Whatever segment you serve, there’s a constant pressure to be ahead of the curve when it comes to trends in garments and decoration techniques. Erich Campbell shares some tips on how to make sure you know what’s new and desirable in the market

Although it could be argued that something is already fairly exposed by the time it reaches retail stores, I generally find that the styles which become popular in the shops soon feature among the requests I’ll receive for custom decoration. This is why I pay close attention whenever I’m near a clothing store that offers decorated selections. While long delays for garment manufacturers to catch up with the retail trends were once the norm, the lead time for popular new brandable styles to become available to decorators has shortened dramatically.

This wider availability of quality blanks in a large range of styles means that the primary concern I now face usually has more to do with decoration styles than sourcing garments comparable to those I see in high street displays. That’s why you can often find me taking covert pictures and typing notes about the decorations I see in retail settings. It may look odd to inspect apparel on a mannequin, but by looking at the kind of decorations, the materials used, placements, popular subject matter, colours and garment combinations, I have a large store of potential decoration styles I can remix or recreate when a customer is looking for something new and exciting, as well as a familiarity with those styles that are current in the market.

This retail display revealed that eclectic patches – once a niche look – has now made its way into the mainstream. A commercial client may never want this particular look, but a coordinated patch set could make a great promotional product or even a uniform decoration for an adventurous company

An Instagram search for #urbanfashion reveals some current styles and trends to follow if your customers are in this segment. A brief scroll shows lots of athletic sets and multiple, large decorations. Cues are everywhere

Visit with vendors Whether this takes place virtually, with an on-site representative, or at a trade show, I always make the time to talk to my vendors regularly and check out their latest offerings. My research pales in comparison to the experience that vendors bring to bear before producing or sourcing new garment styles. Though this certainly doesn’t make everything they produce instantly popular, you can bet that any risk they take is based on their best guess for what’s coming next. Keeping yourself familiar with your primary catalogues, especially in the apparel segments that matter most to you, is not only advisable but essential to your ability to provide the latest options to your customers.

Retail and fashion looks often experiment with texture, such as here with this triple-split wide satin lettering. Although not many business clients are looking for this kind of look, it may be helpful for executing large script text

I’m always snapping pics of caps. This one features a pre-printed texture on polyester fleece that has been die or laser cut before being appliquéd on the hat. It’s an interesting way to get both dimension and texture

Stay social There’s nothing like polling your potential customers to find out what’s missing from your product range. Whether you take the direct method and dish out polls or simply follow influencers in the niche market or segment to which you sell most, seeking out the tastes of those who best represent your customer base is a great way to stay focused. Search through the feeds that fit your market, find garments that address observed trends from your favourite vendors, and make mock-ups to show the kind of work you do, while soliciting feedback, and act on it. This social loop can help you refine your product offerings and build interest for future sales.

Keep your eyes and ears open Trendspotting doesn’t necessarily require us to be fashion experts – after all, your clients might not be looking for top fashion items. That said, the easiest way to stay on top of the trends that are important to your customers is to maintain an attitude of curiosity and be aware of those channels where our customers spend time and attention. Be open to the next thing and don’t be afraid to stretch beyond your boundaries and create sample cases to stoke the creative vision of your clients.

It’s not just apparel vendors that can get you up to speed on the latest developments; material and thread vendors can give you new weapons for your decoration arsenal too, showing the latest colours and finishes you can apply to your designs. Samples books are generally freely available from vendors at trade shows

Every embroidery has a lesson waiting to be learned, even this off-the-shelf patch at a major chain store; the length-limit split satin texture on the elephant’s body brings an interesting hint of organic roughness to the patch

Consume widely, create with focus

I’ve been doing ‘retail research’ for over a decade. You never know where you may find inspiration. The trick is never to copy or knock-off what you see. Consume widely, then create with focus. Shuffle three or four inspirational pieces together, take the colour hints from one, the texture and materials from another and the placement from a third, and make something new. No matter what you do, always sleep on a design – what you see today, emulate tomorrow. Let it simmer on your mind’s backburner with all of your inspiration and see how it transforms.

Erich Campbell is an award-winning digitiser, embroidery columnist and educator, with more than 20 years’ experience both in production and the management of ecommerce properties. He is the programme manager for the commercial division of BriTon Leap.