A recent Paris seminar gave the thumbs down to the theory that one colour fits all in the fashion industry. Strong national preferences still permeate the European market and the concept of standardised seasonal colour choices taking over in the international fashion industry is still a long way off, as Sonia Roberts discovered.

Camel tones are "always acceptable to couture level shoppers in Milan" but simply won't sell in Paris. The British love lilac, including lingerie, while the Spanish abhor underwear in olive or yellow. However, both Britain and Spain see scarlet undies as inherently sexy but at the same time a little "vulgar."

Meanwhile the Germans, especially if they live in Bavaria, will see the apparent added value in any winter overcoat that is loden green, and the bourgeois Dutch regard navy a colour that is smart for any season.

That such strong national preferences still permeate the European market seems odd data to emerge from a conference called to discuss "globalisation of colour trends."

But at the seminar sponsored by the organisers of the June 2002 Expofil yarn fair and running in tandem with that event, chairman Olivier Guillemin, president of the Comite Francais de la Coleur and vice president of the international Intercolor organisation, opened the proceedings by flatly denying the possibility of an international consensus on colour.

In answer to Expofil fashion director Sylvie Tastemain's comment that she would "hate to see a McDonalds style standardisation of seasonal colour choices take over in the international fashion industry," M Guillemin replied: "It simply couldn't happen."

"Not in a world where local light conditions will always ensure that consumers in different parts of the world continue to perceive actually identical colours differently," he declared.

"For instance, the reaction of a tribesman reared and still resident in the perpetual semi-darkness of the Amazon rain forest when shown a typical western European dyer's shade card would be very different from that of the consumers for whom it was originally intended

"And the response of an Eskimo with a vocabulary which contains up to 20 terms to classify various intensities of whiteness, but no words to describe bright colours, would be different again," said Guillemin.

"But you don't have to go to the ends of the earth to discover such differences," said panel member Jean-Brice Garella of the JJ Garella textile group. "Even within the confines of the French home market our company recognises that the colours which sell best in a northern city like Calais are very different from those which please the citizens of Provence."

Lifestyles draw closer together
"But all around the world, the tastes of those who share the same lifestyles are drawing closer together," argued Maria-Luisa Poumaillou, founder of the Maria Luisa boutique chain.

"Although cultural traditions remain an important influence on colour choices, their impact is being softened, by the ease of modern communications," agreed Edith Keller of Carlin International. As an example of this trend she cited the different responses evoked by white.

"In the west it has always been seen as a spiritual colour, indicative of purity hence its popularity for wedding gowns. Yet throughout the Far East it is seen as the colour of mourning.

"But following the lead long set by Japan, the Chinese are now eager purchasers of western fashion including western style wedding dresses, sweeping away the old prejudice against white."

"White is, however, a non-colour and the trend today is increasingly for the sophisticated shopper to opt for neutrals rather than obvious colours," Maria Luisa pointed out.

"For instance, my customers are always telling me that they are bored with black and asking me if I can't find them an alternative. Yet when offered a garment in what the forecasters claim will be 'the colour of the season' their most usual response is: 'That's a lovely colour - but do you have a similar style in black.'

"In my sector of the market," she continued, the principle of colour is promotional. It's great for window displays and for enticing customers into the store in a buying mood even if, when it comes to an actual sale, they revert to the 'safety' of a familiar non-colour."

High price; colour caution
"Our experience is also that the higher up the price scale a garment manufacturer moves, the more cautious he needs to be in his colour choices," commented Jean-Brice Garella of the JJ Garella group, speaking on behalf of manufacturers. "And no matter how aggressively a topical fashion colour may be promoted via advertising and press editorials, the average retailer can consider himself lucky if he has moved more than 25 per cent of his stock overall in that colour."

"But even basic non-colour customers in fabric and garment manufacturing demand subtle differences," argued Antonio Vania, style consultant to the celebrated Italian textile house of Zegna Baruffa.

"With a range of never less than 140 colours - 20 to 30 of which are changed each season to keep abreast of current trends - you might assume that any manufacturer would find something to suit his needs in our collection," he said. "And initially, when we show at events like Expofil, that is indeed the case.

"But I know that, virtually as soon as I get back to the mill after a show, I will receive a telephone call from that same, previously satisfied, customer asking if I can add, say, a dash of red or a dash of blue to the recipe for the colour he has already chosen - so providing him with a customised version. And that goes for even something as basic as black.

"More than ever before, in today's fiercely competitive market place every manufacturer wants colours which are not only adaptable to the needs of particular markets but which are also exclusive to his particular company."
Antonio Vania added that he looks forward to the day when further advances in digital printing techniques will make it possible to provide such customised solutions to customer demands even more speedily and cost effectively than is possible at present.

Who buys colour?
So who does buy colour - each member of the panel, including the professional colour forecasters, was asked in turn

"The youthful Japanese," was Keller's answer. "They have no inhibitions about selecting street wear which observers from other parts of the world might consider ugly."

"Large ladies," said Paul Thurler of C&A, present at the seminar as a representative of the volume retailing sector of the fashion trade. "Right across the EU, from Amsterdam to Seville, customers in the 44 plus size ranges love not only cheerful colour but busy prints," he commented.
 
"In our stores it is teenagers plus a few older fashionistas, those who can still squeeze themselves into the equivalent of a UK size eight, who head first for the rails of dark dyed garments," said Paul.

He added, however, that for C&A a balance between colour and cost is also vital. "For this reason you will virtually never see a white or even an off-white wool dress amongst our displays," says Paul. "For white simply isn't a colour kind to cheap fabrics - it tends to show up every flaw in the cloth's construction. 
 
"Similarly, we would never offer a crepe dress dyed grey. However we would carry a frock in the same fabric in red or black because these shades actually make the garment look more expensive than it really is.

"Latin Americans also adore colour," says Maria Luisa Poumaillou. She explained that although she now works in Europe, she was born and brought up in the Americas "south of the border."

Expert analysis

The Global Trend Report -
Winter 2003/2004

A new forecasting service has been launched to help lifestyle brands identify long-term trends across the clothing, accessories, cosmetics, home interiors and automotive industries.

Information in each seasonal report is drawn from sociological research and analysed by a team of experts from leading trend agencies and creative marketing backgrounds.

 

"And when I go 'home' the first thing I notice about the women's clothes is that in reverse of the situation in Europe, in southern and central American nations black is still reserved for funerals and sad occasions. The rest of the time the brighter the colours the better a garment range will sell, and that's especially true of Brazil.

"Brazil is probably the most racially mixed nation the world has yet seen. Therefore, in the volume sector it is essential to offer a wide range of shades."
 
"And in the long term, however aesthetically appealing a colour may seem to stylists and designers, it can only be truly counted a commercial success if consumers like it enough to buy in quantity," was the final verdict from chairman Guillemin.

Which, he added, is the reason why an attempt several years ago by the small group of distributors who corporately control the luxury goods trade, to persuade all their stockists, regardless of region or nationality to carry merchandise in the same very limited colour range, was inevitably doomed to failure.

"It was doomed," Guillemin continued, "because the motivation behind the idea was to make life easier for the manufacturer rather than more interesting for the consumer."