Colors gallop in and out of fashion with a perplexing and, for many consumers, maddening gait. Just about the time you decipher mauve, jade and teal, the colors shift and the game of Cuckold the Consumer hits a new level with celadon, plantain and aubergine. Worse yet, the new colors make the old ones look dated.
As philosopher George Santayana once observed: "For something to be 'fashionable' is unfortunate, for it must ever-afterward be 'old-fashioned.' "
As many consumers suspect, the process that determines what is fashionable is anything but haphazard. Manufacturers of items ranging from sneakers to cars pay strict attention to color trends. What few consumers know is that they rely on a 34-year-old non-profit group to coordinate their effort: The Color Marketing Group.
Every six months, Color Marketing Group members assemble privately -- no press allowed -- and tell each other what's happening with color in their respective industries. The members, 1,500 color designers, then agree on color palettes that represent their best guess about where color is headed, forecasting one to three years ahead. Their conclusions are valuable: industry buys the group's color palettes for $7,000 a pop.
In general, the more disposable the product, the faster the turnaround on color. Clothing colors change fast, paper goods even faster.
"This is not an elite group of color czars that decrees what colors will be in fashion next year," says Leatrice Eiseman, spokeswoman for the group. She is a constant at fashion showings, tracking the color story as it emerges on the runways for Pantone, Inc. one of the sponsors New York designer collections. "We come to our meetings as color professionals armed with consumer surveys and ready to talk about what we see ahead." Nevertheless, the group's influence is profound.
The choices seem infinite. The human eye is capable of differentiating between more than 2 million different colors, says New York color scientist Al DeBernardo. Women have the edge: Only 0.5 percent have any degree of color blindness compared with 8 percent of men.
What's driving color direction today? In a word, yellow.
If you imagine basic colors and mix in some yellow, you'll begin to understand the colors dominating fashion and home design. Colors "refaced" with yellow results in orangy reds, yellowish greens and greenish blues. It means oranges that lean more toward apricot than peach. It means purple, a complementary color to yellow, has grown legs and is doing the can-can everywhere.
"The '80s brought us colors you could name easily," said Margaret Walch, a New York color forecaster. "The '90s are bringing us complex colors that are difficult to name. Is it a blue or a purple? A blue or a green? Colors like periwinkle or cornflower, grouped in ways without high contrast."
Depending on your tolerance for change -- or the colors already in your home and wardrobe -- it's either exciting or annoying.
Industry's keen interest in color coordination should be obvious: A candle maker needs to be sure her tapers are compatible with tablecloths, napkins and china, in order to sell. So, it makes sense a candle maker would monitor colors used in home furnishings.
But some color affinities between industries are not obvious. Automakers believe that cars sell best if they're painted colors that are popular in clothing. Once men accepted purple and magenta in beachwear and skiwear, for example, automakers began painting trucks purple.
"Purple vehicles are still less than 5 percent of the market," says Robert S. Daily, color marketing manager for Dupont Automotive Finishes in Troy, Mich. "But we think the color is going to stick around. Purple has crossed the gender barrier."
Overall, the growing influence of yellow has pushed color design away from blues and into greens -- though some designers believe green peaked this year and will gradually begin losing market share to blues.
Many designers think green's popularity had something to do with environmentalism, but that's just a guess. All they really know is that green, after a 15-year aversion precipitated by "avocado" excess, is respectable once again.
Green serves as a great example of how a color can get rehabilitated. As "avocado," it was Public Enemy No. 1. But it was reformed through "hunter green" in the mid-1980s, went brighter into "emerald" when decorators were stressing "jewel" colors. Now it's being touted in yellow-toned shades of "sage" and "kiwi." In fact, it feels secure enough to burst out, occasionally, as lime green.
"What you'll see is a color like green re-emerge, after an absence of a few years, but it'll be used in different color combinations," says Renee Hytry of Formica Corp. in Cincinnati, Ohio. "Today's greens are appearing with purples like 'eggplant,' not just the 'harvest gold' and coppertones of the 1960s."
Many flowers rise in popularity because they come in "fashionable" colors.
Varieties currently in vogue: Bells of Ireland, an annual with a white bloom surrounded by an unusual pale green calyx; foxglove; chartreuse Anthurium; dark fuchsia Asters; pansies; peonies; morning glory; Delphinium; Star of Bethlehem; magnolia and green-centered daisies.
Of course, not every product is colored to fit with some fashion trend.
Toy makers believe that girls gravitate toward pink and purple products until they become teen-agers.
"That means we won't take spectrum risk," says Stephen Toth, color designer for Hasbro Toy Group. "We stick with pink, lavender, white, peach and turquoise. That way, if a toy bombs, we can't blame the color."
To contact the Color Marketing Group, write to 5904 Richmond Highway, Alexandria, Va. 22303, or call (703) 329-8500.
Pub Date: 8/29/96