Trend forecasters and cool-hunters have spawned a global sub-sector of the fashion industry, with university courses, computer software and academic research making a science out of predicting fashion's 'next big thing.'

This is no easy feat considering the multitude of factors - politics, energy resources, economies and environment, not to mention ideology and people - that will play a part in shaping the world's fashion tastes of the future.

The planet is approaching seven billion inhabitants, according to the United Nations Population Fund, and according to the US census bureau it could increase by nearly 500m people over the next 10 years.

The census bureau figures also show a gradually aging world population with a world median age of 31.3 years in 2020, but with large age differences between the populations of developing and developed countries. The projected median age of the developing world in 2020 is just 29.5 years, while in the developed world the median age will be 42.2 years.

Emerging markets in younger, rapidly developing countries like Malaysia will clearly have different demands than countries with a significantly older and shrinking population, such as Japan and Italy.

Aging populations, for example, provide more market opportunities for smart textiles such as wellness fabrics that monitor health, treat age-related diseases or provide greater functionality and comfort. Coordinated marketing to communicate the value of wellness garments is an important element to this mix regardless of the age factor.

In 2009, for example, the Brazilian Scalina Group's Scala Bio Fir Shapewear line of control hose (that claimed to dramatically reduce cellulite through the slow release of micro-crystals to the skin) launched successfully in the UK department store chain John Lewis. It sold out of 40,000 pairs of tights in one day according to Scala spokesman John Payne.

Religious factors
Age is just one of the important factors influencing fashion consumers of the future. Another may well be religion.

Niche markets such as those connected with religious observance may grow to become mass markets in their own right. The largest of these is possibly linked to the Muslim faith, the world's second most diffused religion.

Despite continuing political tensions between Western institutions and radical Muslim leaders (and an ongoing debate within the Muslim community itself) 'religiously-appropriate' fashion is booming.

The US-based MuslimGear, for example, offers niche streetwear to the urban consumer, including shirts, sweatshirts, hats, hijabs, bags and long shorts and skirts, often with Islam-inspired designs.

Also, Islamicfashionhouse.com offers an e-commerce portal for Muslims living in Western countries. Under the slogan ' Discover the Beauty in Modesty' , the Islamic Fashion Festival, now in its fourth year, exhibits in Jakarta, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur - an interesting example of the convergence of haute couture and Islamic ideals.

Social networking
In the world's younger demographics, many of tomorrow's consumers will have grown up with the Internet and social networking as intrinsic parts of daily life.

Facebook, according to its own statistics, has 500m active users, 50% of whom log-in to Facebook at least once a day and 70% of whom are located outside the United States. Micro-blogging site Twitter likewise boasts millions of users worldwide.

Although marketing professionals have struggled to harness and tap into the enormous volume of content and contacts produced by these networks, tools to monitor and analyse them are readily available.

Trend Science for example is a software application developed by London-based trend forecasters Stylescape Limited that provides real-time data on the popularity of brands, names, colours, styles and keywords by trawling over 60m Facebook posts and Twitter ' tweets' every day with the possibility to link to individual posts and find out what consumers are saying.

Fashion e-commerce portals such as UK-based asos.com - which posted a whopping 35% growth in revenue and 1.6m active users in 2010 - have also created a new kind of fashion consumer: a savvy, brand-conscious spender, influenced not only by catwalk shows, celebrity or street fashion but also by bloggers and YouTube.

These are also customers who are well-schooled in electronic transaction and delivery, unafraid to engage with technology that might allow a consumer to personalise and order their made-to-measure garments online.

Technology to make this a possibility is already available for the medical and workwear sector, such as the Italy-based CAD Modelling Ergonomics' 3D Bodyfit scanner that can scan a human form in a just a few seconds. Anthropomorphic data generated by the scan can be manipulated to make made-to-fit garments, with possibilities for the mass market yet to be fully explored.

Indeed, Harry Wallop, the UK Daily Telegraph's consumer affairs correspondent, was quoted earlier this year for his prediction that ready-to-wear "disposable fashion will go the way of the battery chicken": consumers just won' t stomach it.

Sustainability and 'slow' fashion
Sustainability and fast fashion remain a priority issue, comprehensively tackled by the 'Fashion Futures 2025' report, launched last year by non-governmental organisation, the Forum for the Future, along with Levi Strauss.

Report author Fiona Bennie said that after interviewing over 60 people involved in the fashion industry, two common and critical issues emerged: "Most people were concerned with how connected the world might be - will we be connected or will we be fragmented by protectionism and ideology?

The second issue was regarding consumption - will we go forward or backwards in terms of speed?"

In one of the more idealistic future scenarios explored in the report - 'Slow is Beautiful' - consumers of the future are willing to pay higher prices for a smaller number of high-quality garments.

The report draws parallels with the food industry, where consumer awareness is beginning to have important commercial impacts.

This is a concept echoed by one of Italy's foremost cool-hunters, Paolo Ferrarini of Future Concept Lab, who said that slow fashion did not necessarily mean buying less or higher quality, but the consideration of the total lifecycle of a garment, from its design to its disposal.

"I teach at several universities around Italy and I observe first-hand the designers of the future. They think differently. They were born with the idea of sustainability and recycling, and that's how they design," he said.

Organic and recyclable raw materials are also in a state of intense evolution, according to Ferrarini, and are likely to develop even further to cater for an increasingly sensitive consumer-base.

"The aesthetics of a sustainable product are fundamental. We are moving away from those sad organic hemp garments in neutral colours to a product that has to be better than a non-sustainable one.

"Fabrics must be more beautiful and luxurious to the touch and garments better fitting. Synthetic products are improving all the time, and even plastic has, in some forms, acquired a kind of dignity," he said.

By Lee Adendorff.