It’s official: the powers at the Pantone Color Institute (both of whom are women, by the way) have made their annual call on the colour of the year—however, for 2021 we won’t have just one colour, but two. The forecasted pairing, ‘Ultimate Grey’ and ‘Illuminating’ yellow—visible in the SS21 collections of Prada, Jacquemus, Gucci, Balmain and Givenchy—will take over from 2020’s demure ‘Classic Blue’ and is guaranteed to have a positive effect on your mind and wardrobe. But what is the real meaning behind 2021’s dual selection?
Vogue spoke exclusively to Pantone’s globally influential trend forecasters to find out.
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How does Pantone decide on the colour of the year?
Dismiss any notions of the fanciful speculator, Pantone’s doyennes produce something close to a thesis each year. “We always want to make sure that everybody knows we are not gazing into a crystal ball to make this selection,” Laurie Pressman, vice president of the Pantone Color Institute, explains. “This is a process that requires a lot of thoughtful consideration. It’s a culmination of all the work that the team does and helps to not only inform this selection, but all the colours that go into our broader colour trend forecasting.”
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What does the life of a trend forecaster look like?
“A large part of what we do is involved with the psychology of colour and how it plays into how people feel in general,” says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. “Usually our team is travelling all over the world, sharing ideas with each other—imagery, buzzwords—whatever we pick up on that we feel is important.”
The type of things they investigate? Everything from worldwide sporting events (“What city is going to be the host? Are there colours that are indigenous to that city?”) to the beauty ‘shelfies’ we’re posting on Instagram and the tones that resonate on the international runways. Eiseman’s psychosocial analysis doesn’t end there, either—the colours that define a particular year are also intrinsically linked to what we collectively find hopeful.
“We will ask what is happening in socio-economic terms in the world to make sure that we pay attention to what the public at large is telling us, what their needs are, what their hopes are,” Eiseman adds. “With that information gathering, we can do our homework and come up with an intelligent analysis that enables us to decide on the colour.” Except, for 2021, it won’t be one colour, but two.
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Why are there two Pantone colours of the year for 2021?
This isn’t the first time that Pantone has selected two shades as its ‘colour of the year’. Back in 2016, Pantone 15-3919 Serenity and Pantone 13-1520 Rose Quartz (also known as ‘Millennial Pink’) were chosen in tandem, but 2020 presented somewhat exceptional circumstances.
As Pressman notes, this year has, in a nutshell, been about collectivity, a theme that is set to continue influencing our behaviour and attitudes for the foreseeable future. By the time Pantone began undertaking its 2021 colour research, certain clearly identifiable societal changes that we are continuing to grapple with were already well underway — “from the way we socialise and travel to how we’ve reset our minds to what’s important. We are shifting from a quantity to quality mindset, adapting from fast-paced lives to slow living and embracing local over global.”
The eureka moment? “The one thing that became abundantly clear to us was the deepening understanding across the generations of how much we need each other, and that it’s our connection to other people that gives us the fortitude and hope, which are essential for us to move forward,” Pressman explains.
“It became apparent that there was never going to be one colour that could express everything that needed to be expressed—that it was, instead, critical to have two independent colours that could come together. Not only to subliminally convey the message that we can’t do this alone—that we all need each other—but because it is the combination of the qualities of these colours that tells the story.”
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What’s the meaning behind Pantone’s 2021 colours, Ultimate Grey and Illuminating yellow?
“Ultimate Grey [Pantone 17-5104] is about strength and resilience,” Eiseman says, unequivocally. “If we think of it in terms of nature, it’s the colour of pebbles at the beach, of rock and stone that have been around for millions of years and aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. Grey denotes fortitude; something that you can hang on to that is always going to be there for you.”
There’s also a direct fashion association. “People have been living in grey sweatpants, right?” Eiseman laughs, citing the comforting characteristics of 2020’s wardrobe antihero. “We’re not going to spend the rest of our lives in them, but the point is that we’ve learned to be OK with them and what they say about our lifestyles in 2020.”
For 2021, Ultimate Grey will run in concert with a second hue, which also dials into the feeling of continuity that we take from the natural world, Illuminating (Pantone 13-0647), an exact match for Prada’s SS21 runway carpet. It’s a zinging yellow swatch which, no matter where Eiseman is in the world or who she shows it to, will invariably be linked to sunshine.
“For most people, from the time they were little children, yellow means hope, positivity and something to look forward to. It always offers that uplifting feeling of hopefulness, which is so essential to the human spirit—the skies opening up to a beautiful sunlit day.”
Eiseman’s 2021 colour coupling is ultimately about communicating unity. “Over the years, Pantone has done many studies on how people react to colour,” she adds. “We know that there is a universal reaction to both the Ultimate Grey and Illuminating. Even the names of the colours tell you something about them, which people immediately identify with.”
“We do see the light ahead,” Pressman concludes, just before we hang up. “We just have to carry the resilience, the fortitude, and the composure that Ultimate Grey signals into 2021. To be patient and positive, knowing we will get there.”