Thu February 10, 2011

The Business Of Color: Company Sets Fashion Trends

The big names in fashion are all associated with a strong point of view and a distinctive style: think Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Donna Karan.

These and other designers are poised to showcase their latest trendsetting styles on the runway starting Thursday at New York Fashion Week.

But who comes up with the color trends that are evident on the catwalk?

People in the fashion business say trends are rarely decided by individuals. Instead, they are decided by committee.

One of the most influential committees is a group of 10 people whose names are a secret. They meet in Europe twice a year — May and November — at the invitation of Pantone, a company based in Carlstadt, N.J., whose only business is color.

It turns out Pantone has a hand in the color of roughly half of all garments sold in the U.S., according to NPD, a market research group.

Meeting In A White Room

Publisher and designer David Shah, who runs the meeting, said he seeks opinions from a broad swath of industries.

"I have people who work in the car business, who work with big store groups," Shah said. "I can't tell you the names. They're involved with everything from furniture through to clothing and knitwear."

The group meets in a room with white walls so everyone can clearly see the objects their colleagues have brought as inspiration.

"One of our committee [members] came last winter and he came with a basket full of onions, and chopped up all the onions to show how the beauty of the color of an onion is," Shah said.

Nearly 2,000 Shades

Pantone has plenty of competitors in the color-forecasting field. But in its core business — color standards — the company has no rivals. There are 1,925 color shades in the Pantone Matching System, each with a unique identifying number.

In the dyeing room at Pantone's New Jersey headquarters, 12 stainless steel machines hum and belch steam. One of them rinses a canary-yellow piece of cloth. In the next few hours, it's dried, cut and sent to clients around the world.

Laurie Pressman, Pantone's vice president for fashion, home and interiors, says the reason for color standards is to provide a vocabulary — through swatches, color books and computer files — to enable developed-world companies to talk to their overseas suppliers.

"What you have now is so much production shifted to Asia," she says. "It's very key to have a standard way to communicate from the design side all the way down through the supply chain."

International Appeal

Pantone's system is also used in Latin America.

ASA Textile Sourcing, a company based in Lima, Peru, connects international labels with suppliers in Peru. Since adopting the Pantone system about a decade ago, CEO Nacha Rejas says productivity and accuracy have improved.

"When a customer phones us up and tells us, 'These are the colors we are going to use for a specific style, and the codes of the Pantone are blah blah, blah,' I can work very [quickly] and save a lot of time," she says.

Rejas says she's now able to compete with Chinese exporters, turning around some orders in as few as 30 days. Her clients, in turn, can respond to trends in fashion even faster.

Becoming Part Of The Trend

But here's a question that cuts to the heart of what fashion is: Why would any designer want to run with the pack?

John Crocco, the creative director for Perry Ellis, calls color forecasts "a self-fulfilling prophecy." He says if designers choose to follow such forecasts, then they'll be "part of what ultimately becomes the trend."

But if designers disregard the trend, they risk irrelevance — just about the worst thing imaginable for any label. Copyright 2011 WNYC Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnyc.com/.