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Fashion’s Top 7 Maestros of Color, Past and Present

By Jackie Mallon

Mar 19, 2018


New York - Most designers deal in color and our runways are rainbow-flavored. Trendspotting websites analyze international fashion weeks to determine the overriding palette that will dictate our future shopping habits and then compile endless reports. Black and white remain commercial stalwarts, but debates might arise along the lines of which colors flatter the most skin types. Floating above this fray is a handful of creatives who exhibit such a knack for color that they are almost removed from the discussion, virtuosos who need not be subjected to such banalities. Instinct over analysis steers their course. Here is a countdown of fashion’s top 7 colorists of all time:

7. Valentino

Just as a specific shade of blue became synonymous with French artist, Yves Klein, a shade of red quickly became one of the pillars of Valentino’s work, and a trademarked formula composed of 100 percent magenta, 100 percent yellow and 10 percent black. Said to be inspired by women he observed on a trip to the opera as a child, the color has been included in every collection since 1959, through the designer’s adoption by the era’s jet-setting glamorati, from Elizabeth Taylor to Jackie Kennedy, and his ascent to the top of international fashion, until his retirement in 2008 when a parade of “Val’s Gals,” as his devotees became known, took to the runway for a blazing scarlet finale. Fortunately the color palettes of his successor at the house Pierpaolo Piccioli are equally intoxicating, and his collections sensitively evolve the founder’s legacy of femininity, romanticism and craftsmanship in one of modern fashion’s smoothest changing of the guards.

6. Paul Poiret

Paul Poiret’s fascination with Near and Far Eastern cultures, and the costumes of the Ballets Russes, inspired his unique sense of color at the turn of the twentieth century. While he is recorded in fashion history’s annals for having freed women of corsets and petticoats and introduced the pantalon to their wardrobe––revolutions so significant they have been compared with Picasso’s on art–– his incorporation of his exotic influences into his color palette certainly contributed to his success. An avid exponent of Art Deco, he is famously quoting as asking “Am I a fool when I dream of putting art in my dresses, a fool when I say dressmaking is an art?” After a 90-year hiatus, the house relaunched this year under artistic direction of couturiere Yiqing Yin , and from the creations on her Saharan-hued fall 2018 runway during Paris Fashion Week the vibrancy hasn’t faded.

5. Schiaparelli

Upon her death in 1973, the New York Times mourned the designer who “brought color to fashion,” but perhaps equally remarkable is the singular lack of sewing knowledge Elsa Schiaparelli brought to fashion. Heavily influenced by Surrealism, in particular Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau, and mentored by Paul Poiret, Schiaparelli explored novelty, juxtaposition, and subversion during the period between the two world wars in everything from the shape of buttons to her trompe-l’oeil prints. This unique sensibility distinguished her work from that of her arch-rival Coco Chanel who famously dismissed Schiaparelli as “that Italian artist who makes clothes.” However Schiaparelli’s creations appealed to Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn, and what we know today as the color ‘Shocking pink” derives its name from the tone of pink used in the lettering of the packaging for her perfume, Shocking, a collaboration between the designer and Surrealist painter, Leonor Fini. There’s no refuting Schiaparelli’s own assessment of the color: ”bright, impossible, impudent, becoming, life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world put together, a colour of China and Peru but not of the West — a shocking color, pure and undiluted.”

4. Christian Lacroix

He favored hot Mediterranean notes mixed with the opulent shades of the theater, intensely decorated and patterned, a leftover from his background in costume design––he exhibited a penchant for shocking pink too. Known for his revisit of corsets, crinolines and “le pouf,” the gloriously polarizing puffball skirt of the late 80s, his sense of color was nothing short of operatic. While his company reportedly never turned a profit in its 30-year existence, entering into administration in 2009, his recent work has returned him to his roots designing for theatre, ballet, and music performances––although still collaborating with fashion’s finest purveyor of tulles and lace, Hallette, and with Swarovski for crystals––as well as applying his vision to international hotel interiors. Recently Lacroix told Vogue “fashion was an accident” however, to many, the poetic spectacle of his runways remains embedded in our psyche where his palette continues to haunt.

3. Giorgio Armani

It’s tempting to feature only designers whose palette pulls from the brighter side of the chromatic spectrum, but the Italian designer, himself never not in navy, understood from the beginning that you don’t need to shout to be heard, earning himself the title “the king of greige.” In the 80s an army of glass ceiling-breakers in understated hues to offset their overstated ambition descended on Wall Street casting a shadow of revolution over the executive menfolk. Shades of beige and grey and the limitless possibilities they spawned: taupe, oyster, sand, mauve, slate, concrete, accented with a swathe of dusty pink or shot of sunset orange, helped make Armani one of the most successful modern designers, and it’s little wonder his influence is currently rippling across the international Me Too-infused runways. His shades never subtly blur but remain rigorously fine tuned, and when he shifts gear into full throttle technicolor for red-carpet effect, whether dressing Michelle Pfeiffer or Lady Gaga, his unparalleled and singular vision is as essential as ever.

2. Yves Saint Laurent

From the bold color-blocked geometry of 1965’s “Mondrian” collection, his Matisse-Inspired eveningwear of fall 1980 or the stark white iteration of ‘le smoking’ worn by Bianca Jagger, Yves Saint Laurent knew how to make color surprising, alluring, but mostly showstopping––it was fitting that the models on his final runway wore only black because the show had stopped. The beloved Jardin Majorelle vista of his Moroccan vacation home was a constant inspiration, but throughout his life he collected art with partner Pierre Bergé until his homes swelled with Picassos, Brancusis, Cézannes, and Andy Warhols resulting in a natural and euphoric overspill onto his runways. In his hand a swoosh of colorfully charged satin encircling the waist completed an outfit like a painter’s scribbled signature in the corner of a portrait.

1. Dries Van Noten

The top spot is awarded to the designer whose Spring 2018 menswear press notes mention only color, and read like the ingredients for a sumptuous feast as well as the components of a wicked spell: “flesh, pink, coffee, mustard, powder, sky blue, petrol, zabaglione, mocha, mayonnaise, slate, mouse, peach, marine, mint, dove grey, putty, plum…” Van Noten’s womenswear, one of the most highly anticipated each season, offers eternally off-kilter plunders of the color wheel that electrify and mystify in equal measure. In the 2017 documentary, “Dries,” the designer is seen relaxing in the magnificent home of his 50-acre estate with his Airedale terrier, and picking flowers from his sprawling garden, while in his studio in Antwerp he handles artisanal textiles, gorgeous flocked ferns and brocades, sweeping florals, paisleys, stripes and animal print, matching and clashing with the same ease as he collaborates with Mother Nature on his flower beds. That which in lesser hands would result in chaos, in his manifests glorious cohesion. No designer at work today understands the conflict between color and tension between tones like Van Noten, as he provokes and dares, shredding the rule book yet operating within the area of thoughtful wearability. These are color palettes that make one sigh, the stuff of wizardry, deserving of a spot on a gallery wall.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Runway photos CatwalkPictures.com; Fashion Designs by Paul Poiret, 1908. illustrated by Paul Iribe. Les Robes de Paul Poiret, p.17 Wikimedia Commons Public Domain; Shocking Pink Schiaparelli tag inside lingerie case from Is.Joules Wikimedia Commons