At the Design Exchange's annual Black & White fundraising gala two weeks ago, most guests embraced the event name literally, dressing in all variations of the perfect pairing. So the appearance of two young ladies in red - assistant magazine editor Mosha Lundstrom Halbert and financial worker Nicky Milnes - had the effect of ruby lips on an alabaster face or a wine stain on a pristine white tablecloth. Dramatic.
Lundstrom picked up her H&M body-con number - one-shoulder oxblood velvet with black mesh across the décolletage - earlier that afternoon. "I like that it's theatre-curtain red," she said, noting that she stopped short of accessorizing with a matching bag (although she did opt for a vixenish red mouth). "My school uniform was a red jacket, so I still love the impact of one red piece."
Red "makes a statement but doesn't expire," added Milnes, who had donned a draped red Matthew Wiliamson dress deliberately topped with a black Club Monaco quilted leather jacket. "It's very sassy to wear all red. [The jacket]makes it not as racy."
It's official: Sassy, statement-making red is your ticket to turning heads this fall, a season dominated by sober neutrals and classic camel. In this context, splashes of crimson or cherry - especially when paired with black - offer the type of sartorial drama that exaggerated volume or gobs of glitter achieved in previous years.
"It looks good on most people and it's a great way to attract attention without being sparkly or sequined or glittery or quirky," New York-based celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch said on a recent visit to Toronto, where he was taking in Fashion Week and promoting his new book, The Shopping Diet, a breezy step-by-step guide to overcoming compulsive spending. "Red has a lot of connotations," he continued, citing power and patriotism. "The little black dress is Audrey Hepburn - chic and demure - but the little red dress is Beyoncé. It sizzles; it's hot."
Apparently, it's also a man magnet. Two psychology professors from the University of Rochester published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology exploring the "red-sex link," finding that "red facilitates men's appetitive evaluation of women." The profs, Andrew Eliott and Daniela Niesta, conducted five experiments in 2008, gathering empirical evidence that the color is a key factor in establishing desirability. The research suggested that the effect can apply to many fields, from product design to fashion. As compelling as the data is, though, it probably wasn't top of mind when designer Riccardo Tisci created his nonetheless very sexy fall ready-to-wear collection for Givenchy, a reported nod to skiing, scuba diving and the colours of the Bauhaus. For every instance of ivory or black, there was a red counterpoint, whether delicate lace, a pair of leather gloves, a flash of hosiery or an entire suit (one alpine print combined all three). It was all very yin and yang plus one, minimalist but beautifully bold.
Even Tisci's resort collection adhered to a strict palette of red, black and white interspersed with leopard print (the biggest difference between the two showings: matte red lips for fall, pink and glossy for resort). "It's very graphic," Sarah Bancroft, editor-in-chief of the online lifestyle newsletter Vitamindaily.com, says from Vancouver. Red "adds that visual pop to neutral outfits, making them look sophisticated."
There's nothing new about red's influence on the fashion world: Valentino, for instance, understood its power better than anyone else. Yet red dresses for red carpets have always been hit or miss: Count Natalie Portman's floor-length Rodarte gown, worn for the world premiere of her film Black Swan at Venice in August, among the more successful attempts. What takes makes red work in everyday life, particularly right now, is its usage in such a controlled fashion. The message is solid (no stripes or polka dots) and the silhouettes are streamlined. And with few exceptions, it's very pure, borrowing neither from orange nor blue.
It's also worth noting that the colour isn't limited to the ladies: Rapper Kanye West has been rocking a red Peter Hidalgo suit and matching Louis Vuitton sneakers, most often with a black T-shirt and layers of gold chain. Of course, no one would call the artist a wallflower. "When you want to say 'Notice me,' you wear red," says Cherie Federau, whose Shrimpton Couture website is a go-to destination for high-end vintage. Recently, she sent out a newsletter spotlighting red. "You have to be feeling pretty sure of yourself" to pull it off, she adds.
But the commitment to red need not be domineering. "I put it on my feet and mouth," says veteran Toronto retailer Linda Perisa. In her view, red isn't the best colour for her body type, but she's chosen to feature it alongside the surfeit of austere monochromatic shades in her boutique, 119 Corbo in the city's Yorkville neighbourhood. "You have to pick a colour every season and red was my splash of colour" this time around.
Looking forward, the marriage of red and black will not be fading into the sunset anytime soon if the spring 2011 runway shows are any indication. Paris-based designer Haider Ackerman, for instance, used slashes and swathes of red in his effortlessly fluid ensembles. On this side of the pond, Wayne Clark presented a series of five red dresses at Toronto Fashion Week. For many, the Valentino parallel was undeniable. "To me, red is just a good classic colour," Clark says by phone, flattered at the comparison. "After navy and black, what's next when it comes to staple colours? Red. It's not very often I do wishy washy; I need the impact."
Before next spring, though, women will be donning lots of red now that the holidays are around the corner, Clarkson suspects. "It looks spectacular and festive." Perisa, meanwhile, says she always hears great stories from customers who buy red. "I think women who can wear it love it. When a woman is wearing it well, she's the only girl in the room."
How to wear red
Online retailer Cherie Federau says the biggest mistake made when pairing red with black is to go half and half. "You have to make one colour predominant; otherwise they fight."
Beyond black, red can add some kick to camel, navy, chocolate brown and shades of grey. Phillip Bloch also recommends red and white.
If you find top-to-bottom red too extreme, start with accessories or perhaps just a manicure or strong red lip.
On the subject of makeup, a red lip is the obvious complement to red clothing but only if your complexion is suited to it. Alabaster or dark skin tones are ideal.
Consider the many shades of red: While oxblood, berry and jewel tones can be rich, they don't have the same impact as fire-engine red.
Keeping party season in mind, Sarah Bancroft notes that red goes well with gold. The combination, she says, is "celebratory."
Photography by Reynard Li. Hair and makeup by Jackie Shawn for TRESemmé/Judy Inc.(www.judyinc.com). Shot on location at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto (www.gardinermuseum.on.ca).