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Made In The Shade

Derek Lam's fall collection, the latest exhibition at Cooper Hewitt and a new how-to book illustrate the emotions that colors evoke.

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NEW YORK — In 1935, Pablo Picasso said, “Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.” And his remark is still apt, as Derek Lam’s fall 2006 collection, the latest exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt and a new how-to book illustrate.

Lam Shows His Colors
Derek Lam may be known for his use of a mostly neutral palette, but for fall 2006, the designer is feeling colorful. “I really want to create a collection with a lot of energy,” Lam says, as he sits in his Meatpacking District studio next to a large inspiration board. “I’m tired of ladylike, soft and elegant clothes. I’m ready to go forward and create something with colors that are not really used in fashion — unpopular colors. It’s really important to me that this collection absolutely exudes energy, specifically the energy of New York.”

And speaking of New York, one of his latest inspirations is the late nights he spent at clubs during the late Eighties and early Nineties, while he attended Parsons. “Some people would come from black-tie events and mix into a crowd where others wore almost costumey looks, many of which featured garish tones,” he recalls, adding that the bold mixes of colors were especially bright under the glaring strobe lights. “But it was all very glamorous.”

Lam’s interest in color has also been fueled by two books. One is “Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail,” by Lucy Johnston, in which one chapter looks at how bright colors — especially cobalt blues and bright purples — once created controversy in England. “Not everyone approved of these striking shades, and the French historian Hippolyte Taine found women’s dress ‘loud and overcharged with ornament’ when he visited England in the 1860s,” Johnston wrote. “He thought the colors were ‘outrageously crude … each swearing at the others’ and cited ‘violet dresses, of a really ferocious violet,’ ‘purple or poppy-red silks, grass-green dresses’ and ‘azure blue scarves’ as particularly offensive to the eye.”

Lam laughs when reading this excerpt, saying he finds it particularly amusing. “I love the idea that color was viewed as something that was vulgar and shocking,” he says. Another influence has been “Graffiti Brasil,” an unabashedly hip and au courant book that examines graffiti art throughout the South American country.

This story first appeared in the November 15, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Lam’s fall 2006 boards are proof that he indeed has color on the brain. Tones from rose and deep purple to teal, kelly green, yellow and coral abound, most of which he will anchor with neutrals such as brown and black. “I think color with black looks fresh again,” he says. “I don’t want to just make something colorful that you can wear with jeans. I want people to experiment and play with the idea of using color throughout their wardrobes.”

Lam has three color stories planned for the season. The first is a mauve-rose tone mixed with dusty brown, topped off with shots of magenta. Lam says he will mix these colors in one outfit, and is considering using color blocking on the look. “Mondrian’s ‘Boogie Woogie’ series is a huge influence here,” he says. “Unlike his earlier work, this blocking was more chaotic, which I like.” Lam’s second palette features dirty grays mixed with green, turquoise and black. “This one is much more dramatic,” he explains. “I’m purposely staying away from navy, because I don’t want it to look too preppy.” The third grouping is anchored by electric yellow, mixed with fleshy nudes and coral pinks. “It’s fun to take colors people think not everyone can wear and make them wearable,” he says. “Color is fun, but it can be extremely sophisticated as well. It has made me think in a different way, and I hope it will do the same for women.”

Rainbow Connection
Red is red, right? Wrong. As “Fashion in Colors,” the new exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, shows, the colors of Western fashion have changed dramatically over the course of the past 300 years. The exhibit, which runs from Dec. 9 to March 26, features more than 60 historic and contemporary fashions from the Kyoto Costume Institute’s collection, dating from the 18th century to the present, all arranged by colors — black, blue, red, yellow, white and even multicolor.

“We hope this method of presentation makes the color disappear and forces the viewer to see the detail in each piece,” says Barbara Bloemink, curatorial director of the Cooper-Hewitt, who organized the exhibit with Akiko Fukai, chief curator of the Kyoto Costume Institute in Kyoto, Japan. First shown at the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, the exhibit is making its Western debut at the Cooper-Hewitt here in New York.

“You really see how embroidery from the 18th century differs from that of the early 20th century,” notes Bloemink, adding that, just as the color of a room dictates mood, designers also pick color to dictate a feeling in their work. Highlights of the exhibit include pieces from Chanel, Dior, Schiaparelli, Pucci, Balenciaga, Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons and Viktor & Rolf, along with historical costumes, including late-18th-century gowns and late-19th-century bustle-style dresses.

Bloemink says she hopes the exhibit will help viewers better understand how different cultures perceive color. Black, for instance, represents mourning in the Western world, while in Asia, white is the color of mourning. “Across culture and time, color has had different meaning,” Bloemink says. “This exhibit really celebrates the individuality of each design and allows you to compare similarities in structure and detail.”

