Li Edelkoort has seen the future, and it's ... mushrooms. Their subtle, earthy colors. Their curvaceous, snuggly shapes. Their trippy, hallucinogenic side effects. If she could choose a soundtrack for late next year, Edelkoort says, it would be "White Rabbit," Gracie Slick's anthem to psychedelic fungi.
"I wanted to take you drugs in my valise," she says, her customarily superb command of English failing her slightly when it comes to verb choice. "But search is such a hassle at JFK, so I only bring you visual drugs."
Don't underestimate her ability to sneak dangerous ideas across international borders. The Dutch-born Edelkoort, 58, is the oracle behind Trend Union, the go-to source for trend forecasting for the fashion, beauty, retail, automotive, consumer-electronics, and interior-design industries. She counts, , , Roche Pharmaceuticals, , Wella, Camper, Donna Karan, Jean Patou, Lancôme, and L'Oréal among her 1,500-plus international clients. Emmanuelle Linard, who runs Edelkoort's New York office, says U.S. companies form about one-third of Trend Union's client list, though most choose to keep their relationship with the firm confidential.
The globe-trotting Edelkoort, whom Time magazine named one of the world's "25 Most Influential People in Fashion," has agents on five continents feeding trend information back to the company's mother ship in Paris. Although she's little known beyond the most elite design circles, her influence can be seen in every American mall.
"At Old Navy, we jumped on her prediction of the return of folklorica and craft, and did a lot of hand-embellishing and beading," says Ivy Ross, who was EVP of design and product development before being appointed EVP of marketing at the. In earlier jobs, Ross had used Edelkoort's insight to launch a line of dolls with wash-off faces for Mattel. And while at Coach, she drew from Edelkoort's advice to explore materials beyond leather for handbags.
On this day in May, Edelkoort is on stage at Parsons the New School for Design before an army of fashionistas desperately scribbling down her predictions for the trends that will shape fall-winter 2009 - 2010. Wearing a lustrous gold-silk kimono, a flowing Ikat scarf, shiny gold sneakers, and bright red lipstick, Edelkoort looks like somebody's very hip granny — one who might just slip a little hash into the brownies. If you see acid-flashback fashion spreads a year from now, you can trace them to this peripatetic cool hunter.
"I found the shows mind- blowing," says architect Alexander Gorlin, who saw both the fashion presentations and one on architectural trends the day before. "I consider myself an expert in architecture, and she pulled together things I had noticed but not articulated. To impress me is a tall order."
But channeling the zeitgeist is only part of Edelkoort's work. She publishes a fleet of expensive trend magazines, consults for design firms, and runs a nonprofit to help artisans market their wares. As if that wasn't enough, for 10 years she also has been head of the Design Academy Eindhoven, the premier Dutch school of design, a post she'll leave in December.
Murray Moss, whose New York design shop features the work of a number of Eindhoven grads, says Edelkoort's keen eye is her students' secret weapon. Saying she does trend forecasting doesn't really do her justice, Moss says. "She's a visionary. She can take a set of facts, like a good cook would take ingredients, and turn them into something far greater: an articulate commentary on where she thinks we're going. And she shares that information with students, so they emerge from Eindhoven, year after year, confident enough to show us something very bold."
Edelkoort is slightly more modest about her gift. Over a bottle of wine in Paris a few years ago, she told the Gap's Ross: "People think I am some mystic or gypsy. But what I really do is pay attention. Then I have the nerve to say what I believe."
Does she ever. Between presentations at Parsons, Edelkoort laid out her ideas — some extremely insightful, some frankly baffling — about how we'll work, live, and eat in the years to come.
I was struck by how optimistic you are. That's a pretty radical departure from the national mood here in the United States.
You see how important this whole voting thing is when you see how it has affected this country. There has been a terrible arrest of anything moving. If you go to L.A., it looks like it hasn't changed from the 1980s. No new brands, no new shops, no retail ideas. Nothing.
Why do you think we've been so stuck?
We've been living 20 years in fear. The '90s started with AIDS and a huge economic and ecological crisis, then the [tech] bubble that burst, followed by Ebola, and the millennium bug. Then in 2001, it started really big-time.
So how has all that played out in the marketplace?
For one thing, in these 20 years, we've all been dressed in dresses. And I think there's an interesting correlation between the dress and fear because, as an animal, when man is fearful, he immediately wants to procreate. So the dress is used as the feather. And now that we will have less fear, we will have less dresses.
What will we wear that's less fearful?
Separates. Like those worn in the '70s and '80s.
How do fashion and architectural trends relate?
In fashion we've been working with the idea of veiling and covering ourselves up. We'll go into hiding much more, which will make our lives more exciting and decadent. Burlesque and the cabaret will come back. In architecture, we see this new building by Ben van Berkel called "the Burka," because it looks like it's wrapped in black ribbon. For him it's a statement against all the openness, all the glass.
What do you see happening in housing?
Contrary to many architectural predictions, we don't believe fluid, boatlike lines will continue. There's going to be a return of the box. Man is a very fearful animal and needs to be confined; we need organization. We will live like chickens.
In Milan, the whole city was buzzing about the Dutch. Why is this such a Dutch moment in design?
The Dutch mentality fits very well with this kind of make-do time. It's sober, yet it has humor. It's very generous. We're peculiar in the sense that we're extremely rooted with our feet on the floor, yet have our head in the clouds. By ourselves, we attach sky and earth, with the energy going through us.
Where do you see things going next?
We're starting a program in the Netherlands to bring 15 scientists and 15 creatives together to study and do research. We know that designers are more interested in science, and scientists are more open to the arts and design. In the first half of this century, we think everything that we have always seen as opposites will merge into new hybrids.
Years ago, the Dutch architect Winy Maas came up with the idea of a vertical farm called Pig City. Do you think its time has come?
Now it's not just the Dutch. A researcher at Columbia University said vertical farming is on its way. You could do four hectares on each floor. No insects, no diseases. You could go to your next-door building and it will be a fresh market. If you want to check out of your current lifestyle, or invest, you should buy the farm.
The Dutch understood globalization before the rest of the world. Is your history giving you a leg up?
We became rich with global marketing. Amsterdam is built from spices. But recently the government has decided that the future of our country is in the creative industries.
It sounds like you've all been reading The Rise of the Creative Class.
Richard Florida [the book's author] is taken very seriously in the Netherlands. There's an enormous fight going on between Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Eindhoven because everybody wants to be the first city in the creative industries. Film. Advertising. Architecture. Design.
What could Americans learn from the Dutch?
To be free. I think you have lost your freedom: to the state, to the federal. You've lost your freedom of voice, of economy, of expression. It's very monotonous. And your history learns us that you're not that.
If the U.S. were your client, what would you advise?
For one thing, it's an American misconception that everything should be big and in numbers. I went to Crate & Barrel and wanted some stuff for my new apartment, and everything was too big. Every bowl was like a salad bowl, every mug like a vase, every wineglass like a pitcher. It's unappealing. Also, if America wants to solve its economic and electricity problems, you should just stop serving ice in everything. Your drink gets watered down. It's not really good for your brain. It's just a habit. Americans should go in rehab for all these habits. That would do it.
With an election on the horizon, many things may soon change. What do you see in our future?
There are many, many small signs telling us that we are about to step out of our rut. I'm super optimistic and positive about that. That's why I called my presentation "How Wonderful."
A version of this article appeared in the October 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.