THE MOST FREQUENTLY ASKED question in fashion has to be, What's the new black? And sure enough, there's always an answer--one color that keeps popping up on clothes, housewares and paint chips. Ever wonder how they figure it out? Or, for that matter, who they are? It turns out, there is a global network of color analysts and trend forecasters who spend their time determining just what the hot new color will be. They set trends in fashion and also in interior and industrial design.
While black will never exactly be dethroned, a new hue is starting to seep through the design world: aqua. On runways in New York City last month tipping the spring 2005 look, influential designers like Narciso Rodriguez and Michael Kors splashed aqua onto everything from bustiers to fur boleros. Their inspirations, they said, were the surfer scene on Brazil's beaches and the watery blues of the Aegean Sea. They probably also owe something to textile trade shows like Paris' Première Vision, which designers visit to get an early look at the trends in fabric prints and colors. And by the time the fashion flock hit Milan for the shows last week, aqua was everywhere: on woven-suede handbags at Bottega Veneta, on washed-linen Burberry trench coats. Even the floor at the kitschy rockabilly-themed D&G show was painted turquoise.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly who decided that spring is to be a bright-blueish sort of season. But forecasting groups like the Color Association and Pantone Inc. are certainly part of the process. These groups are not so much dictatorial color cartels as networks created to choose a palette that's commercially viable over the next two years, so that firms like Benjamin Moore paint, Ralph Lauren and Ford can be on the same proverbial swatch. The idea is that with a little guidance, a business can avoid getting stuck on the markdown rack with the wrong shade of teal.
Determining the right shade of teal is ultimately not that mysterious a process. "We usually look at fashion first," says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. "But color comes from all sorts of influences. For kids' products we often look at upcoming films. Last year, for example, Finding Nemo and Shrek were very influential." (A boon for turquoise and monster green.) "Color is always out there," says Eiseman. "We just have to determine where it's coming from at any given time."
Sometimes the story behind the hue du jour is about technology. In the 1970s, innovations in polyesters brought dullish tones like avocado and puce into fashion. Other times colors catch on by dint of one person's affection. Nancy Reagan almost single-handedly made red the new black. And any forecaster will tell you that one of the boldest moves in color trending came from the 1998 introduction of the Apple iMac, which brought juicy hues like grape and lime into the mainstream. That may also have been the first recent appearance of aqua.
Don't despair if you've only just plunged into the current pool of oranges and pinks. They will be around for a while. "Pink is a classic example of a color that can resonate in many ways," says Margaret Walch, director of the Color Association. "And orange--well, we thought it was a Howard Johnson's color, but we saw it soften over the course of a few seasons." And if all else fails, try black.