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Spring 2002 The Power of Color

Color has always been part of the zeitgeist, the mood of an era, especially for goods like fashion, home furnishings, and cars. Major cultural shifts create marked changes in the way society sees itself and the world, and the resulting overall mood influences choices, which in turn influence the marketplace. In a sense, some say, it’s the stuff pop culture is made of. And color is no small part of that. It influences, communicates and reflects, all at the same time.

Peer through the colored lenses of the last five decades for a simplified view of the power of color. In the 1950s, aqua and pink lent a rosy glow to post-war domesticity, giving way to the psychedelic brights and pop-art primaries of the “age of Aquarius.” In the economically and environmentally troubled ’70s, the palette turned “back to the earth”—brown, orange, and the ubiquitous harvest gold and avocado. By the ’80s, somber segued into “seafoam” green, mauve, peaches and cream, and the dusty “country” colors, particularly in the home; buttoned-down gray and other darks were the colors of choice for cars. In the ’90s, partly as a reaction to the ’80s focus on upward mobility and yuppie culture, society’s quest for deeper values (spiritual, environmental, personal) gave new appeal to green, particularly teal and hunter—even on cars and trucks for the first time in decades. At the same time, purple and other jewel tones enjoyed a resurgence, possibly a reflection of the riches of the decade. But by the end of the ’90s, the economy dipped dramatically; and whatever light coming from Wall Street at the turn of the century dimmed on September 11th.

Did that affect the plans and predictions for upcoming colors? And if so, how? One possible example: color commentators who heralded “millennial blue” as the shade for the start of the 21st century may have had to change their story. Or they may have been exactly right. And if so, it turns out they’re right for a very different reason: Add a little red and white, and there it is, the late-2001 American psyche, wrapped in bunting.

Says who?

Where do color trends come from? Do a few influential people decide it’s their favorite color’s turn, and announce their decree to the fashion press? No. Color-trend predictions come from two major sources: the observations of insiders in the color industry and professional color associations (such as graphic, textile and industrial designers); plus consumer research in the form of surveys and focus groups.

Forecasters zero in on the colors that will resonate with consumers at the time (now, next year, two years from now), and give manufacturers and retailers direction. Forecasters tap many sources: fashion designers’ new collections; the chic celebrities who wear them; hit movies and TV shows. Friends and Sex and the City are current examples, but Miami Vice is possibly the earliest and best example of a show that radically influenced color and style. Other sources: urban streetwear; pro sports; graphics from media like MTV, the Internet, even computer games and contemporary cartoons. Observers and researchers also take social and cultural influences into account as they emerge and gain momentum. Meanwhile, researchers survey consumers by age, gender and other demographic factors to gain statistical information on color preferences, including any major changes and even a few surprises.

One of the prime sources of color-trend information is the Pantone Color Institute (Carlstadt, NJ), a leader in color communication and technology. You may be familiar with the Pantone name as the developer of Pantone Color Systems. Pantone is also the founder of the Eiseman Center for Color Information and Training. Another key source is the Color Marketing Group (CMG) of Alexandria, VA, a not-for-profit association that forecasts color directions for products and services for virtually every industry. Other trend forecasters include firms like Ellen Sideri Partnership, Inc. (New York, NY); and on top of the latest news on trends are insider publications like Women’s Wear Daily (WWD), the bible of the fashion industry, Sportswear International (apparel and accessories for the teen/young-adult market), and the popular fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, all of which closely monitor and report on trends seen in trade and fashion shows. Daniela Gilbert, WWD’s textile fashion editor, says Premiere Vision, the world’s largest fabric fair, also “gives great direction for what the trends will be.” Held twice a year in Paris, this fair is regularly attended by top fashion designers and their cohorts from the upper echelons of cosmetics and home furnishings.

Shades of difference

imageBut it’s not just about fashion. As American Demographics (AD) magazine (Feb. 2002) reports, demographics drive color preferences, which in turn drive trends. Most people would expect men and women to have different preferences. So do seniors vs. teens: one reason age creates disparity in preferences is that older eyes see colors as yellower and brighter than young eyes do; and they see darker colors poorly.

