Show Me the Green
By Rachel Hershkovitz & Bebe Zeva
Human cultures have long invented ways to mark passages of time. We’ve referenced the moon, constellations of the Zodiac, empires that have risen and fallen, tools and technologies, artistic movements, and most recently: color. Every year, meeting in secret and always in Europe, a group of unnamed but elite designers, thinkers, and entrepreneurs select one hue to define and map the trajectory of the upcoming year. And all participants gather under the auspice of a company called Pantone.
Pantone specializes in color. In fact, it sells it. An American company, Pantone innovated color mapping. Its Pantone Matching System, or PMS, places the full color spectrum within the graph of an x and y axis. Points designate which color is which, and each color receives its own code. What essentially amounts to 8th grade math has changed the world of printing and art. With this model, color can be standardized and uniform across platforms.
Pantone also sells paint, which is how the average consumer and Home Depot patron might recognize the company. And for the hip and trendy, there’s Pantone’s Color of the Year--an oblique but endearing way of subsidizing a span of time. Pantone’s colors are trademarked, i.e. Pantone insists that colors can belong to its intellectual property, not unlike Monsanto’s tendency to patent seeds, although less sinister. Annually, Pantone engages in one of the most interesting advertising campaigns of the 21st century by selecting one trademarked color to represent the year.
The selection is both predictive and hopeful. The institute has been selecting colors since the year 2000, a clean start for a new spectral calendar. In its first year, it celebrated the millennia with a crisp, cyborg blue, suggesting naivety crossed with technological promise. Skechers sneakers, Jansport backpacks, Beanie Babies and scrunchies were often a cool blue. The frosted cerulean declared that year seems especially appropriate in retrospect, when we consider the eagerness of the public to embrace furturism. This evolved into a flowery pink, an opposing springtime color reminiscent of teen fandoms, Disney’s Lizzie McGguire, and Limited Too.
After the September 11th attacks, the mood changed. In 2002, Pantone chose a fierce, patriotic red. The rouge intensity of 2002 suggests a symmetry between the neurosis of an American public--the boldness of novelty spurned from shock and the defensive anger of a people whose routine has been threatened.
Pantone’s color selection is by no means arbitrary. It bends to social trends of youth and political trends of adults, which may be why so many Pantone devotees struggled to make sense of its 2017 choice: a spritely organic green, called “Greenery.” With the new Trump presidency looming, some took to social media and online forums to protest the decision. Pantone picked green? Why not gold or burnt orange?
By Pantone’s own admission, the choice is political. The company’s website includes a quote from its executive director that reads, “Greenery bursts forth in 2017 to provide us with the reassurance we yearn for amid a tumultuous social and political environment.” The statement leaves no doubt that the choice doubles as a clever nod to the grassroots organizing new leadership would inevitably inspire.
But the politics that influence Pantone’s decision extend beyond the color matrix. It’s also governed by fashion and its trajectory and follows trends like particles comply with the laws of physics. Through fashion, sensational forms are translated into structurally mappable concepts and archived as seasons: Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter. And we mark passing time by establishing trends in reaction to other trends. Fashion oscillates; it cycles. Bubble skirts turn to pencil skirts. Hidden platform heels turn to pointed stilettos.
From 2012 to 2014, bright colors reigned. Color blocking went mainstream and the years saw equal parts Technicolor and athletic starkness. Neon became one of the more popular color concepts among fast fashion designers. Tastemakers, likewise, incorporated the brightness into their digital art on forums and blogs. Then in 2015, the fashion world turned its eye to earth tones: mauves, army greens, beiges, and browns. Pantone’s latest color choice carries that earthy ethos to its logical end. Greenery suggests renewal and growth, but also escape. Much like our Victorian forebearers, who lived at the beginning of industrial capitalism and ceded their landscape to mills and smoke, we’re a nostalgic people. We look to the countryside for inspiration. In 2017, belief that natural is better dominates. The latest trend in consumerism questions our dependence on steel machines. Fitness gurus take to Instagram, pushing their followers to “eat clean” and adopt plant-based lifestyles. Cosmetic companies advertise themselves as all-natural and free of parabens, talc, and fragrance.
Make-up company Glossier, for example, markets itself as a brand inspired by “real life,” that believes products should be “imperfect and personal.” In other words, it rejects the uniformity possible with machines. In food, Soylent (named after the 1973 movie Soylent Green) has created a nutritional beverage that covers everything, from iron to magnesium. It promises to replace all solid food in a way that’s mindful of our body’s nutritional needs.
What is common among these aesthetics? Minimalism, control, and starkness intersecting with the intimation that natural processes are superior to technological ones. Glossier and Soylent are minimal and futuristic, but far from the robust, bright colored corporatism of the 90s and early 2000s. In the less feminized corners of pop culture, menswear brands like Yeezy, Vetements, and Raf Simons employ military-inspired neutral tones in their collections. This fad accentuates a topical interest in the concepts of austerity and earthiness. The symbolism of gray concrete among green trees is the locus of Pantone’s selection, and it is everywhere.
In a conversation where the cultural context of concrete, assumed as a mostly colorless industrial architecture, “greenness” as a fashion statement takes on special meaning. The color is not just green- it is Greenery, objects of organic material. Pantone’s color of the year is not a chartreuse or lime, but a square of avocado toast, a potted succulents garden on one’s desktop, a hydrated vacation somewhere tropical. Physical health reached critical mass in its appeal to the Western world this year, and images of chlorophyll-dense foods and recreation areas gathered prominence as subjects on social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest. Glamorous fashion bloggers made a habit to turn their camera lenses toward the green-accented scenes around them, archiving seasons of minimalist, Scandinavian-inspired still lifes. Eco-friendliness has potentially reached its peak as a selling point.
Youthful consumers are also attracted to the celebrity of liberal politics. The appeal of extreme wealth intersecting with grunge indifference is well illustrated by the spike in popularity of Thrasher t-shirts appropriated by high fashion models. Among the fashion set, influencing rap music, and celebrity culture, military-inspired apparel that employs greenery as a camouflage concept draws attention to the general trend of being engaged in battle. Green is instrumentalized by Kanye West’s Yeezy collection as a reference to militarized roles. Alexander Wang’s collection for H&M this year features that same green foundation -- a somber shade suggesting both American currency and army fatigues.
The reverence afforded to green qualities in business and design implies that our perfectly constructed concrete lifestyles, void of nature’s mossy stamp, are not immune to the power of greenery reclaiming itself, even in the virtual world of representation. And its permanence in recent high fashion trends is a reminder that glamour often arrives in the reclamation of graver themes, like camouflage and khaki. 2017 marks a point in history where the healthy growth represented by plants is drafted into more sterile interiors, and the normalcy of a foreboding military hardness is drafted into a flashy couture elite.