Dunkin’ Donuts gift card for the right answer to—the question: When should a Los Angeles store stock swimsuits?

Sarah Corcoran, a senior, explained she would use a “maximum temperature metric” to figure out the problem. “Yes,” cheered her professor, Calvin Williamson. And she earned the gift card.

FIT, one of the largest and best-known fashion schools, with alumni including Calvin Klein, Norma Kamali and Brian Atwood, this semester launched a new, 15-week course called “Predictive Analytics for Planning and Forecasting: Case Studies with Weatherization.” The course, geared toward students interested in retail and merchandising careers, is part of a broad overhaul of FIT’s curriculum to include more topical business issues, and weather is a prime one.

Weather fluctuations have increasingly been putting fashion designers and clothing retailers on the defensive. Merchandise is often ordered months in advance based on what the weather typically is at that time of year. But when temperatures are different from what was predicted—milder-than-usual winters, cold springs or otherwise inconsistent weather—clothes that are all wrong for the climate stay on racks and get discounted, hurting sales.

Last winter was the warmest on record for the contiguous U.S., says Jake Crouch, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information. The average temperature was 36.8 degrees Fahrenheit, 4.6 degrees above average, with some parts of the country even higher above
average. That led to less demand for heavy winter coats.

J.C. Penney Co. Chief Executive Marvin Ellison recently told analysts warm weather hurt apparel sales for the quarter that ended Oct. 29. He cited the “warmest September ever on record” as a factor. Some mass retailers hire or consult climatologists to help them make such predictions.

Designer Michael Kors makes a point of including a range of fabric weights for his resort collections, instead of limiting them to the lightweight clothing and beachwear those collections have historically featured. Mr. Kors has cited the reality of unexpectedly chilly days or nights and unpredictable weather.

Some designer labels, such as Vince, are promoting seasonless clothing, or clothing that is neither too heavy or too light, with pieces that can be layered on or taken off depending on how cool or warm it gets.

“Because of the extreme weather changes, there’s no real separation between spring, fall, winter and summer,” says fashion designer Jason Wu, who is best known for the
2009 and 2013 inaugural gowns he created for Michelle Obama. Mr. Wu used wool, a fabric normally associated with autumn and winter, for a number of runway looks in his latest spring collection.

“People aren’t really used to seeing wool in spring,” he says. “We wanted to highlight the idea of cool wool. Extremely light wool.” Mr. Wu partnered with the Woolmark Company, the group representing Australian wool growers that promotes the use of wool, on those looks. As an ambassador for Woolmark, he receives support from the group.

FIT’s predictive weathering class is co-taught by Prof. Williamson and Gary Wolf, an assistant professor of fashion business management in the college’s Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology.

At FIT, the predictive class is advanced, with terms like “linear regression” (a statistical method that examines the relationships between a number of variables) freely tossed out. Charts, graphs, equations and formulas are scribbled on white boards as students follow the lesson and plug numbers into Excel spreadsheets. Prof. Williamson teaches the statistics portion of the course, while Prof. Wolf teaches merchandising and marketing.

In one exercise, students worked to forecast which weeks a retailer in Chicago would have to stock more fleece by incorporating weather data into their calculations.

Melissa Weilacher, a senior majoring in international fashion business management, hadn’t considered the need to learn about weather as important to her education. “The idea that business is so affected” by a few changes in temperature surprised her, she says. “It can make you one step ahead of a competitor who is just looking at what happened last winter. You can’t just rely on what happened last year because things like that don’t happen all the time.”

The school also brings in industry professionals. A guest instructor, Mohan Anand, visited from Planalytics, a Berwyn, Pa.-based firm that helps retail companies metrically assess how weather impacts their business. Mr. Anand, director of research and analytics, came with his colleague, Evan M. Gold, executive vice president of global services. Among its clients: Dunkin’ Donuts. It helps the chain determine when to promote certain menu items.

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