There are two 2021 Pantone Colors of the Year: a steely gray and sunshine yellow. “Ultimate Gray” is a color of stability, strength, and realness. It’s experienced and wise. “Illuminating,” on the other hand, is a hopeful hue. She’s optimistic and radiates positive vibes.
Together, however, the complimentary colors are the spirit lifters Pantone says the world needs to emerge from a stormy 2020 into what we can only hope will be a sunnier 2021. Sweet yellow and stern gray give off a futuristic vibe that telegraphs insight, innovation, and intuition.
“One color could never encapsulate all we’ve been going through this year” said Laurie Pressman, vice president of the Pantone Color Institute, based in Carlstadt , N.J. “These independent colors are rock-solid resilience on one hand and hopefulness in the other. Ultimate Gray and Illuminating send a message of positivity supported by fortitude.”
Basically, if we want to survive the tough times of 2020, we have to fundamentally change, adapt, and move forward. We can’t get cemented in yesterday if we want to enjoy the bright sunshine of a new day. Pivot, people.
Brian Anderson, founder of local creative agency The Perception, describes the space-age color combo as a wake-up call you can’t ignore. That’s why he says it’s big in sportswear — think Nike’s D-Break running shoes — and in all manner of accessories, including this year’s most popular: masks. Forward-thinking businesses like the boutique fitness studio Soul Cycle and visionary beauty brands like the blowout franchise Dry Bar use it best.
“It presents very modern,” Anderson said. “It does signal innovation.”
The edginess of the gray paired with the prettiness of the yellow immediately reminded me of the work of Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, best known for her National Portrait Gallery painting of Michelle Obama. Her work features Black skin pigmented in grayscale so when placed in contrast with a bright article of clothing, the effect is both serene and striking.
And how’s this for a coincidence? Last June, a group of artists painted a 50-foot wide Black Lives Matter streetscape on 16th Street in Washington, D.C. The letters are yellow. The canvas is gray pavement. If there is any moment in American history that signifies the need to move boldly ahead into a new future while acknowledging the truth of the past, Black Lives Matters is it. “We admire the color statement and emotional sensibility and understand the reflective power of these vibrant yellows against the gray,” said Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, when asked about the mural.
Yellow — whether we’re talking canary, daffodil, sunflower, or saffron — became part of the 2020 color story last winter when political leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Melania Trump traded in power red for lemony frocks to wear on the Senate floor and for royal visits.
In fact, Eiseman said, Pantone was pretty much set on choosing Illuminating as its sole 2021 Color of the Year until late summer when the global forecasting group realized they needed a second hue. Hope was on the horizon, yes. But they couldn’t ignore the gray matter that got us here.
When Pantone chose powdery blue Cerulean as its first Color of the Year back in 2000, it was strictly about the trend. Designers, interior decorators, and fashionistas ate it up, and quickly incorporated the hue into its collections, homes, and wardrobes.
But in 2016, something changed. That was the first year Pantone opted for two hues: a blush pink named Rose Quartz and a baby blue it called Serenity that spoke to blurred gender lines.
The focus, however, also shifted from directional — how to make the Color of the Year a part of our lives — to emotional — what the color said about who we are. The following years’ selections that included a lavender Ultra Violet and a tangy orange Living Coral certainly weren’t the easiest to wear but spoke to the creativity and excitement that were part of the zeitgeist of 2018 and 2019. Classic Blue was the color for 2020, which Pantone promised foreshadowed our collective need to get back to basics and slow down. Little did Pantone know how on point that forecast would be.
“It’s not just a matter of using it because it’s a hot color,” Eiseman said. “It’s integrating the feeling and the meaning the color gives you. That’s more of the conversation now.”
Local designers and stylists agree that color of the year is more about our mood than our desire to be fashion forward.
For Gayatri Chopra, one of the founders of the Philly-based brand Simitri, the gray-and-yellow combination is both sensible and exciting, which is why she sprinkled it into her spring collection of masks and jeweled handbags.
But beauty is where the color-combo stands to be at its most eye-popping, said Martino Cartier, owner of his eponymous salon in Sewell, Gloucester County.. A light yellow shadow can add an unexpected pop to a smoky lid, Cartier said. And the real magic will happen when the mix of colors is applied to hair.
“Women used to be afraid of their gray hair,” Cartier said. “But not anymore. Silver hair on a woman is so polished, so chic, and so timeless. But when you add blond highlights, it takes it up a notch and all of a sudden that gray hair that used to make women feel old makes her sharp, powerful, and hot.”