How I Snuck Into a Pantone Color Forecasting Meeting—and What I Learned

The way things look.
April 27 2012 6:33 AM

Sneaking Into Pantone HQ

How color forecasters really decide which hue will be the new black.

(Continued from Page 1)

Armed with props that range from eggs to paper dolls to the latest images from the anonymous street “photograffeur” JR, participants pitch color concepts interwoven with theoretical narratives. The talk ranges from the specific (“people are always looking for replacement blue”) to the occasionally vaporous. “Not just a safety in numbers protection tactic,” says a British colorist, a textile specialist, from a prepared text, “it’s more about the buzz created from the joy of a shared activity.” The chromatic range accompanying this thought stream sounds similarly seductive: “Quiet tints of opalescent violet, aqua, and honey are jostled with shrill lemony chartreuse, cerise, and vibrant hot orange.” The Italian colorist, clad in light blue (“we Italians love blue”), with a professorial sweep of white hair, opens his presentation with a preamble on the difficulties of “unity” in the context of Italian politics. “Darling, if we wanted an Italian history lesson,” Shah says tartly, “we’d go to night classes.”

There’s also a dash of cross-national fractiousness—imagine the European Union meeting to decide on a single color for the continent—with each “country” playing more or less to type. “You get 30 French women together and they’ll kill each other over blue—my blue is better—and the consumer won’t see the difference at all,” Shah tells me. There are subtle national distinctions. “We’ll come back to the Catholics in a moment,” Shah jokes after the Spanish representative, with large glasses and an Almodovarian verve, wraps up her presentation. “We need a bit of a Protestant breather.” At times, seemingly contradictory color messages fly about. “I think in respect to the past we are more about color,” says the Italian. “But you were just talking about black and Mother Earth?” Shah asks, exasperated. But gradually, like wind stirring on a snowy meadow, drifts in color become apparent. Neutrals will be more like colors. Brown, which has been approached for several seasons, will come into its own. There may be a hint of yellow, but a clearer, fresher yellow. Blues will be more material, less floaty. Summer 2013 begins to shimmer hazily into view.

Pantone's shades of blue.
Blue Aster, Sodalite Blue and Vintage Indigo, some of Pantone's shades of blue

Courtesy Pantone.

Color forecasting is almost as old as the fashion industry itself. In the late 19th century, color cards issued by French textile mills were snapped up by their American counterparts, eager for ideas and direction. As Regina Lee Blaszczyk, a historian and author of the forthcoming book The Color Revolution, notes, Margaret Hayden Rorke, an American actress, suffragist, and the country’s first color forecaster (heading the Textile Color Card Association for four decades), traveled to the Paris shows each summer to soak up the latest tints, like the brownish-green Vert Amande— ven employing an American foreign correspondent, Bettina Bedwell, to act as a “spy.” (Intel from Bedwell, in 1936: “Many Frenchwomen are getting away from black.”)

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This idea—that color trends begin on Paris runways, still holds a certain sway, at least in the popular imagination; witness the “cerulean blue” monologue in The Devil Wears Prada, in which Meryl Streep as an imperious fashion editor describes how a color that begins life in gowns by Oscar de la Renta in 2002 is then copied by other designers and is ultimately “filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner.” But Paris may not be the ultimate source; as Blascyzk points out, cerulean blue was tapped by Pantone in 1999 as the “Color of the Millennium.” Coincidence?

Pantone's Tangerine Tango.
Pantone's Tangerine Tango

Courtesy Pantone.

Some dedicated Pantone View clients think not. “I’m looking at the colors now that were put out [by Pantone] two years ago for summer 2011,” says Mikel Cirkus, who heads the Conceptual Design Group at Firmenich, the flavor and fragrance company. “And you can look at what’s out in the marketplace—for instance, this red-orange, or flame orange, is everywhere now. It’s not a coincidence. It’s not even forecasting in my mind, it’s a dictating thing.” Orange’s ascent is undeniable—as the Wall Street Journal noted, orange was “out in full force” on the faces on models in the Spring 2011 shows, “mirroring the fashion color trend of the season.” Indeed, it was worn by two colorists at the Pantone meeting itself. It’s not just clothes, says Cirkus; there’s the Sony Vaio, the new Camaro, the Hugo Boss “Orange” line. “You’re connecting dots here that are traceable.”

Was it Pantone? There’s no doubt that in terms of sales of its color swatches—one of the rare quantifiable ways to track color trends—orange has been climbing. And not just the familiar oranges like Pantone 18-1354 Burnt Ochre. More vivid tones like Pantone 16-1459 Mandarin Orange, Pantone 16-1359 Orange Peel and Pantone 15-1157 Flame Orange, are now, as the company told me, “positioning far higher than ever before.” Which leads one to wonder: Is Pantone trying to anticipate—or drive—color trends? Its position as a vendor of color swatches and standards makes its entrée into forecasting entirely natural, yet not without questions of motive. “We are in the business of actually forecasting color,” says Leslie Harrington, director of the Color Association, a nearly century-old organization based in New York (early American colorist Rorke worked at its predecessor). “Pantone is in the business of selling fabric and paper samples—all their reports are done in order to sell more paper and color samples.”  Who’s more accurate? It’s hard to say. There are no analytics measuring success of color forecasting—how would one even accurately measure such a thing? To play it safe most companies rely on a range of color forecasts. Eiseman says Pantone’s effort, and perhaps color forecasting in general, suffers from two misconceptions. The first is that there is some kind of “evil cabal” that “schemes to get the colors out there.” The second is “let’s just throw a dart and wherever it lands is what’s going to be the hot color for next year.”

Cabal or dartboard aside, the ascent of orange is probably too complex to attribute to any one actor. Tom Mirabile, senior vice president at Lifetime Brands (who handles licenses for Cuisinart and KitchenAid, among other increasingly colorful brands), notes that “at the high end, people have been trying to make orange happen for 20 years. Every time it comes in, it goes right back out. It doesn’t look good against most people’s skin.” So why orange now? Some of it may be for sheer effort. As Eiseman describes it, a color begins to appear in the consumer’s “peripheral vision.” “Oh, there’s yellow-green there and yellow-green there, hmmm, it’s not such a bad color. It doesn’t look bad in a shirt.” Or, as Mirabile puts it, “you see it enough and you start thinking it something you want to see.”

There are any number of stories, virtually mythical at this point, about how color migrates. All that can be safely said is this: The more disposable the item, the more experimentation there will generally be with color. “If you get tired of a red jacket,” says Harrington, “you can throw it in a closet. If you a buy a red sofa, it’s a 365, 24/7 commitment to red.”

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