What is new is that some preferences are changing in unexpected ways. One good example, according to AD: gender has less impact on choices, especially among the under-30 set. Leatrice Eiseman, Pantone’s executive director and author of The Pantone Guide to Communicating with Color (Grafix Press, 2000), says that 10 years ago, purple was “a female color” that was hard to sell to men; but graphic and fashion designers discarded that rule, and so “today, a guy will… buy a purple fleece jacket.” She attributes this and other changes to the fact that gender roles are less rigid, and the stigma of wearing the other gender’s colors has faded, thanks in part to sports uniforms in previously unacceptable colors like teal and purple. Seniors won’t long settle for “old” colors, either: many baby boomers were 30 when MTV débuted. When they hit 60 and beyond, they’re not likely to choose “old fogey” colors. Instead, they’ll choose from a contemporary palette, thereby telling the world they’re still, if not hip, at least au courant.All of this information becomes useful to manufacturers and then retailers. A car dealer, for example, can use the data about older consumers when stocking cars for a senior market: The AD/Buzzback (New York City) nationwide poll found that “10 percent of older buyers want the brightness of a white car, compared with 4 percent of 21- to 34-year-olds and 2 percent of teens”; and that “Lexus, which skews toward older buyers, makes sure that 60 percent of its cars are light in color.” The power of color knowledge at work. Similar statistics propelled re-tinted products to appeal to kids, who AD says “are exposed to a very wide palette from birth” (and mentions that Crayola crayons now come in 120 different colors). As a result, the colored-food revolution that began with blue M&Ms extended to products like green ketchup and pink margarine, and sales skyrocketed.

And then there’s the state of the economy as an influence on color trends. It’s a truism that consumers are more daring with color when the economy is strong and more subdued in times of uncertainty. In those times, buyers are apt to be conservative all around; with color, they’re likely to stick with basics for big-ticket and/or other durable items, and buy trendy colors for inexpensive and/or “disposable” items, if at all. If the conventional wisdom holds, the bright colors that were popular during the pre-2000 boom are already giving way to softer, almost nostalgic tones more in keeping with the economy and the current atmosphere.

The need for colors that evoke both nature and nurture can be traced to September 11, according to Jay de Sibour, president of Color Marketing Group. The day’s events forced people to think about what’s important in their lives. And that immediately translated to a renewed interest in and commitment to matters of the heart and soul: family, home, spirituality, community, and a degree of nostalgia for a simpler, perceptibly more naive and less dangerous time. How is that expressed in color? Softly, calmly, deeply.

In living color

imageAll that being said, what are the coming colors? One wag quipped, “All of them.” To some extent, he’s right: while every major color is represented to some degree in nearly every season, two or three colors or combinations will dominate. And when they’re revived from another era, the colors redux are never quite what they were before: if orange-brown-white was a hot combination in the ’70s, a revival three decades later will make them new, maybe persimmon-sienna-vanilla.

As for traditional red-white-and-blue, it’s expected to do well for 2002, but not as stars and stripes. Overt patriotic and flag motifs will be relegated to promotional items rather than the clothing and accessories that were so popular last fall and winter.

But for this coming spring, summer and perhaps beyond, the big story is white, followed by sea-and-sky cools, earthy neutrals, and ethnic-inspired warms. Take a look inside the color box.

White hot

By itself, paired with black, or as a strong background or overtone with other colors, white is the big story for the foreseeable future. Flip through the fashion magazines, and white spills all over the runways. Designers doing white include Chanel, miu miu, Herrera (dresses); de la Renta, MaxMara (suits); Ferragamo, Versace, Rykiel (jackets); plus Calvin’s trench coat, Armani’s pants and everybody’s tops. Vogue editor Anna Wintour, interviewed on NBC’s Today (2/1/02), said the big story for spring is “a lot of white, a lot of softness… the most important color by far is white.”

