Trend watchers who look to style markers such as hemline lengths and lipstick shades to measure the zeitgeist can add another indicator to the list: car finishes.
In London, where glossy Rolls-Royce Phantoms and Range Rovers are almost as ubiquitous as Toyota Camrys and Jeeps on this side of the pond, a new flat black finish has become a popular choice among owners of these luxury vehicles. Rather than make the cars disappear into the grey English landscape, however, the growing flotilla of matte-mobiles, which look like a cross between rogue auto-body experiments and post-apocalypse relics, are major head-turners.
Later this month, when the Continental Supersport coupe from Bentley arrives at North American dealerships, car collectors and recession-resilient buyers over here will have the option of ordering the similarly muted "satin" finish - for an additional $41,900. BMW is also offering its X6 model in matte black.
Like any good cultural gauge, the treatment is quickly appearing beyond the world of high-end automobiles, on products as wide-ranging as perfume bottles, watch straps and sunglass frames. Last February, the clothes were the main focus at the fall fashion shows of Vena Cava, Gareth Pugh and Alexander Wang, but the models' matte nails garnered equal buzz. This season, shine-free lacquers are injecting new excitement into the otherwise predictable category of polish.
Could it be that the glossy trend is finally losing its lustre? Certainly, matte sends a modern message, one that rejects the bling and glitz of the early millennium and speaks to recessionary times and more serious style.
"Sometimes what's happening in the sociopolitical zeitgeist finds its way into design," explains Julian Goss, chair of the industrial design program at the Ontario College of Art & Design. He cites design guru Dieter Rams and the surfeit of brushed black products circa 1980 as a reference point. "Matte black definitely became sickeningly universal; it represented tasteful design."
The connotation in a post-9/11 climate, he believes, is different, especially as far as cars are concerned.
"If you apply matte finish to a car, it immediately looks menacing and purposeful and like something from Batman," he says. "When you look at [other]products, they take on the meaning of [being]non-consumer and functional and non-luxury and perhaps that's been something kicking around in people's mindsets."
As it happens, though, many of the matte black products on parade right now are high-priced luxuries. Adding to their cachet is the unexpectedness of such a finish on a covetable item; car paint and nail lacquer, for instance, are not supposed to be as flat and unreflective as a chalkboard.
"Shine seduces and brings you in, whereas matte is more complex," says Angela Ringo, the interiors editor for Stylesight, a trend-forecasting company in New York.
In her view, "subdued and discreet" connotes "expensive and well-considered." And although she isn't convinced that the trend will have legs, she points out that the tension between the two finishes makes for innovative, compelling design.
Consider the new twist on the French manicure: a matte black nail bed and shiny black edge. Marc Alexander Paez, who founded ManGlaze in 2007 in the belief that guys don't want glossy polish (but do want black or grey nails), says women are now making up a larger percentage of his customers thanks to word-of-blog. "The aesthetic came from bombed-out pieces of crap hot rods," he says from Chicago. "You see these guys working on their cars covered in black or grey primer and that becomes a style unto itself; it's a work in progress."
Nonie Creme, founder of the niche lacquer line Butter London, happened upon her Matte Finish Topcoat when she was trying to tone down what would have become her British Racing Green colour for the Vena Cava runway show. "I wanted to create texture, like soft velvet or even flat tempera paint," she writes in an e-mail message from San Francisco. A formulation of acetone, basecoat and "a few drops of white" did the trick.
Although a matte finish often costs more than a glossy one, it can come across as incomplete. It can also be difficult to maintain, whether it's applied to nails or cars. Steven Pavan, who oversees customer service for Rolls-Royce and Bentley at Grand Touring Automobiles in Toronto, admits that the matte option is not ideal for heavy use (it can't be polished or waxed) but does represent a "progressive" choice for anyone who appreciates cars as art.
Does he expect the mass-market auto makers to start offering the finish? "Tough to say; everyone is looking for an advantage," he answers. "It comes down to the democratization of trends. … If the volume goes up and it becomes popular, why wouldn't [they]make it available?"
Creme points out that her Matte Finish Topcoat allows users to achieve many new looks from just one purchase. "Everyone can go out on a limb with their nails; it's an easy way to switch up your wardrobe."
Not to mention a whole lot cheaper than a Bentley.