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Fashion, is it Cyclical?

Everyone’s heard the phrase “fashion is cyclical” but how much truth is there in this statement? In the run-up to 2022 Fashion Weeks in New York (11-16 Feb), London (18-22 Feb), Milan (22-28 Feb) and Paris (28 Feb – 8 Mar) we analyse the patent data to see if it translates over to intellectual property? And, by utilising patent data, we set about finding out “Is Fashion Cyclical”.

The theory

A fashion trend is typically when a style of clothing, type of fabric or colour scheme sees a rise in popularity, suddenly finding itself in the spotlight and featuring in the wardrobes of style icons everywhere. Over the years plenty of these trends have come and gone; see for example flared trousers, double denim, the mini skirt… there’s plenty of options to choose from.

And yet, no matter how embarrassing some of these may seem in hindsight, a lot of fashion fads find a resurgence in popularity after a period out of the public consciousness.

The idea of a Trend Cycle itself is nothing new and can be applied to everything from music, television and books to the broader concept of art itself.
There is a basic theory that suggests trends have a 20-year lifespan; the time it takes for something popular to lose public interest, before reaching a high level of popularity once again.

As is also known to people within the world of intellectual property; in most countries a granted patent has an enforceable term of 20 years.

By identifying and evaluating two fashion trends, we intended to see if this matching 20-year lifespan is purely coincidental, or if a trend cycle can be identified within the patent data.

Trend One: Shoulder Pads

The first trend we decided to look into is the 80’s staple, the shoulder pad.

Figure 1, below, shows the filing history of shoulder pads related patents from 1980 to 2020. This chart was generated by analysis of the CPC classification A41D27/26: Shoulder-pads; Hip-pads; Bustles. The special rules of this classification state that it includes only shaping pads, not protection pads; making it a good match for this trend.

Figure 1: Earliest Priority Year vs Number of Patent Families

The data set contains a relatively small number annual filings, indicating that this doesn’t seem to be a particularly technologically innovative area.
The filings appear to follow a pattern, with a small peak witnessed towards the end of the 1980’s, before dipping slightly to rise to a defined peak in 2001. This peak in filings remains at a near consistent high until 2007, after which filings appear to decline once more.

Viewing this data through the lens of the 20-year Trend Cycle, we can see a near perfect symmetry.
Taking 2017 to be the low point that marks the middle of a cycle, we can look back at the previous 20 years, whilst also making a prediction for the future.

Looking back half a cycle to 2007, we can see this year is marked by a significant peak in filings, signifying the end point of the near constant high level of filings starting in 2001. Following the Trend Cycle to its beginning we would expect to see 2007 as the corresponding dip in filings; this is not the case, however the nearby low of 1991 may be able to be seen as the partner to 2017’s lull in filings, making this a 26 rather than 20-year cycle.

Based on this apparent cycle, we could expect to see shoulder pads making their inevitable comeback around 2027.

Trend Two: Bejewelling

From rhinestones to diamonds, on trousers or jackets, the second trend we chose to analyse is the versatile treatment of fabrics with jewelled materials.

Figure 2, below, shows the filing history of the fixation of particulate material to fabrics from 1980 to 2020. This chart was generated by analysis of the CPC classification D06Q1/10, which relates to decorating textiles by fixation of particulate matter.

Figure 2: Earliest Priority Year vs Number of Patent Families

These filings also appear to follow a cyclical pattern, although prior to 2000 the number of filings appears nearly insignificant to contribute to analysis.

Working in a similar manner as for shoulder pads, we can attempt to view these results in the terms of the 20-year Trend Cycle.
2016 stands out as the defining peak, containing around twice as many filings as any other year. Following backwards 10 years to 2006 we can see that this year does represent a dip in the near continual growth the filings had seen previously, if only a minor one. This could be due to the consistently minimal number of applications prior to 2000, which doesn’t allow for a defined analysis of any trends before this point.

Assuming this perceived dip in 2006 is true, we should therefore be able to assume the current decline in filings should continue until 2026. Which means that, unfortunately for fans of rhinestones, we may not expect this trend to surface again until 2036.


Fashion is forever moving forward, with recent years seeing the industry take a more active role in seeking environmental solutions.
How much of what the industry produces is patented, or even could be, is an interesting question that may pose no definitive answer. However, within this short analysis, we have attempted to highlight areas of the fashion industry that can be clearly seen within intellectual property.

Both shoulder pads and the fixing of particulate matter on fabrics appear to show cycles in the number of yearly filings they see. These peaks and troughs may look inconspicuous, however when viewed in light of the 20-year Trend Cycle, a clear pattern does start to emerge.

However, this apparent cycle may also be related to the patent cliff; where following a patents expiry the innovation enters the public domain. In relation to fashion, this may be a time when it becomes assessable for the public to adopt a fashion that was previously protected by its patents, leading to the increase in popularity that could then see another wave of patent applications in this particular area, capitalising on the popularity.

In conclusion it is clear to see that the highlighted fashion styles undergo oscillations in the amount of annual filings, yet it is difficult to be certain if this relates directly to the trend lifecycle itself, or another factor such as the patent cliff. Based on the observed data however, we can always keep an eye on 2027 to watch for the return of a new wave of shoulder pad inventions and hopefully find our answer!

Article by Daniel Di Francesco, a Senior Patent Analyst at Patent Seekers. He is an expert in undertaking FTO, Patentability and Invalidity searches, covering all types of subject matter with specialism in the chemical field.


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