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From left to right: Narciso Rodriguez, Rodarte, Oscar de la Renta, Diane von Fürstenberg, Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Prabal Gurung
From left to right: Narciso Rodriguez, Rodarte, Oscar de la Renta, Diane von Fürstenberg, Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Prabal Gurung

New York Fashion Week: Is colour the new black? Add to ...

Two years ago, I visited the Francis Bacon retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. What struck me more than the painter’s stunning and ghostly portraits was his use of colour: a combination of violet, black and bilious yellow that evoked such grotesqueness, or rooms rendered in pink and orange that were hauntingly expressive. I remember staring at his canvases and thinking about high fashion – how a streak of yellow across a face tinged in peach was a quintessential Marni palette, and how tangerine against a backdrop of forest green was unmistakably a product of the world of Miuccia Prada.

Bacon, who died in 1992, is certainly not the only painter whose application of colour reaches beyond the standard depictions of reality. Any Fauvist worthy of the title employed riotous, saturated shades. But I was reminded of that show throughout New York Fashion Week because of the countless occasions in which colour – specifically the wild pairings of hues – stood out as the strongest statement for spring/summer 2012.

And there were many cases in which the starting points were deliberately artistic. At Rodarte, sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy developed a collection based entirely on Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Starry Night. His swirly blues, purples and yellows appeared on a cocktail dress, complete with printed peplum.

Wearing such a creation, “you become a walking art form,” said Barbara Atkin, vice-president of fashion direction at Holt Renfrew, after hop scotching from show to show last week and taking in all the “crazy colours.”

Prabal Gurung explained his digitized print in ultraviolet and turquoise as a nod to Japanese artist Nobuyoshi Araki’s Sensuous Flowers photo series. A Latex coat looked as if it had been dipped in purple metallic paint.

Tommy Hilfiger called his collection Pop Prep, explaining that classic shapes had been twisted “through a modern kaleidoscope of nuanced colours,” while paying homage to pop art from the 1960s.

“You’re going to see a spring full of colour from everybody,” the designer said in an interview on Fashion’s Night Out, a hybrid Halloween-Mardi Gras for shoppers that now marks the kickoff to Fashion Week. “It’s optimistic spirit.”

That’s certainly true, but colour also feels right because it’s communicative. After all, artists who cannot capture something through form alone manipulate the message with colour.

Texture speaks, too. Oscar de la Renta has never taken a wallflower approach to fashion and yet his forthcoming collection felt even more vibrant, perhaps because he painted such broad brushstrokes with colour – voluminous taffeta skirts in marigold, emerald and tomato – as a counterpoint to precious black and white lace, silk tassel embellishments and couture-like embroidery.

When Marc Jacobs closed Fashion Week on Sept. 15, a neutral palette enlivened with hits of yellow and sea-foam green became even more three-dimensional with pleated and tucked fabrics that added layers of gloss and shine.

Incidentally, his Marc by Marc Jacobs line has evolved from its long-time, successful offbeat uptown-downtown formula. This season, oxford shirts, shirtdresses and jumpsuits in solid hues of green, orange and fuchsia balanced against navy, white and black looked more like the newly sophisticated wardrobe of an art gallery intern rather than that of a coed. The line has graduated, and its modern minimalist message scored high marks.

Rainbow brights are not just happening at the designer level. Mass-market brands J.Crew and the Gap featured top-to-toe looks covering the entire colour spectrum at their respective Fashion Week presentations. Stylist-turned-designer Rachel Zoe, whose current collection is an exercise in black, gold, camel and denim, introduced royal blue and crimson into her namesake contemporary line (she also named her two prints Matisse and Seurat).

“It’s about mixing and not being afraid to put clashing colours together,” said J.Crew’s head designer, Marissa Webb, minutes before Beyoncé stopped by for a walkthrough.

Of course not all shades are created equal; by February 2012, when spring deliveries start hitting stores, five hues – violet, lemon, peppermint, emerald green and coral – will come to the fore. This list is more or less consistent with Pantone’s Fashion Colour Report 2012, which includes Tangerine Tango, Bellflower (a vibrant mauve), Margarita (pale green) and the yellowish Solar Power on its list.

Colour is the new black – at least for now.

“For the next 18 months to a year, there will be a tremendous amount of colour,” says Hilfiger, “and then everyone will be sick of it.”

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