Also big, says Gilbert, is the white-and-black combination. Visible on the runways were myriad white tops over black skirts and pants, attesting to that. Robert di Mauro, VP of promotion for Ellen Sideri Partners Inc. (New York City) sees it, as well, which he says is the influence of the classic tuxedo. Introduced in the ’30s and revolutionized by Yves St. Laurent into an option for women in 1966, the timeless black-and-white of the tuxedo (or, more properly, “dinner jacket”) that made a major re-appearance last summer will continue strong as color blocks (rather than the toiles and other prints of last year). In the home, for example, solid black and white accent pillows sit on solids or animal- or ethnic-inspired prints. This new take on white-and-black in its varied forms—from crisply tailored to floaty see-through to hippie/peasant ruffles, plus details like lace, crochet and beaded fringe—will translate to accessories and other product categories for home and living.

Still true blue

Blue, “the number-one favorite in America” (according to AD research), will continue to be the most important color of the decade. Di Mauro cites it as the water element: the colors of the sea, what he calls “a Mediterranean, nautical story,” will show up in white plus turquoise and other variations of blue. Gilbert says the “muted palette” Premier Vision showcased for spring featured “lots of pastels, specifically aqua blues and greens.” Similarly, Eiseman says blue and blue-green will be in play for home furnishings, creating a soft, relaxing feeling. These cool tones will team with yellow accents that impart warmth.

Sunny and warmer

Orange in subdued versions will also be a strong presence, according to CMG. This despite that it tests as “the second least favorite color overall” in AD’s research. Pantone’s Eiseman says, “We’re going to see many different variations of yellow and orange,” the latter of which is “morphing, so to speak, into deeper tones such as terra cotta, or apricot and peach tones.” Premier Visions showcased “melony colors,” says Gilbert. “We also saw lots of reds in all different variations and shades—not just a bright red or a washed-out red, but across the board.” Wintour also mentions “a lot of red.”

For fall, Gilbert says colors deepen to jewel tones: blues, purples and reds; plus browns, specifically shades of taupe, burnt orange, rust, cognac and amber.

Back to the earth

The preponderance of greens and earthy neutrals reflects a retreat from our collective fascination with technology in favor of a return to nature. “Colors that represent the environment—earth, water and sky—and the families of those colors will continue to be important,” says de Sibour. Technology will continue to be an important factor in developing new techniques for using color, but space-age jellybean tones and slick, high-tech cold metallics are out.

Jamie Rosenthal, market editor of Sportswear International, concurs. “Colors are going back to the environment, with forest greens, beige, brown and some maroon.” In addition, she says the ultra-trendy teen and young-adult market will also favor softer colors, including neutrals—”huge for spring and fall.” Kelly green in particular will be happening later in the year: “It’s eye-catching, fresh, and a great fall color.” Di Mauro also sees greens moving to the forefront. “There are some yellow-casted greens as well as clean, pale greens that are still there for fashion and the home,” he says.

Culture colors


The post-September 11 nesting/coccooning impulse is strong, although it takes different shapes for different people. Some want to turn their homes into calm oases; others search for a sense of escape and fantasy. Instead of traveling, Eiseman notes, they’re creating the feel of faraway places at home—France or Italy (decorators say Paris and Provence, Amalfi and Tuscany are big), Morocco or India, Rio or Palm Springs—by bringing in elements associated with the locale of choice into their homes. And those elements, of course, begin and end with color.

Also important is the influence of different cultural preferences on trends. According to AD, the trend toward brighter, more complex colors that are created through a mixture of multiple tones plus special effects, like translucence or metallics, “reflects the increasingly multicultural makeup of the country.” Some research indicates that “African-Americans, for example, are more adventurous with color… drawn to strong, saturated color,” often the warm tones, “a preference that seems to be rooted in their African heritage.” Some preferences are essentially environmental: the light of a region dictates its palette. Thus, the intense sun of the Caribbean and South America, for example, creates a preference for brights, which influences the buying choices of consumers from those regions who live or visit here. AD reports that CMG sees the Latin influence expanding throughout the US. As a result, “Latin tones will be a major theme in the 2002 palette,” and the strong influence from the Hispanic market—reds, yellows and oranges—”will be reflected in consumer products.” In addition, de Sibour says, “with globalization we’re seeing more colors from Asia, also in the red and yellow family, as well as from Europe, which has more classical influence.”

