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Nicola Cooper on connecting the dots, purpose and the bigger picture

The name Nicola Cooper is synonymous with the South African fashion industry and the woman herself a fixture in the front row at fashion weeks around the country. Seemingly scowling as she scans the looks that pass in front of her on the runway, this trend analyst is looking for signs and signals that are obscure to most others – the faintest hints, clues, and suggestions of new trends that will possibly only manifest in mainstream culture in 3-5 years’ time. But merely spotting trends isn’t enough for Nicola; she must understand them too, and interpret the way international trends are ‘glocalised’ in the local scene.

Behind the scowl Nicola is a warm and fiercely compassionate person, and beneath the fashion facade she’s an acclaimed trend forecaster, researcher and academic. Her CV is 35 pages long, meticulously charting her 15 year career. Meticulous is a word that describes Nicola well, from the way she presents herself to the way she conducts her work. In March 2015 Nicola launched her own trend forecasting company, Nicola Cooper & Associates, specialising in the fields of fashion, pop/youth culture and lifestyle. She has consulted for many large retail brands and is the supplier of choice for Flux Trend clients in her fields of specialisation. Nicola was one of the speakers at our recent Creative Womxn Conference, where she shared her inspiring personal journey and insight into her work. 

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What 3 words would you use to describe yourself?  

Obsessively passionate, perceptive, receptive.

Your Insta feed is full of positive quotes, messages and affirmations. Can you tell us a little about the power of positivity?

Ok now the real ‘Trend Geek’ comes out in me. A couple of years ago I was planning a collaboration with Flux Trends around the concept of water and came across the work of Dr. Masaru Emoto who scientifically analysed two different batches of water crystals. Each was subjected to negative and positive sound waves in a controlled, random experiment. One batch was talked to in a loving, positive way. The other batch – angry, slandering and deprecating. Dr. Emoto’s experiment concluded that negativity produced negative vibes. And positivity produced good feelings. His proof was the formation of water crystals under a microscope, their actual molecular structure had altered according to what they had been told. Considering our body is 90% water, this means we can physically alter our molecular structure by what we say to ourselves and to others.  I also know that our actual brain patterns begin to alter after two weeks of deciding to shift our thought patterns. We can literally and physically change our minds and bodies with thoughts and words.

This, however, was years after I started #Mymorningmantras, which are quotes, poems, sayings, quips which I feel connect with me on a particular day. I am a very positive person, I read through many before finding the correct one for the day, I allow it to embed in my brain and then share via social media. As a result I have had many people come up to me and thank me for them, which is weird as they are ‘borrowed’ words, but as a trend analyst I am constantly tapped into the zeitgeist so I think I pick up on what the general feeling is and that resonates and fuels others which is so wonderful.

To the lay person, trends often feel shrouded in a kind of mystery. Is it possible to track the source of a trend? How do trends originate?

Trends originate from many different facets, the attitude of an era, sociological aspects, such as feminism, the economy (a recession can even impact on colour usage), the environment (both physical and emotional/mental), technology (such as 3D printing) and politics (think colours, think articles of clothing such as the beret). Trends can either trickle down from innovators, inventors, gatekeepers (such as fashion magazine’s) or designers (product/clothing), celebrities etc. or they can trickle up from the street such as igniters, subcultures, music movements, counter cultures, attitudes etc.

Once a trend is picked up by a manufacturer, then retailer (and with fast fashion/design/technology) the product or garment is made available at every price point by a variety of different distributers/retailers. For example Gucci’s new work is being emulated in fast fashion stores such as Zara, which means you could either by a blouse for R6000.00 or by a cheaper version for R600.00 depending on your wealth and we will know who to target using Beiling’s Flow Chart, which is the calculation of the average age and income of the mass community in a city/county. 

But there are many ways in which we track trends and it is certainly not as glamorous as one would think, mostly research based and many theories utilised, however it can be a very powerful position if you are good at it.

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From your particular focus on glocalisation, can you tell us a little about the current climate of the creative scene in South Africa?

