Laver’s Law

Laver’s Law, well known to students of fashion, describes the story arc of a fashion trend – from ‘OMG’ to ‘Ooh, I like that’, to ‘OMG, what is he wearing?’.

It was the invention of James Laver, a British writer and fashion historian who wrote many books, amongst them his 1937 classic, Taste and Fashion. It was in this book that he set out the various phases of his law, as follows:

According to his law when a trend is in fashion, it is ‘smart.’ One year before this it is ‘daring.’ Twenty years later, it becomes ‘ridiculous’, having passed through the ignominy of ‘hideous’. Fifty years, Laver argued, was how long it took for a trend to begin to creep back into style.

This feels broadly accurate, though I think there are now examples of an accelerating cycle. Seventies fashion, for instance, has had its resurgence for some time, though we aren’t quite at the 50 year anniversary of the start of that decade. Of course, we’ve also seen the rise of acceptable authenticity, which has resulted in hybrids and many echoes of fashions past (I say, gazing at my paltry and confused wardrobe).

Where I think Laver’s analysis is especially interesting is in overlaying it on other forms of consumables and on businesses as a whole.

Thinking about food, first, which is unquestionably driven by trends and tastes, I think it’s easy to argue that the cycle is swifter. For manufacturers and growers, this has consequences. Leaning too heavily on a line that is fashionable is a dangerous principle. If you only do yak’s cheese fondue, you’re soon going to struggle.

Similarly, fashion clothing businesses that focus too heavily on a heavily branded commoditised house style are certainly at risk of considerable difficulty as they move into the dowdy, hideous and ridiculous phases, which they almost inevitably do. If a brand is able to visually diversify whilst remaining in some way true to its core, it should be fine, all things being equal, but if it is the brand that dominates, the consequences are likely to be significant. A quick look at multi-site fashion brands that are currently experiencing difficulty – and then mapping their age against Laver’s Law is instructive and confirmatory. Investors take note.

Above all, I think Laver’s framework is useful for any brand that relies on a consumer audience. Buyer fatigue is an ever-present concern, and unless you are a brand that is focused solely on efficient enabling of a non-deterioritating and non-evolving need, you might want to consider broadening your wardrobe.