Out of the past

It’s not just the sense of faraway places that’s coming home: so is the sense of bygone days. The techno-tide is turning. “It’s going backward, not forward, at this point,” says Rosenthal. The forward thrust of technology gives way to a nostalgic glance toward the past. “Instead of looking forward to the future, it’s about looking back and appreciating what we have” and what brought us to where we are. Even the hip junior market is drawn to Victorian- and Medieval-inspired clothing, with their silhouettes and hemlines, tucks and gathers, details and trims. Accessories, particularly jewelry and handbags, are following suit. And they’re all in the colors of those bygone days: black and darks, jewel tones, mauve, medium pastels, and cream.

Consumers (and not just younger ones) are rediscovering and reclaiming yesteryear in thrift shops, flea markets and their own attics, hunting and retrieving unique, antique or long-forgotten clothing and décor items. Reflecting this increasing interest and the ongoing “shabby chic” trend, many of the colors at Premier Vision featured washed, faded or distressed patinas inspired by the quest for everything vintage, says Gilbert. CMG expects the interest in retro fashion and colors to extend into 2003, with colors not only from the Victorian era but also from the ’20s, ’40s and ’60s.

And what of the techno-revolution? Will high-tech metal tones ever make a comeback? Some say yes, but not until 2003. Right now, silver, the “techno-industrial” color of choice, and other metallics are still strong, perhaps boosted by the latest Mac computer designs. But they’re not as cold as before. Di Mauro notes that gold has been warmed with pink casts, and sees the cooler metal tones evolving into an aluminum-foil type metallic. In jewelry, Eiseman says warm gold combined with cool silver, for example in a snaked or coiled technique, is gaining ground. Looking ahead, CMG also includes a color called “silger,” a gold overlay on silver as one of its consumer color directions for 2003.

Color fast

Obviously, predicting tomorrow’s color scheme isn’t as simple as, well, black and white. “It’s hard to say what the prevalent colors are going to be for upcoming seasons, because designers are all over the place,” says Gilbert. “Years ago, designers dictated that this season’s going to be about pink and next season about white. I don’t know if it’s so dictated anymore. It’s more a matter of designers deciding where their inspiration comes from, and then which colors they’re going to use.”

Whether it’s cause or effect, the fact is that the colors of a season are no longer de rigueur, those dictates having gone the way of the hemline or heel. De Sibour also points out that the buying public no longer strictly follows and in many cases doesn’t even allow for fashion dictates. Today’s consumers believe in having choices, making their own decisions, and putting together their own color combinations.

All that freedom can pose a dilemma for specialty retailers. Without strict color “musts,” retailers may be left straddling the line between cutting-edge trends that appeal to in-the-know shoppers, and enough color variety to attract and capture the individualists whose preferences derive from other factors like age and culture.

Whatever the palette du jour, savvy specialty retailers understand the power of new, exciting colors, and use them. The latest hues in a merchandise display will cut through the countless product “messages” that barrage shoppers and compete for their attention. More than that, using the latest colors positions that retailer as up-to-date (even trendy), in tune with the country’s current mood.

Timing is critical. “Now” colors come in and go out fast; their life-span is shorter than ever because the route to market is faster than ever. In the past, color trends began in haute couture and trickled down to Main Street a season or two later. Today, top fashion goes from runway to regional mall to discount store in a heartbeat, and so do the colors it comes in. And because consumers see it on TV, in print and on the Web almost the minute the latest must-have is born, retailers have much less time to identify the trend and order new merchandise before the hot hues grow cold. What’s a retailer to do?

