In Act I of Chekhov’s The Seagull, the besotted schoolteacher Medvedenko says to Masha, the object of his unrequited affection: “Why do you always wear black?” Masha – who in turn has feelings for Konstantin, a playwright in love with yet another person – replies: “I am in mourning for my life. I am unhappy.” Throughout the four-act drama, Masha moons about in her melancholic armour, her one-note style of dress telling us all we need to know about her: Masha has it bad for the unavailable Konstantin – and she is serious about love, dammit.
Colour choices can, of course, speak volumes about a person. And when someone single-mindedly embraces a hue to the extent that it becomes a signature, he or she is definitely trying to tell the world something. The legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, for instance, adored Chinese red, which she called “the great clarifier – bright and revealing.” Singer Johnny Cash, meanwhile, embraced black not because he was lovesick like Chekhov’s Masha, but because he wanted to express his solidarity with the poor and the downtrodden. It is somewhat ironic that black is today the preferred colour of the not-very-downtrodden: architects, designers and hipsters generally.
Perhaps this new association is why Mia Nielsen, the art curator at the Drake Hotel in Toronto, feels it’s much more interesting to see someone shrouded in, say, white. “That,” she enthuses, “is high, high drama. One hundred people can walk down the street in black and you wouldn’t notice, but, if you see someone in white, you stop and stare.”
A well-known case in point is the Canadian conceptual artist Terence Koh, whose tendency to wear all-white outfits, which happen to match his art, has become a cause célèbre of sorts. If catty art-world bloggers have branded him an unashamed attention seeker, however, you have to give him this: He is committed. Koh’s entire wardrobe is white. His workplace is white. So is his cat.
Apparently, the artist’s fetish is genetic. When Nielsen met Koh and his clan during last year’s Luminato festival, she noted a familial affinity for the hue. “His whole family was wearing white,” she says. “His parents were in white – down to their shoes – and this was over several days. It was fascinating. I think he looks at his entire life as a creative gesture.”
Famous for his curvy, Crayola-bright creations, the industrial designer Karim Rashid also gravitates to white, although he is fond of pink, too. This lack of tonal rigidity is telling: Unlike Koh, who once aspired to be a monk and takes regular vows of silence, Rashid seems more bemused by than beholden to his colour preferences.
“Back in university, I would wear a lot of white as a modernist statement,” he says over the phone from New York. “I always loved seeing someone all in white – it’s so beautiful. Most of the world is grey.” Although Rashid also wore a lot of black in those days, his commitment to white as a signature shade was cemented in 2000, when “I was on a panel with 11 architects and everyone was dressed in black; I was the only one entirely in white. I [then] had a strange [desire] to separate myself from the status quo – the architects, the urbanites, the designers – so I went to the Salvation Army and dropped off 15 years of black clothes, all these Japanese designer suits.” Over time, Rashid accumulated “30 or 40 white suits. Then I started adding pink into the mix.”
To maintain a largely monochromatic life palette, he says, “is great from a pragmatic point of view. It makes life easy.”
Whether ease was a consideration or not, many designers also went the monochromatic route this season, but with hues much poppier than black, white or even pink. At Gucci, for example, a magenta-on-magenta tunic-over-trouser ensemble was particularly striking. Michael Kors, meanwhile, showed a primary-yellow military jacket with a subtler A-line skirt, pairing both with a lunchbox-like tote and sunglasses that would make Bono jealous.
Elie Saab’s Heiress collection, finally, was a rhapsody in shocking blue. One model’s pleated blue trousers skimmed the floor, while a high-buttoned shirt with billowy sleeves made the look polished but not stiff.
Seeing’s Saab’s collection, it was hard not to think of the Queen, a conservative fashion plate whose fondness for vivid blues – including one shade in particular – is nonetheless well-documented.
“She [most often] wears that bright, almost electric ultramarine blue,” points out Rachel Perls, an architectural colour consultant based in the San Francisco Bay area. “It’s a cheerful, uplifting colour that still communicates authority and reliability. It’s high-impact.”
It is also the same intense blue that the painter Yves Klein made famous, says Nielsen of the Drake. In some of Klein’s performance pieces, he “would drag naked models – women, of course – through [blue] paint. Sometimes he would instruct them on how to move across the canvas. But I don’t know that he ever did them [without] that blue.”
If Klein’s career-long blue period is at once intriguing and perplexing, Nielsen has an opinion regarding his artistic monochromatism. What to make of it? “Marketing,” the curator says with a laugh. “Strong marketing.”