Fashion’s Little Secret
As many a designer can attest, a perfect color match on fabric is hard to find. But that’s not the case for SCOTDIC, a textile color-matching company that, since it was introduced in 1982, has offered all of its colors on fabric — 2,300 shades in cotton, 2,468 in polyester and 1,100 in wool. “Something that has always been key for us and differentiated us is the range we offer and that it’s all on fabric,” says Mark McGovern, vice president of marketing and sales of the company’s New York office.

An acronym for Standard Color of Textile Dictionnaire International de la Couleur, SCOTDIC is owned by Osaka, Japan-based Kensaikan International, which was founded in 1917 as a dyeing company that specialized in kimonos. SCOTDIC’s methods are based on the Munsell Color System of hue, value and chroma, developed in the beginning of the century by painter and professor Albert H. Munsell.

Kathy Deane, president of Tobe, the trend forecasting company that produces the Tobe Report, is one of SCOTDIC’s biggest fans. “Nine times out of 10, their color echoes the color that we are looking for,” she says.

Robert Geller, designer of Harald, a new line for spring 2006, first used the system when he worked as a designer at Marc Jacobs in 2001. “Visually, the books were always so overwhelming to me, in a good way,” he says. “It’s often difficult to find a specific color when you have one in mind, but SCOTDIC’s strength really lies in the variation of color they give you.” Geller notes that it’s the small degrees of difference in one color that can often make all the difference for a designer.

For Jaz Conlon, vice president of design and merchandising for Kenneth Cole women’s signature sportswear at PDI, the licensing company that produces the line, SCOTDIC has been a mainstay in her design process for 10 years. Introduced to the system right before she began working in merchandising and product development at Calvin Klein Jeans, Conlon says it’s the sophisticated approach to color that she appreciates. “The range is definitely superior,” she says. “The colors are more subdued and realistic.”

Conlon and other designers also praise the versatility of the system’s six products: a set, with a swatch and reference book; a swatch box; a reference book; a plus book, which is the most popular, and represents colors in 0.5-by-1.5-inch replaceable adhesive backed swatches; a color fan, and the firm’s newest addition, the Quick View guide, which is a travel version that includes all SCOTDIC’s colors.

Edoardo Mantelli, creative director of Tocca, just began using the system this year. “Maintaining a color standard was a huge frustration for me,” he says. “This system is fantastic because with so many colors, it’s easy to get as close as possible to what you need.”

And for Roseann Forde, who spent 20 years as DuPont’s fashion director and is now president of Fordecasting, a global color direction company, SCOTDIC’s range of fabrics is what draws her to the system. “When I’m doing a metallic, for instance, it’s much easier to see its final effect on the right ground,” she says.

Prices for the system range from $500 for the Quick View to $5,400 for the set. “It’s definitely an investment,” says Michael McGovern, brother of Mark and president of the U.S. office. “But you only have to buy it once.” (The colors never change, although new ones are often added.) Harald’s Geller sees it as an invaluable tool. “The system is based on the idea of creating interesting color stories,” he says. “The way you can move the pieces around, they even give you a blank board with slots so you can create a palette, is something that is an important part of the design process. It really gives you room to play, to create.”

True Hues
When Leatrice Eiseman penned her now- famous how-to book, “Alive With Color,” in 1983, women had their colors “done” just for the fun of it. Today, however, Eiseman, the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, says there has been a “reawakened interest in color.” So much so, that she’s written a second book, “More Alive With Color,” which will be published by Capital Books in February. “People’s attitudes about color have really changed,” she says. “With so much information available on TV, in magazines and on the Internet, it really makes people more curious. Before, it was believed that certain people couldn’t wear certain colors, but now anything goes — there’s always a way to make a color work for you.”

Both books are based on Eiseman’s three Colortime concepts: Sunrise, Sunlight and Sunset. Each is represented by a different palette, and derived by eye, hair and skin tones. The system, she adds, was influenced by Claude Monet. “He painted throughout the day because as the light changed, so did the color,” she says.

Eiseman updated the trio of palettes for her second book with what she describes as more current shades and tones. Sunrise, for instance, is all about the cool, dewy morning, reflected in a palette of misty pastels such as Lilac Snow, a whited-out lavender. Physical features include clear blue, dark brown or light hazel eyes and blonde, ash brown or blue-black hair. Sunlight colors, meanwhile, are more subtle. “Here, the sun is at its strongest so it diminishes color, softening it,” says Eiseman, noting that people in the Sunlight category usually have hazel or brown eyes and ivory or rosy-peach skin tones. A typical sunlight shade is a soft beige called Almost Apricot, or Woodrose, a light mauve. Eiseman considers Sunset the opposite of Sunrise, with warmer colors that appear to reflect sunlight. Grenadine, a hot red, is a key Sunset shade, and looks best on those with golden blonde, coppery or honey-brown hair and skin tones that are warm beige, brown, peach or olive with golden undertones.

“It’s exciting to see people’s reaction to color today,” says Eiseman. “They are a lot more willing to experiment, and that’s why I wanted to reintroduce the concept.”

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