Ditch your pandemic neutrals: Colour is fashionable again

Looks from Valentino's autumn/winter 2021 collection. This season's fashion collections are full of bright hues, marking a move away from the pandemic's neutrals.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

For Valentino’s autumn/winter 2021 haute couture show, staged in July in a Venice shipyard, creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli asked guests to wear only white.

The reason became immediately clear – an entire audience counterpointing models walking the runway in puffballs of raspberry, sunny yellow minidresses, and gowns shot through with lime.

His palette was, as curator Roger Leong from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney in Australia noted, “a symphony of colour, tone and hue that we haven’t seen since Yves Saint Laurent’s couture collections of the 1980s.

“The collection not only harked back to Saint Laurent but Piccioli’s purple taffeta gowns reminded me of Perkin’s mauve, which took the fashion world by storm in the 1860s after the chemist William Henry Perkin accidentally created one of the first synthetic dyes, in the pursuit of a cure for malaria.”

As we begin to emerge from our great pandemic hibernation, albeit in stops and starts, the magpie pull of Skittles-like colours makes sense.

A look from Valentino’s autumn/winter 2021 collection. PHOTO: Valentino
A look from Versace’s autumn/winter 2021 collection. PHOTO: Versace

And Piccioli is not the only one digging into the crayon box.

At Jacquemus, hot pink was the colour du jour for autumn/winter 2021, spied on the itsy-bitsy cardigans, the sexy form-flattering dresses and the electric, boardroom-rattling suits.

New York designer Christopher John Rogers, winner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America Award in 2019, has become known for his bold use of vivid colour.

For autumn/winter 2021, he took this further with highly saturated, shimmering colours fashioned into pieces that looked like they were made from liquidised disco balls.

A look from Versace’s autumn/winter 2021 collection. PHOTO: Versace
A look from Jacquemus’ autumn/winter 2021 collection. PHOTO: Jacquemus

Daniel Lee, at Bottega Veneta, has in recent seasons made green, from fresh forest to curdled neon lime, the most coveted hue, working it into must-have accessories and ready-to-wear pieces.

At Denmark’s Copenhagen Fashion Week in August, one of the first on the fashion calendar to return to runway shows with an audience, green represented a sense of renewal and fresh starts – a major trend for the street-style set.

Belgian designer Raf Simons once described his 2011 spring/summer collection for Jil Sander, a masterclass in colour-clashing orange trousers, a pink silky shirt and a purple coat, as “a mille-feuille of colour”.

Joanne Thomas, head of content for Coloro, the sister brand of global trend forecasting agency WGSN, believes the way some designers are using colour right now speaks to a universal feeling of chrysalis.

A look from Jacquemus’ autumn/winter 2021 collection. PHOTO: Jacquemus
A look from Valentino’s autumn/winter 2021 collection. PHOTO: Valentino

“Consumers are connecting with unapologetically upbeat colours that bring a sense of much-needed optimism and joy,” she says.

“With the global lockdowns in place, people were gravitating towards colours that reassure, soothe and offer comfort during times of crisis. The appetite for neutrals grew expediently during the pandemic as consumers wanted to feel protected and grounded.

“However, with the revival of travel, socialising, in-person events and reconnecting with loved ones, consumers’ appetites for bold, bright colours has returned, as they feel they can now finally dress for an occasion.”

New York designer Christopher John Rogers has become known for his bold use of vivid colour. PHOTO: South China Morning Post 
Colourful looks from Valentino’s autumn/winter 2021 collection. PHOTO: Valentino

Part of this may be down to popular ideas around colour therapy and “dopamine dressing”. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, used to send messages through our nervous system to the brain.

In large amounts, dopamine is about feel-good chemicals – reward and pleasure. In a sartorial context, it’s about wearing clothes that create a similar effect.

Meanwhile, colour therapy speaks to the belief, around since the ancient Egyptians, that certain colours enhance our mood, boost our confidence or quieten a busy mind.

These terms, along with 2012 research by Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky on “enclothed cognition” – how clothes impact how we are perceived by others and ourselves – pop up every few years to explain why, say, designers might suddenly have a feeling for cerulean blue or high-vis orange.

