NEW YORK - Forget Calvin Klein. Forget Vogue magazine. They may be the obvious big players in the fashion world, but a hidden center of the industry's power actually perches on the 11th floor of a grubby brownstone building in Manhattan.
The seasonal regulations of hip often emanate from a cramped office that houses Bureau de Style - a company of fashion oracles, who are otherwise known as trend forecasters.
This company's four forecasters predict and dictate two years in advance what colors and fabrics will dominate the U.S. fashion industry in any season. Their hundreds of clients - retail companies, manufacturers and designers - hire the forecasters to help them develop seasonal collections and choose the colors and fabrics on which they could end up spending millions of dollars.
Bureau de Style, which started about four years ago, is one of about 25 to 30 trend-forecasting companies in the United States, according to Elena Hart, marketing director for the New York City-based Fashion Association, an organization of about 300 retailers, manufacturers, designers and fabric companies. Of the forecasting companies, only about six focus on color, she said.
Hart said trend-forecasting companies gradually have become essential to the fashion industry because of how consumers have changed in recent years.
"For many years, designers dictated to the consumer what the trends would be," Hart said. "Nowadays, the consumer is more tapped into fitting fashion into their lifestyle. People no longer buy whatever the designers dictate. Because of the recession, we all wised up.
"The age of consumption just for consumption's sake is over," Hart said, explaining that people now are more careful about what they purchase instead of blindly buying the clothes that fashion industry moguls deem to be hip.
On a cold, murky day in the city, where the buildings looked gray and tired, Bureau de Style's four forecasters sat around a large, black table and tried to explain how they develop color palettes for clients.
The four used words like "stone," "earth," "vitamins" and "vegetation." They discussed politics, cloning, the urban cages that cities have become, and how, when you stare at a computer all day at work, you want to race home and run soil through your fingers.
That, they say, is why people will want to move back to soft, earthy hues soon. They will want to swath themselves in the soothing, light-soaked greens, beiges and browns that they hardly see in their lives anymore; the textured fabrics with the bumps and, at times, coarse lines that just plain evoke Earth.
This is one of their theories of the evolution of color preferences.
"We don't have any powers or psychic abilities over anybody else," said Haysun Hahn, Bureau de Style's director. "We do it so much that I don't think we know how we do it. It becomes intuitive."
Hahn said the four have worked in fashion for years, mostly on the design or product-development ends of retail companies.
To pick each season's colors for their clients, the four say, they start with a range of hues chosen by Groupe Carlin, a Paris-based fashion color company with which they work.
After discussions with clients, they pore over a wide range of magazines from Scientific Weekly to Newsweek to Vogue, and draw from their backgrounds, interests and friends for inspiration and ideas. They also attend fabric fairs around the world to pick up ideas for new fabrics.
Hahn, the Seoul-born, Uganda- and New York City-raised philosopher-ponderer of the group, thinks a lot about the world and where it's going: Where is cloning leading us? Will our life spans increase? If we live to 140, at what age will we go to college?
The others in the bureau:
* DiDi Block, 27, a talkative, quirky one who wanted to escape her monotoned hometown of Farmingdale, N.J., since she was 4, draws from artist friends who dress, act and are cutting edge.
* Alison Syvek, 27, who is funny, specializes in children's apparel but lists jazz and music as sources of inspiration.
* Then there's 32-year-old Stephanie Wills, who enjoys watching dance and thinks about New Yorkers carving tiny gardens in whatever space they can find in the concrete casings in which they live.
Before they plan which colors to push each season, they get together to throw around ideas and discuss trends to see how they fit in the cycle of fashion color palettes. For example, if black and other dark colors were the rage last season, introducing bright reds and blues this season is going to be a little extreme. The colors have to evolve gradually, they say. Maybe introduce one bright red this season, then throw in some more bright colors the next.
Then they temper these conclusions with society's climate. For example, when an independent, liberal political climate rules, people tend to favor basic, primary colors, they say. When it's more conservative, people will seek out a wide range of different colors to enhance their lives.
"We cannot be wrong," Block said. "Can you imagine if we were? It'd be like: 'Hi, we're sorry about last season. You're probably all losing millions by now, but let's all go on to the next season, shall we?' "
And so they develop different levels of hues for their clients, ranging from a generic palette of colors that is less daring for manufacturers to use in large batches of clothing to a group of unusual shades, which probably would better suit high-end designers who might be more willing to take a risk.
Despite their image of fashion- industry gurus, they insist they're horrendous shopping partners.
"I think we're the worst people to go shopping with," Hahn said. "We will be like, 'No, I think that color's not white enough,' but it probably is white enough. And we could push you into a zone where you shouldn't and don't need to go for now, when we're probably thinking [of what's going to be hip] two years from now."
But oddly, as much as the four are waxing about colors, they were all clad in black.
"You can't be talking about color if you wear color," Hahn said. "That's the rule. It's very distracting. If I ask you to look at the geranium pink, you can't be wondering about the bubblegum pink I'm wearing."
But maybe it means something else - that while forecasting colors for the rest of the world, they wear the color that is the darkest, the starkest. They wear the color that perennially exists on the pedestal of hipdom despite all the hues and shades that come and go in the fashion world.
They are above color.
So at the end of the day, if we want to be hip, perhaps it's safe to just stick to black.
Pub Date: 5/10/98