"I just knew what was going to happen" says Li Edelkoort, the forecaster whose coronavirus predictions went viral
Trend forecaster Li Edelkoort studied fashion design but found she was better at predicting the future than drawing. She spoke to Dezeen about her career and why, at a time of crisis, she is hopeful for the future.
"There will be new words, there will be new codes, there will be new ideas of how to make and how to produce," she said, predicting that a better world could emerge from the current upheaval.
Edelkoort, one of the world's most influential forecasters, spoke to Dezeen in a live video interview in April, on the first day of Virtual Design Festival as she announced her latest venture, the World Hope Forum.
"We call this thing the World Hope Forum because it's the antidote to the World Economic Forum in Davos where only the super rich and the famous come together about more money," she said, after publishing a manifesto for the initiative on Dezeen.
"Hopefully the creative forces in this world can come together, to make new proposals and also showcase proposals that already work."
"How do we make money without making havoc?" she asked. "So that is the opportunity we have, and that's a terrific opportunity. Because, you know, we never would have had such a thing without this disaster."
"The virus is forcing us to do things which we already wanted to do"
Edelkoort spoke to Dezeen live from Cape Town, where she was waiting out the coronavirus pandemic after speaking at the Design Indaba conference.
"The virus is forcing us to do things which we already wanted to do: travelling less, buying less, wasting less, working less," she said. "But nobody knew exactly how to jump off the bandwagon. So we kept on going because that is how you do things."
Trend forecasting is a major industry these days but Edelkoort, 69, is probably the most recognisable of all its exponents, advising brands from fashion to finance and technology companies so they can pre-empt consumer trends and gain insights to help them plan ahead.
Originally working for the fashion industry, she now consults with clients including Google, Nissan, Siemens and Accenture while her trend briefings and publications are attended and read by business leaders around the world.
Her presentations are like performances, with music and imagery backing up her soothing, slow delivery as she paints abstract pictures of emerging themes such as nomadism (2012) and stillness (autumn/winter 2021/2022).
They are often floatily optimistic in a New Age kind of way, although she is not afraid to call out the garment trade for its wastefulness or make apocalyptic predictions, such as when she declared the death of fashion and accused the industry of being "a ridiculous and pathetic parody of what it has been".
But her fashion clients seem to love it. "They actually enjoyed it," she said of one brand when she presented her anti-fashion manifesto at an internal seminar. "They giggled when I said all the bad things about marketing. They all started to giggle like crazy because they knew it was true."
"I dare to say things a bit earlier"
Her predictions on the impact of coronavirus, first published in Dezeen in early March, caused a global sensation. The interview has clocked up over 800,000 page views, making it by far the most popular story Dezeen has ever published.
In it, she said the pandemic offered "a blank page for a new beginning" in the longer term but would first trigger "a quarantine of consumption" that would cause immense economic hardship while forcing people to focus on simple pleasures such as reading and cooking.
Reading the interview now, many of her predictions seem obvious. But she was the first to say it. "I'm basically just a broadcaster of the mental situation of creative people," she said.
"I dare to say things a bit earlier and maybe very clearly [so] it makes sense, it resonates."
Edelkoort, whose first name Lidewij is usually shortened to Li, grew up in Wageningen, a small agricultural town in the centre of the Netherlands. One day as a youth she entered a competition to design a carnival costume organised by a local newspaper.
"It was too serious for carnival, but it was exactly what was on the podiums in Paris," she recalled. "It was actually a micro dress with little shorts."
"I was not such a good drawer or designer but I just knew what was going to happen"
A journalist working on the paper spotted her talent and suggested she go to design school, so she enrolled on a fashion design course at Academie voor Beeldende Kunst Arnhem (Arnhem Academy of Visual Arts, now called ArtEZ), graduating in 1972.
"And we recognized while I was doing my education that I have this skill of seeing a bit more far," she said. "I was not such a good drawer or designer but I just knew what was going to happen."
At that time, trend forecasting was a little-known part of the fashion industry. The discipline had emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Parisian advertising and styling companies working with fashion labels started advising their clients on consumer trends.
"It was not well known, that profession," Edelkoort recalls. "But one day a lady came to do a lecture and she spoke about the styling offices in Paris."
"I was fascinated by that story," she added. "And [the lecturer] discerned in me something like that. She said: 'you are such a person'."
After graduating, Edlekoort spent three years working as a stylist at Amsterdam's De Bijenkorf department store.
"That was my real school; my second school," she said. "I was only 21. Department stores are very, very cool sorts of knowledge banks, and everything you learn you can use for the rest of your life."
She then moved to Paris to join fashion foresight agency Nelly Rodi as a forecaster and stylist.
"Holland was so small," she remembered. "I needed to go away. So I went to Paris. And there I first worked with Nelly Rodi. She was the next school if you want; she taught me colours and yarns; she taught me how to stretch the elastic of time further."
In 1986 she established her own forecasting agency, Trend Union, which she runs to this day. Now based in New York, she publishes regular reports on trends including colour, textile, design and architecture.
In 1991, she began her ongoing relationship with design education, becoming head of the Man and Leisure department at Design Academy Eindhoven.
She became the school's chair in 1998, remaining in place until 2008 and overseeing a remarkable rise in the school's profile and influence as it transformed from being a technical school attached to local industrial giant Philips, into a pioneering laboratory exploring new ways of approaching design.
"I'm always doing things with education," she said. "That's my hobby. And then also because of the Design Academy, I became a curator and writer so my life never stops. It always evolves. I just follow the lead."
In 2011 she co-founded the School of Form, a new design school in Poznań, Poland and in 2015 she was appointed dean of hybrid design studies at Parsons School of Design in New York.
"They will be trained like no other generation"
Design students, especially those graduating this year, have been hit hard by the pandemic, with lockdown preventing them from accessing studios and workshops.
However, Edelkoort feels the pandemic could have a positive impact on the current generation of students.
"It's very beautiful to see how they work," she said. "Don't forget that all the graduates in the world are in their little rooms without machines, sometimes not even with the materials to make their work. And so they are super creative at this point trying to find a solution."
"And so they will be trained like no other generation. They will be completely independent; very good and improvising their offer and their vision."
By contrast, students who graduated in the previous decade "were very, very lost because of the society being so f*cked up," Edelkoort said. "They didn't really know how to position themselves."
"So although they will now enter a pretty terrible economic landscape, at the same time, they will have the position and the possibility and the fortune to build a society they love.
"They're hopeful," she concluded. "Things will be happening and changing and it will be magnificent. That I know."