But colour is an emotional response, too. Back to that Valentino show, and as Leong puts it: “[The] Valentino collection certainly lifted my mood and sounded the warm note of optimism we are all looking for.”

A look from Valentino’s autumn/winter 2021 collection. PHOTO: Valentino
Another look from Valentino’s autumn/winter 2021 collection. PHOTO: Valentino

Thomas agrees. “Colour is closely associated with our emotions; it is the first thing we register when assessing anything; it is primal, visceral and it is a language we are all born fluent in,” she says.

“Colour is so subjective, it makes it hard to define exactly which colours we should wear to improve our mood and doesn’t suggest that we should necessarily adopt bright colours to feel happier – some feel their best in all black.

“However, we are seeing our post-lockdown world resulting in consumers wearing more colour on the whole – embracing joyful expression and dopamine dressing during the initial post-lockdown period to signal to others our individuality, and that we are ready to return to our social habits and have fun.”


Dawnn Karen, a United States-based fashion psychologist who last year published her first book, Dress Your Best Life: Harness the Power of Clothes to Transform Your Confidence, agrees that what she calls “mood enhancement” dressing is subjective.

“I have generalisations in my book, though I would charge everyone to find their own happy colour. Maybe their happy colour is orange. Maybe their happy colour is black, but find that colour that speaks to them [and] dress yourself happy.”

Celenie Seidel, senior womenswear editor at online retailer Farfetch, says we can expect more colourful fashion in the seasons ahead.

“We’re seeing mounting optimism for what life could look like in a post-pandemic world, and this spirit is coming through in the palette choices of many brands,” she says, listing the likes of Valentino, Versace, The Attico, The Elder Statesman, The Frankie Shop and Jacquemus as brands to seek out for highly saturated finds.

As for how to wear colour, especially if you are feeling a little nervous after a few seasons of grey sweats, you might consider, as Seidel suggests, going all in.

“This vibe isn’t about restraint,” she says, “so think coordinating tops and bottoms, or colour-blocking with other bold tones.”

An Amina Muaddi shoe, available at Lane Crawford, offers a pop of colour. PHOTO: Lane Crawford
The cautious or the monochrome-minded may opt for a pop of colour in the shape of a bright green pouch from Bottega Veneta. PHOTO: Bottega Veneta

The cautious or the monochrome-minded may opt for a pop of colour in a Cinderella-esque shoe from the likes of crystal-purveyor Amina Muaddi or a bright green pouch from Bottega Veneta.

Thomas also believes there remains a need to pair rainbow brights with neutrals or monochrome to keep things in balance after a period of uncertainty.

Libby Page, senior market editor at Net-a-Porter, does not see dopamine dressing going anywhere soon, either. In fact, she believes customers are just now falling back in love with fashion, and all of its possibilities.

One such brand representing what Page believes is a period of “optimistic, rejuvenating” fashion is relative newcomer Meryll Rogge.

Rogge, who once headed fellow Belgian and noted colour aficionado Dries Van Noten’s womenswear studio, has garnered a following for her playful, clever and, yes, colourful designs.

A look from Valentino’s autumn/winter 2021 collection. PHOTO: Valentino
A dress by Jacquemus, available at Net-a-Porter. PHOTO: Jacquemus

“Working with colours comes very naturally to me. Each season, I tell myself: ‘This is the season where I’m going to go all neutral.’ I’m very drawn to classic navies, melange greys, black and white. But then the lure of using interesting colours becomes too strong and I can’t help myself.”

It’s a feeling that pervades her whole approach to life: “I did notice over the years that this innate colour attraction seeps into other fields in my life. I have a bigger appreciation for photography in colour, rather than in black and white, and for my own house I like to add colour in furniture and accessories.”

For Page, the move towards the bright side speaks to a joyfulness she senses consumers are seeking, in their clothes, their mood and beyond.

“Pieces in bold, bright colours in a multitude of fabrics and textures offer our customers joy when dressing up,” she says, “as well as the uplifting and transformative power of fashion.”

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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