This isn’t the first time that two colors have been chosen.

In what is a double-fisted punch of color, Pantone has named Illuminating and Ultimate Gray the 2021 Colors of the Year.

Sure, this year has been one for the record books, but Pantone is delivering two independent colors that are meant to be a symbol of unity, stability and hope. Community and comradeship have been central to the pandemic despite the months of self-isolation. Pantone Color Institute’s executive director Leatrice Eiseman said, “Even though there are two, it is still a matter of connecting — of one supporting the other.”

While gray may signal dependability, yellow is a quintessential message of hope and optimism, according to Eiseman. “It’s aspirational. We’re not there yet, but we’re aiming for that. We’re trying to get there. When the gray clouds disperse, we see the sunshine,” she said.

Any symbolism in the two choices of Ultimate Gray and Illuminating is deliberate. The sociological implications are always the most important factors in choosing the color of the year, Eiseman said. Clouds overhead often give way to sunshine, and consumers are eager to see the forecast change metaphorically and literally. The balance between the two soft colors is evident not only in fashion, but also in interiors. The rise of that combination first surfaced in interiors midway through last year. Consumers’ willingness to invest in that combination was an early indicator that they might do so for fashion, too, even if that is for accessories. “That was a big clue. We’re always looking for clues and we don’t want to make up our minds too soon. We want to see how things pan out. When the pandemic really started to hit home and everybody was immersed in it, then we knew we absolutely had to go with these two colors,” Eiseman said.

Designers like Kim Jones at Dior Men’s, Sukeina, Olivier Rousteing at Balmain and Thom Browne are Ultimate Gray fans, as is Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who has worn blazers in the hue on occasion. Hints of Illuminating have appeared in collections from Khaite, Etro, Adeam, Emilio Pucci and Jil Sander.

From a fashion standpoint, everybody’s got some degree of gray in their closet. “We’ve always known it to be that stable reliable color, but we’ve softened it a little bit. We’ve lightened it a little bit, and added the yellow,” Eiseman said. “If you’ve been living in gray sweats [during the pandemic. You may think,] ‘Wow! Maybe I need something to brighten it up. Maybe that will cheer me up, lift my spirits.’”

Along with interior designers and colorists, some designers are already familiar with 17-5104 Ultimate Gray and 13-0647 Illuminating. Eiseman said, “The gray gives you the sense of stability. It’s something that you can depend on. Everybody relates to that with gray. Yet it’s not a very dark, dystopian gray like charcoal. We wanted to stay away from that because there’s enough darkness that we’ve been facing.”

Aside from being “a great attention-getter, the yellow helps us to get over what we’re in and express ourselves with a bit more color. Those who don’t want to venture too far into the yellow have the option to accessorize it,” she said.

The thirst for color is greater, due to the self isolating that the shutdown has caused, Eiseman said. Always trying to learn what the future holds for color, and how our sight might be improved, Eiseman noted how colored contact lenses are available to help the colorblind. “I’m always thinking about, ‘What is the future going to bring to us that will enable us to see color in a different way?’ I’m totally fascinated by all the new lighting techniques that are being used. To stay on top of color is really to keep educating yourself.”

The criteria for choosing the color of the year involves sharp observation, much discussion and some osmosis. The Pantone team cites influences from around the globe in choosing the Color of the Year, whether that be in Taiwan, Italy or at the shows in Paris, among other places. “Even though we couldn’t travel any more, we’re all in communication on a daily basis. We were sharing lots of ideas that seemed to take us down the same path. Now, of course, we’re showing colors to each other by Zoom instead of in real time,” Eiseman said.

The color stories in films, especially animated ones including those for children, are resources because the animators are so talented. “Is there a particular usage of it? I saw that Sponge Bob is coming back as an influence. We look at sequels because that helps to prolong a color,” Eiseman said. “We look at little tidbits like that. We look at art collections or big sports events. Of course, there are fewer of those this year. What is the home of the sports event? Is that area of the world going to get a lot of attention? Are they steeped in particular colors? What is their cultural take on color?”

Without question, technology is always a factor in terms of what is on the horizon. Cars of the future and concept cars are other areas of interest for their finishes and interiors, and the prospect that those colors will be adopted into other products. While Eiseman was familiar with the plaster-colored Mercedes Benz concept car that Virgil Abloh collaborated on, she was quick to note Lamborghini’s gray.

With so many still sequestered due to the coronavirus, they are doing at-home renovations and projects to spruce up their surroundings. “People are looking around and saying they’ve had the same color for so long. They want to do something different. Or if it’s gray, they see now is an opportunity to get some accessories and bring some more pillows. They want something that’s going to make them smile.”

As for her team’s Color of the Year research, she said. “It’s always a thoughtful process. It’s not a matter of let’s just throw a dart and see where it lands on the Pantone color map.”

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