Palette Predictions

Why are designers turning to blue, orange and brown? A color forecaster had something to do with it.


It's one thing for the fashion industry to declare that pink is the new black.

It's quite another for Sears, Roebuck & Co. to unveil its Kenmore washer / dryer in three colors: Pacific Blue, Sedona (somewhere on the color chart between spice rum and pumpkin) and Champagne. Once bold color is being used for major appliances as opposed to strappy sandals, you know it's going to be around awhile.

By any standard, this was a nervy introduction for Sears, after years of telling consumers they could have any color in the laundry room as long as it was white or bisque. Various factors played into the decision, not the least of which was the input of two color forecasting organizations, Pantone Inc. and the Color Marketing Group.

"Color sells, and the right color sells better" is the mantra of Charles Smith, president of CMG, the only major not-for-profit forecasting service. CMG is holding its twice-yearly meeting in Baltimore this month to decide on the It colors for 2007. Members -- designers and other color professionals -- will gather to debate trends and leave with consensus forecasts.

These are the folks, and people like them, who are a big part of the reason you won't be able to find that grayed lavender blouse you're looking for until 2010 or thereabouts, when pure color is no longer fashion forward and pastels are dominant again.

Michelle Lamb, editor of Trend Curve Colors and several other forecasts for the home, offers a pretty good job description.

"We are the color dreamers," she says.

To hear her tell it, there is a certain amount of inevitability about color predicting. She remembers a retailer insisting that orange would never sell. "I said, 'Get ready.'"

The forecasters were right on the money. Orange (aka Sedona, pumpkin, mango, coral, persimmon, and terra cotta) has been important in fashion and home design for several seasons. It's peaking now, in case you were wondering.

Color popularity happens in evolutionary, not revolutionary, steps, with "bridge" years in between. For 2002, for instance, Lamb's home palette contained a shade called Red Lips -- such a yellowish red it was hard to differentiate from orange.

But color predicting isn't a matter of Orange: Love It or Leave It, even though it sometimes seems that way.

"Forecasters don't necessarily foist colors on us," says Margaret Miele, the senior psychologist on staff at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and its only color psychologist. "Do they have some kind of crystal ball? No. They use pretty standard research practices, [looking at] the important events of the moment in relation to things past. They are cognizant of what's in the mind of the consumer before the consumer is conscious of it."

Two hues that are big for the coming fall, for instance, are blue and brown, a fact that trend watchers predicted several seasons ago. While blue comes in all sorts of shades, and the re-emergence of brown has been attributed to the explosive popularity of gourmet coffee drinks as much as anything else, we are also in the third year of the Iraq war.

"Historically, when we're at war, masculine colors have been popular," Miele says, "so it didn't take a genius to forecast their appearance. The Oscars are always a good barometer. Think of Hilary Swank's dress in military blue."

Other influences? Where people are choosing to vacation is a source of feel-good color for futurists. Hawaii is a top destination, and with the dollar's poor showing against the euro, South American getaways are on the rise. So it's no surprise that tropical and Latino shades are important and will continue to be.

But you won't find a few colors dominating forecasts anymore, unlike the 1970s and early '80s. Color professionals now present more than one palette for any given season. There are groups and sub-groups of color: for fashion, the home, children's and teenagers' products, and so on. From a palette of, say, 30 or 40 colors, manufacturers might choose five or six that they think are right for their customers. They are banking on the fact that color affects how we feel, and that how we feel motivates us to buy.

Predicting since 1915

America's oldest color predicting service is the Color Association of the United States. Before 1915, when hats were very important in women's fashion, milliners were responsible for color forecasts in the U.S. With World War I, they were cut off from their sources of information, which included Paris fashion houses and the dye makers of Germany. Wool and silk manufacturers, who were dependent on their predictions, decided to form their own committee to standardize and report on textile, thread and button colors. The Textile Color Card Association of the United States was formed in 1915, the predecessor of the current association.

"The process remains the same," says Margaret Walch, director of the association. "There's a cyclical development of color."

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