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The Pantone Prophecy: Behind Fashion’s Color Of The Year

Here's what happens when Pantone crowns a hue to be the next big thing

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(Illustration: Diana Quach/Vocativ)
Feb 16, 2016 at 4:23 PM ET

Pantone is powerful. Its annual Color of the Year predictions are a major deal for any company that designs a physical product— the fashion designers, car companies, interiors specialists, cosmetics manufacturers, you name it. These industries must monitor color trends season to season, and they do so using the Pantone system.

Pantone is the main standardized color system across the globe, and its color intelligence use is nearly ubiquitous among designers seeking to create proper palettes for their work. Simply put, color is crucial. However, while Pantone’s work in forecasting color trends certainly holds a lot of weight for the industry, do its Color of the Year predictions ring true for the public? In order to find out, Vocativ analyzed Twitter data from the last three years to gauge the popularity of Pantone’s last three Colors of the Year—Emerald, Radiant Orchid, and Marsala—to see whether Pantone’s color trend predictions actually proved to be true.

2013: Emerald

Pantone announced emerald as its color of the year for 2013 on December 6, 2012, but the color didn’t attract much public attention from social media users until almost a full year later, when Michelle Obama wore a stunning green dress to the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony on December 8, 2013. Two days after that, the color emerald spiked on Twitter with 2,423 mentions on December 10, 2013. The public’s enthusiastic response to the dress and its unique color echoed Pantone’s endorsement of the shade, which they described as “Lively. Radiant. Lush… A color of elegance and beauty that enhances our sense of well-being, balance and harmony.”

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Indeed, the hue proved so popular with the press, that Michelle Obama wore an emerald shade again a month later to President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address, another high-profile event that garnered yet more social media buzz around her fashion choices. All of this indicates that while Pantone’s predictions are certainly influencing designers, it usually takes a celebrity to transfer that interest to the public. In that sense though, Pantone’s prediction that emerald would be the color of the year for 2013 ultimately did prove true, albeit a bit behind schedule.

2014: Radiant Orchid

In December 2013, Pantone announced Radiant Orchid as its big winner for 2014. But they didn’t wait around for a celebrity to push the color into mainstream popularity. Instead, a well-timed Pantone Universe makeup collaboration with Sephora quickly brought the hue into mainstream beauty regimes and, in turn, mainstream consciousness.

Interest in the color was stable and relatively high throughout the year, but spiked on June 6, 2014, when social media mentions of it hit 7,409—possibly in response to Demi Lovato’s Instagram post where she showed off her newly-dyed purple hair.

No makeup.. 4am… 💜💜💜

A photo posted by Demi Lovato (@ddlovato) on

After this massive display of interest in the color during June 2014, social media mentions of Radiant Orchid continued to focus less on fashion and more on beauty trends, with tweets like this calling it out as a key color for for nail polish, lipstick, and, yes, hair color.

The public’s embrace of Radiant Orchid in the intimate context of beauty products proved the prescience of Leatrice Eiseman, the Executive Director of the Pantone Color Institute. She explained, “Purple is just that kind of a complex, interesting, attracting kind of color…it inspires confidence in your creativity, and we’re living in a world where that kind of creative innovation is greatly admired.” And the savvy Sephora collaboration probably didn’t hurt, either. 

2015: Marsala

In contrast to Emerald and Radiant Orchid, Marsala, Pantone’s Color of the Year for 2015, drew little attention on social media. Interest in Marsala peaked on the day that Pantone first announced the color as the “chosen one” on December 4, 2014, and it was all downhill from there. Throughout the ensuing year, tweets mentioning Marsala steadily dropped. That said, it proved popular for products, perhaps because Marsala’s inherently subtle tones, which oscillate between burgundy and brown, were more suited to quiet, commercial uses like menswear and home goods than to elegant dresses or striking shades of mascara.

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Shannon Davenport, Head of US Advisory at trend agency Stylus, explains that some colors may be more eye catching and exciting, igniting interest online, but failing to translate into commercial usefulness:

“To me, there have been some hits and misses. Some Colors of the Year tend to be novelty colors that are super bright or bold and don’t show up as often in real, everyday colors— it’s an interesting piece of the current color feeling but doesn’t tell the bigger color story for the year. Marsala and this year’s [2016] Rose Quartz and Serenity combination are very commercial and we’ll see lots of them—we’ve already seen Marsala quite a bit in apparel, accessories and home.”

2016: Rose Quartz and Serenity

Because Pantone only announced that Serenity and Rose Quartz as its colors of the year for 2016 on December 3, 2015, Twitter mentions proved insufficient for measuring its long-term popularity among consumers, but at least one half of the color combo—Rose Quartz—has already proved quite popular at New York Fashion Week, accounting for two out of five of Vocativ’s Dress of the Day selections, and appearing as an accent color on a third.

This apparent initial popularity is likely do to Pantone’s sharp insight into how shifting societal norms impact fashion. With a recent rise in gender-neutral dressing, Pantone picked the Serenity-Rose Quartz combination to reflect what Leatrice Eiseman calls “a gender blur as it relates to fashion,” which, she explains, “has in turn impacted color trends throughout all other areas of design.”

With the early influence of Rose Quartz already popping up at New York Fashion Week, the track record of Emerald and Radiant Orchid on Twitter, and the huge number of consumer goods produced in Marsala, it’s clear that Pantone’s Color of the Year predictions are massively influential, and at least in that sense, accurate. But are Pantone’s predictions less about forecasting and foresight, and more a matter of self-fulfilling prophecy? Is Pantone anticipating what people want or are the Colors of the Year themselves driving their own popularity? Chicken-or-egg queries like this are notoriously hard to answer, but whatever one believes, it’s clear Pantone is doing a very good job of driving the market.

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