Knowing cool

So with such serendipity behind the choices of just one trendsetter (and one may presume that others in the avant garde these days follow their tastes in a similar manner), how is it that big companies, corporate brands, and the mass market keep up? Paul Smith, a veritable fogey at 53 and definitely part of fashion's establishment, is what you could call a secondary trendspotter: someone who serves a much broader market, doesn't mind being recognized on the street, and "has the consumer mentality and the five-second attention span of a clued-up 15-year-old." (Blanchard, 1999, p. 41) Because he is who he is, and because he is not a New York Times photographer, when confronted with the line outside the A Bathing Ape store in Tokyo, "Paul Smith doesn't queue." (Ibid.) On some level, knowing cool is being cool.

Knowing cool is also a quantifiable skill, the main force behind our newest social science, and it's the number-one resume entry for the professional coolhunter. Coolhunters are of inestimable value to the big company; hopping on a bandwagon at just the right time can mean the difference between sales in the millions and a warehouse full of stuff you can't move. Diffusion research, which started in the late 1920s with studies on seed corn, gave us the terms "innovators" and "early adopters." It was in its way the earliest form of knowing cool, and has not only led directly into the sophisticated demographics studies behind most marketing ventures, but also into the fuzzier areas of trend forecasting and collaborative filtering.

Gladwell doesn't discuss collaborative filtering in his New Yorker piece on coolhunting, perhaps because it is a more personalized, rather than regionalized or demographically based, approach to identifying what people want/need/gotta have. Tom Vanderbilt, however, does reflect on this growing field in "The Advertised Life," saying that "the consumption of goods is now so closely linked to identity that a new form of social analysis has emerged in which classes are defined not by property or profession but by what products they purchase." (1994, p.154) [11] Creating a consumer profile based on buying history, rather than on predictive factors like income or ethnicity, is actually a pretty revolutionary idea; formerly, a complete individual buying history was hard to compile, and consumer demographics seemed reliable enough. The new idea has caught on, though. The proliferation of "if you liked this, you'll love this other thing" and "find out what other people who bought this item have also enjoyed" features on internet sales sites like underscores the field's importance. It fits so smoothly in with the internet's capacity for gathering tidbits about its users, it almost has to work better than anything that came before it.

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