I will likely be lynched for this but I think the creative scene is in a little bit of a comfort zone, but before lynching, remember we work 2 to 3/5 years ahead and have to identify the innovators, influencers, gatekeepers, igniters years ahead of others (They make up 5-7%) of society. So we have seen trends for a while before the major public captures it – it takes a trajectory of a maximum of 3 years for a trend to reach fruition. 

We are constantly looking for new exciting people, places, music, attitudes etc. and we cannot repeat the same companies/people/neighbourhoods over and over unless they are doing dramatically different things to the past or something incredible has happened. So we search a lot within cities, townships and keep our arms wide open to those who want to share their cool stuff with us.

I am focused on Cape Town at present, I am very interested in the creative scene there from the townships and the city as Cape Town varies so greatly from Jozi and both even more so from Durban.

Trend forecasting is all about reading the future, but how does the past relate to this?  

The past helps you understand how the trajectory or pattern of trend may emerge. For instance if we see Grunge emerge again we are able to compare the attitude, the psychology, the musical taste, the environment, the economy and of course politics and analyse how the Grunge of the nineties compares to the Grunge of five years ago, and we are able to link the ‘original hipster’ to the Grunge era through an apathetic attitude, music, language and DIY ethos before it became a mass trend and split into the ‘original hipster’, ‘the creative hipster’ and ‘the trust fund hipster’. Now we can look back and do a comparative analysis and be able to identify the trends future potential.

You’re on a mission to write black fashion from South Africa and Africa into the fashion archive. Can you tell us more about this?

Whilst I was lecturing Historical Fashion Studies I wanted to incorporate more of African and in particular Black African fashion into the course curriculum. I came up with very little, I was able to discuss the music, the attitudes, the locations, the innovators but no reference was made to the actual clothing. Who was wearing what? Where was the dress from? Did the Gent buy his suit at a particular shop? Was Miriam Makeba or Dolly Rathebe wearing pieces from abroad? What was the fabric? Who was the designer? And I found that hugely problematic, we had no point of reference to our own fashion history and as a result began developing new information with my students through old photographs and comparative analysis of internationally fashion.

I hope to document current African Fashion for the future so we have a richness and history that people a hundred years from now could know, what we cannot answer today. It is vital before the democratisation of fashion and globalisation dilutes it.

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Your current trends talk is titled Perfectly Imperfect. How have notions of beauty changed and what does this mean?

Through social media and the internet we have been exposed to many different individuals who represent themselves proudly in their independent state of beauty. Celebrities sharing images of themselves with the #nomakeupmovment, Women celebrating their stretch marks in the #loveyourlines movement or the #RockScarsMovement where scars are celebrated as a victory of overcoming rather than disfigurement. Individualism through the internet has influenced major fashion magazines, designers, advertising agencies and product developers to alter the body archetype and change the way in which they approach women. Since women outrank men in the classroom and the boardroom it is about time.

At the recent Creative Womxn Conference you said in your talk that you have no squad goals. What traits do you have that make you so good at what you do?

Absolutely, I have no intention of belonging to a group or to label or box myself in and there are many like me in the world (it’s not just me) but I don’t fit into boxes and for many years that bothered me, why was I ten years ahead of anyone, individuals in the industry didn’t get me or generally feeling displaced in the world and then I realised that I did not want to be cool and fit in, I accepted my oddities, eccentricities and made peace with the fact that not every one was going to like me.  

I just want to do my job, serve my purpose and do it excellently and if I become known, it is for what I do or what I hope to do to change the landscape. I don’t need cheerleaders and remove myself from naysayers. I have a clear goal and my purpose is not malicious, I am not taking ownership of something that was not mine, it was and is the most mind-blowing opportunity to shine a light on some one or some thing that has happened or is happening and saying “look at this” to powerful people who could lift that person or product to the next level.

I am a third culture kid – I am Scottish, raised in a rural area in the Eastern Cape, and moved to Jozi when I was twenty years old, which means I have an interest and a respect for other cultures besides my own.

