Micro trends are the fuel to ultra fast fashion’s engine. While they often spur organically on platforms like TikTok, brands with alarming labour and environmental track records capitalise off these micro trends to push consumption and waste to new levels.
On social media, trends come and go faster than ever
Each week it seems that social media spouts a new fad that’s the “must-have” item of the moment. Much to the disdain of many, a lot of these trends are borrowed from past eras, plucked out of boxes marked “never again! (and put down those eyebrow tweezers!)”.
Revisiting past trends is nothing new in fashion, but the practice has been ramped up since the arrival of micro trends. Think: one particular sunny green dress that had TikTok in a chokehold, the “cottagecore” revival (a cousin of the “twee” trend that also saw a comeback), ugly dad sandals, checkerboard prints, and chunky plastic rings.
Not every micro trend is evil. In fact, many of these looks might inspire us to dig deeper into our closets and rediscover items we haven’t worn in years. Or maybe it drives us to rescue some garments from a local charity shop.
The problem is that fast fashion brands fuel the feedback loop of these trends—quickly turning out cheap polyester versions to meet the newfound demand. That’s where micro trends raise ethical questions—and even some questions about our consumer psychology.
Here’s what you need to know about our culture’s obsession with trends—and how they keep getting quicker.
What are micro trends? The fast fashion connection
Micro trends take what you know about trends and accelerate the process: these trends rise to popularity quicker and then leave the trend cycle faster. While traditional fashion trends typically last a few years, micro trends’ life spans are shorter, with some lasting less than one season.
Many tout social media and its hypervisibility as the main culprit. It goes hand-in-hand with ultra fast fashion; faster production, exploitative manufacturing processes, and plastic clothing are needed to keep up with the demand that micro trends create.
Faster production, exploitative manufacturing processes, and plastic clothing are needed to keep up with the demand that micro trends create.
In other words, to understand micro trends is to understand the driving force of ultra fast fashion’s marketing machine. Earlier in 2022, I investigated the model driving SHEIN’s remarkable rise to be the most profitable business in its category—a brand that puts thousands of styles on its website every week. In my research, I spoke with Rita Liao, TechCrunch reporter and editor of Attention Factory, to get a deeper understanding of how SHEIN profits off of an ever-quickening trend churn.
“SHEIN puts [new products] online instantly, and then blasts it over social media. And because it’s just online, they’re also able to collect feedback very quickly,” Liao told me.
Because SHEIN is so digitally versed in data, it can pre-empt what will sell before a product is even made.
Matthew Brennan, author of Attention Factory, coined a new term to describe how fast trends turn with businesses like SHEIN: “real-time fashion,” a retail model that acts as a mirror to breaking social media trends.
An unending, exhausting push towards what’s new
Digging deeper into what drives micro trends ultimately brings us to questions of psychology. For an expert perspective, I tapped behavioural psychologist Carolyn Mair, author of The Psychology of Fashion, who launched the University of Arts London’s Psychology Department at London College of Fashion.
Mair points to fashion brands’ eagerness to supply products for sale as fueling a deeper phenomenon. “The desire to buy trend after trend isn’t about attention span—it’s about habituation. When we experience something for the first time, it excites us and gives us pleasure, but with repetition over time, the pleasure dissipates because we habituate to the experience,” she tells Good On You.
The desire to buy trend after trend isn’t about attention span—it’s about habituation.Carolyn Mair – author of The Psychology of Fashion
Growing accustomed to the feeling motivates people to make new purchases in hopes of reigniting that pleasure and excitement.
And so, this routine of chucking out barely-worn clothes has become a spectacle of sorts. On TikTok, there’s a trend of videos where users show-off clothes they regret buying. “POV: you were influenced to buy all the micro trends last summer and now you’re disgusted,” reads one video.
Pop culture, TikTok, and surging searches
Social media, entertainment, and celebrity moments now have the ability to be moulded into micro trends at lightning speeds. Take Euphoria; after season two aired, fashion e-commerce searches surged. When character Maddy Perez (played by actor Alexa Demie) wore a black cut-out dress, there was an 890% increase in demand for the trend search.
There’s another very human and very simple reason behind the rise of micro trends: “We follow trends because we want to belong,” Mair tells me. “When we follow a trend, we show our belonging to others who follow that trend and dissociate ourselves from those who do not.” That alignment gives wearers a sense of belonging and cohesion—traits that all of us understand to be aspirational.
When Euphoria character Maddy Perez wore a black cut-out dress, there was an 890% increase in demand for the trend search.
Almost ironically as micro trends fixate on newness, many of these impermanent trends leech off existing throwback styles. What we’re seeing is a sort of trend “archaeology,” an urgency to catalogue moments in time, both past and present.
Take “indie sleaze” for example, a name that was coined retrospectively to classify the hipster years in the early 2000s and 2010s.
Nostalgia has always been pervasive in fashion, and it’s something that Mair is pragmatic about. “Fashion has always been cyclical because there are limited possibilities with clothing styles, silhouettes, and so on,” she says.
Why are we seeing more of this now? Yes, increased social media usage is one element, but Mair asks us to consider the upheaval of the past few years, too. “Nostalgia is appealing particularly in times of turmoil and uncertainty when we tend to look back with ‘rose-coloured glasses’ imagining that the past was much better than the present.”
An antidote to the trend churn: personal style
It’s one thing to understand this, but another thing to try to wade through the sea of ultra fast fashion and micro trends. A way to help maintain a discerning eye when faced with endless streams of trends is to look inward and try to define your own personal style. It’s easier said than done; humans are constantly evolving, our tastes change, and our identities are in flux. Instead of focusing on aesthetics, you can home in on your belief system and overall function of your wardrobe.
“If you have a clear organising logic in your wardrobe, it’s easy to sit out irrelevant trends and focus instead on investing in staple pieces and caring for what you already have,” says journalist and theatre nerd JD Shadel, who has reported on TikTok #hauls’ connection to ultra fast fashion trends.
In the theatre world, a production concept is the key messaging and vision that ties a show together—it’s an idea that Shadel suggests people can implement into their own wardrobes. “The production concept isn’t merely an aesthetic concern—it defines how all the elements come together in harmony,” they tell me. “Every creative decision is guided by that overarching concept.”
When we define a production concept for ourselves, it helps us look past micro trends and only purchase garments we truly love. “I buy things because I fall in love with them,” fashion icon Iris Apfel once said. And that might be the best tip of all.
Ask yourself: Do you ‘love’ this or do you want to buy it because you think it’s trendy?
Ask yourself like Apfel might: Do you “love” this or do you want to buy it because you think it’s trendy? Trends themselves aren’t inherently evil. But when an exploitative business model drives us to over consume in the name of self-expression, that’s when we know we have a problem.
Ideally, each person’s “production concept” becomes their personal style—it’s specifically tailored to their own needs. If we make our choices selectively and slowly, guiding them by what we know works for us rather than what we think is trending, we might be less prone to fall prey to the dizzying churn of styles we see on our social media feeds.
Certainly, our morals shouldn’t follow the fast-dying pace of a micro trend. If we have a clear and strong purpose that underpins our fashion decisions—such as a dedication to workers’ rights, a commitment to caring for the Earth, and a desire to support local, small businesses—it can help us stand up to the forces of fast fashion.