Release the rainbow! Why red, blue, yellow, pink and orange are the new black

·6 min read

At first I thought London fashion week was going to be all about parma violet. “Did you know purple flowers attract the most bees?” Roland Mouret asked, as I stroked a low-backed silk blouse in pale, luminous lavender on a rail in his studio on the first day. Pantone had just announced Orchid Bloom as one of its key colours for 2022.

Then I changed my mind, and became convinced that apple green had it in the bag. Alice Temperley’s collection sold me on a halter-neck gown and a wrap dress, both in the bold mid-green, halfway between lime and emerald, that Americans call Kelly green and that reminds me of biting into a crisp granny smith. That sharp, outdoorsy green has been on the ascent in fashion for a while, beloved by label of the moment Bottega Veneta.

But as shows went on over the weekend, one catwalk was a riot of yolk yellow and the one after that was a symphony in shades of orange and burgundy, and it dawned on me that there is no one colour of next season. Instead, next season is all about colour. Real colour, mind. Not the chalky, unusual shades that fashion tends to fall for – milky off-white pecorino, soft Tiepolo pink, rich espresso brown – but the brash shades you find in a box of crayons or a pack of highlighters, the colours of the neons at Piccadilly Circus or in an amusement arcade.

Colour is like sunshine on your face. It makes you feel happy

Roland Mouret

“Colour is like sunshine on your face,” Mouret told me. “Colour therapy really works. It makes you feel happy.” Designer Rejina Pyo, who not only paired a Lucozade blouse with a lime pencil skirt in her show but, at eight months pregnant, took her bow wearing the same colour combination, said colour brought “a sense of freedom which I’ve been longing for. Life has been all rules and guidelines, for so long.”

Bright colour is about optimism, and it is also about breaking free of monotony. This makes sense, for this moment in time, when an era of hybrid working patterns means that for many of us the week is finding a new rhythm – an uneven mix of commuting and home working, of Pret sandwiches and fridge leftovers. The old routine in which five days out of seven marched to the drum of the train timetable and office hours is no longer standard. One working day doesn’t always look like another any more. There is room for different looks, and different colours.

Bright colours make me happy, partly because they are what I wear on holiday. I am not alone in that, and the holiday-suitcase appeal of coral and fuchsia, sky blue and lime is part of the attraction. A sunny holiday is right at the top of the post-pandemic wishlist for many of us, so clothes that remind us of bikinis, strappy dresses and maxi skirts that have been packed in a box for two years feel more appealing than ever.

Victoria Beckham said she was “drawn to the elegance of a European summer” and “the way a trip like that can make you feel quite detached from reality” when she designed her new collection, which goes on sale next spring. Her new long dresses in dandelion and marmalade had a drinks-at-golden-hour energy that feels hard to resist. Meanwhile, Emilia Wickstead had Leonardo DiCaprio in a Hawaiian shirt in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet in mind when she put turquoise-and-white florals with apricot-and-white ones this season.

“If people do not notice you, you might as well not exist,” read a note handed out at Bora Aksu’s show. The quote was by Aksu’s muse for the season, the late Dutch socialite Mathilde Willink, known for her exuberant dress sense and hedonistic lifestyle. Little chance of slipping under the radar in emerald tailoring over pink tulle, or ballet-slipper pink blouse with pineapple trousers. “I like finding a balance point between colours that don’t normally work together,” Aksu said after the show. There is something compelling about unexpected colour combinations that goes beyond mere beauty. “I like the way that colours have a conversation, when you put them together,” says Pyo. “When you put lime green next to orange, or lavender with pink, it’s like matchmaking – you try it out and see how the energy feels.”

Some of fashion’s rainbows appeared a result of shifting to a more sustainable, less wasteful mindset. “It just felt wrong to order new fabric, this season,” said Edeline Lee, a London-based, British-Canadian designer whose clothes have been worn by everyone from Helen Mirren to Taylor Swift. “So I decided to use up all the leftover fabrics in my studio – we ended up with 53 colours in the collection.” Lee found that jigsawing together these odds and ends proved satisfyingly creative – as is often the way, when cooking with leftovers. “If I order new fabric, then the logistics of a business my size means that I order only a certain number,” Lee said. “Having 53 to play with was fun.” Aqua ended up spliced with chocolate brown, peach and coral with lawn green.

The days when sophisticates wore black and bright colours were basic are long gone. Decades gone, in fact. In 1997 Matthew Williamson’s Electric Angels collection put Kate Moss in a peppermint cardigan with a fuchsia skirt, and fashion has never really been the same since. These days, on a catwalk front row the woman wearing all black is likely to be the Love Island contestant, while the woman wearing lime with crimson is a painter or a poet. Roksanda Ilinčić is a peerless colourist, her every show a bewitching masterclass in gloriously unexpected combinations of shades.

Colours have a conversation when you put them together. When you put lime green next to orange, it’s like matchmaking

Rejina Pyo

This season, for a collection printed with Joan Didion quotes and worn in the Serpentine Gallery show by a mix of models and dancers, Ilinčić combined tobacco, coffee and coral in one dress, and yellow, merlot, pink and turquoise in another. “I’ve always been about colour and this season, after life has felt kind of small, I wanted everything to feel amplified again. Bigger, and brighter, like light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. A Harrods buyer made the point that far from seeming un-serious, the colours are crucial in what makes Roksanda resonate with “a confident, intellectual and artistic woman”.

Knocked on to the back foot by a year without anything to get dressed up for, and by the gathering storm of the climate emergency, fashion right now lacks both the authority and the swagger to issue a diktat anointing one colour, or one hemline, as the New Look. Instead, London fashion week made the case for fashion to be a source of joy again. The rainbow as a trend doesn’t come with a shopping list. If anything, it is a call to action to get more wear out of pieces you already own, but don’t often wear. Next time you open your wardrobe, instead of reaching for the neutral failsafes, give that pink skirt that you’ve never worn because you can’t quite figure out what it would work with a go. Or maybe the lime cardigan. Actually, I’ve got a better idea: why not both?

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