I believe knowledge. I am an information junkie – about everything and anything but it has to be fact.I am very sensitive and suffer with severe anxiety as a result, but with the sensitivities I am able to pick up things that others can’t. Something many do not know about me, I don’t drink, smoke or dull my senses. I need them for my work and value them greatly.I don’t lie, as a trend analyst I am not employed to tell you what you want to hear, it is about the facts and how I can assist you in making money or creating a new product from a knowledgeable place, it is not about my emotion or a desire to be liked.

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Who and/or what inspires you?  

My family (I know it is lame) – but my Mom and The Dude (My Father) are incredible human beings. They have and always been activists who taught me the value of the individual, how detrimental classism, racism and the concept of mob mentality and ‘the other’ could be. They taught me to stand up for human rights, including my own. My Mentor Erica De Greef, she is one of the most underrated fashion academics in this country, because she does it for the cause not the coverage. I align a lot and thank her for who I am today. I admire her and love her greatly. Knowing something bigger than me is out there, something which makes me feel small. I try to go back to the Wild Coast as often as possible as it reminds me that I am just a small component of a larger universe. The purpose I have always held in my heart, I believe, that we are placed here for a reason, not just for ourselves and I will fulfil whatever it is.

You recently started your own trend Research and Analysis company. What motivated this move and how’s it going?

It was never my intention to start my own business, however there are few trend agencies in South Africa or even Africa. Dion Chang, my trend mentor, graciously handed over the flag for fashion, lifestyle & pop/youth culture and I have the ability to assist in developing new knowledge to help individuals, companies and our country grow through well-researched, critical thinking and knowledge application. It was kind of thrust upon me and I gratefully took it with both hands.

It is tough, as any entrepreneur will tell you, I am selling a product that few understand and an IP that many undervalue, many believe it is a ‘nice to know’ and not a vital part of your business strategy, so I am having to ‘educate’ many to the benefits such as having a clear vision of who your target consumer is, where do they hang out, what do they listen to, what language you should speak to them in and most importantly that they are African! And how this can save time, money and ease product development through a better foundation of knowledge and undeniable research.

In addition to this, after 9 months since leaving Flux Trends and Dion Chang to work as a preferred supplier and to develop on my own, my life was derailed by a near fatal head on collision which left me in a coma for three weeks, isolation ICU for 7 weeks and many injuries. Rebuilding and picking up where I left off has been rough but I have incredible support from my family, friends, peers, academics, industry professionals and clients who believe in me and value my work.

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What’s next for you?

Well, I survived and you don’t survive without realising that you have some unfinished businesses and a certain purpose, which needs to be fulfilled. I hope to continue to sell the #PerfectlyImperfect Trend Talk to those within the industry who speak to women and offer insights to assist them in doing so effectively. I have been applying for funding and also approaching independent investors to assist in building a Research Centre so we may up-skill at least 5 young individuals within the field of Trend Analysis in order to grow the Centre or to potentially create jobs within the industry. I have begun the mammoth task of developing ethical, critical and quality research and reports about South Africa and hopefully (in the future) Africa. I will be presenting some work in London for the African Fashion Guide regarding the importance of ‘Glocalisation’,  I have been invited to be a Panelist, alongside some of my talented peers, for the Black Portraits[s] Conference presented by New York University coming to Jozi in November and have another few projects in my soul. I will continue to mentor future thought leaders such as Phendu Kuta of Unlabelled Magazine, Yehudi the Jew and as many igniters as possible. I will continue to be a proud Africanist. I will heal, hangout, enjoy the little/big things with my beau and my hairy child #Bowie as often as possible and continue to believe that I, maybe, could make a difference.

Follow Nicola on Twitter and Instagram for daily inspiration and insight.

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Perfectly Imperfect is a captivating personal and inspirational 45min trend talk which identifies and discusses the shifting perceptions of beauty due to technology/social media platforms and new forms of advertising directed at female consumers ‘Femvertising’. The talk is directed at brands, fashion designers, media, marketing and relevant retailers and businesses in the lifestyle and beauty arena.

This report is designed for experts aiming to immerse themselves in the latest fashion, beauty, lifestyle and pop-culture trends from an exceedingly brave and personal perspective professionally aligned with solid industry knowledge in order to inform their industry and the ever-evolving needs of this growing market.

For more information about the Perfectly Imperfect talk email Nicola.

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