Show your colors

Start by understanding the power of color to attract and sell, especially in a crowded center. “Remember the importance of color,” Eiseman states in The Pantone Guide. “There is no better place to gauge the effectiveness of color than in the marketplace, where it’s a vital key in communicating a positive, enticing and irresistible image to a product. Often called the ‘silent salesperson,’ color must immediately attract the consumer’s eye, convey the message of what the product is all about, create a brand identity, and most importantly, help make the sale.” Here’s a closer look at these points:

Attract the consumer’s eye. Knowing your market is a must. Are your customers young, old or in between? Ethnic? Urban, suburban, rural? The more you know about the demographics of your market, the better you can attract them and sell to them.

For example, very young children are attracted to brights no matter the season or which colors are “in.” So even though the adults do the buying, savvy retailers who cater to kids use bright “kid colors” in merchandise, signage, displays, even bags and tags. On the other hand, luxury retailers generally avoid brights like red and orange, using deeper, more sophisticated tones (gray, burgundy, navy), or trendier but still upscale colors. So if plum is hot and the retailer normally uses burgundy, she might switch to plum. Of course, there are exceptions—like Tiffany andCo.’s signature aqua, which created its own cachet.

Convey the product message. Color can be a useful tool to communicate a product’s attributes. Most people associate white with purity, red with passion and excitement, black with elegance and sophistication. But meaning or connotation can change in different contexts: what they signify or the message they send depends on how they’re used. (For example, black worn at a funeral has a very different meaning and creates a different mood from black worn at a gala.) Product categories are also contexts. Tap into what most people typically or traditionally associate with colors, and make that work for you. Not sure? Walk the aisles of the supermarket and look at food packaging (e.g., green for decaf and frozen “healthy” dinners; white for dairy; black for “deluxe” brands). Look at seasonal greeting cards and wrappings, too. For example, red for Valentine’s Day translates to red for love, passion, appetite (which is why many restaurants use some shade of red); Easter/spring pastels translate to pink-blue-yellow for babies. You can also research articles about the meaning and effect of color.

Create an identity. The use of color can create a brand ID and position your business. Use tried-and-true colors for a predictable positive effect. Or use color unexpectedly to create a sensation and bring attention to a product.

Apple Computers did exactly that. They rejected the endless grays and beiges, and introduced the iMac as a revolutionary computer—a fact they highlighted by encasing them in bright, jellybean colors. Using color where it had never been used before caught the eye of consumers, positioned the iMac as both fun and functional, and re-established Apple as an innovator. (Soon thereafter, all manner of industrial design followed suit, from vacuum cleaners and irons to staplers and lamps.) No sooner did the world adapt than Apple did a proverbial 180˚ this year: they completely changed the iMac’s design and deleted the candy colors—garnering attention and admiration all over again, and resetting the design stage one more time.

Everyday low-tech products have been springing color surprises, too. The next color frontier, says de Sibour, is food. Purple ketchup and pink margarine “differentiate one’s product line and create brand identity.” And who are these odd, brightly colored products designed to attract? Right. Kids.

Make the sale. Combine colors in eye-catching ways to help make the sale. “A display is never just one color,” she says. “Create a display that shows how two or three items in different colors could be put together.” Once consumers are inspired by a color combination, they’re more inclined to bring the look home, and you’re more likely ring up multiple purchases.

The color of money

Color sells. Still, whatever the colors of the day may be, it’s possible that the “rules” are different for you. If you’ve had great success doing what you already do with color, keep doing it. If not, it’s worth a little research, a little reflection on why your color choices don’t work as well as they might for you. Then make some changes, and track your results. “Each [selling] environment is different,” says de Sibour. Don’t overwhelm it with lighting and signage. Instead, “reflect the interests of the customer, and make the product the hero.” Whatever colors it comes in.

Ela Schwartz

A freelance writer and editor whose articles have appeared in Kitchen Portfolio, do! magazine, Spectrum, Holistic Living, Bride's Guide, Retail Merchandiser, HFN: Home Furnishings News, Consumer Goods Technology, Gourmet Retailer, and Lebhar-Friedman's Retail Intelligence Group.

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