Shoppers with a penchant for dark hues will have their fashion moment with autumn/winter 2009. Although colours have been appreciated across the board for bringing optimism, their effective visual shock is largely due to the dark and brooding shades that have served as a stark background. Even the boldest and brightest are mere accessories to the strong presence of black this season - a darkness that satisfies the austere demands of the economy as well as a classic style function.
Jonathan Saunders and Thakoon Panichgul both proved this point with their standout collections. Saunders, who has garnered some notoriety for his inventive graphics and colours, used black to create intense visual vibrations against the fierce orange, zingy yellow and vivid reds and bright blues of his garments. Meanwhile, Panichgul, who has been on Michelle's Obama's go-to designer list for some time, concocted a sophisticated outing marked by gloomy-hued frocks and luxe sportswear separates.
These brooding shades also belie a deeper emotional meditation. "I chose to focus on the indelible memories that make me happy, whether recent or moving back in time to a moment of raw, almost naïve, energy," said Maria Cornejo, another Obama favourite, of her Zero collection. On the runway, this vision translated into a parade of models with black circles around their eyes, dressed in menacing black outfits consisting of Samurai-like vests, jumpsuits, dolman wool coats, stretch leather pants, and a cross between a mask and a skull cap.
Unpredictable - and often disappointing - twists have become the hallmark of a season that is shrouded in worldly uncertainty. Carolina Herrera's typically uplifting Latin sensibility gave way to a collection that felt morbid and depressing, in stormy migraine-inducing shades and vampirical shapes. Erin Fetherston, whose whimsical imagination usually delivers flouncy frocks fit for princesses with a devil-may-care outlook on life, conjured up a fantasy land of black dresses with short rounded skirts and very naughty hemlines.
But black does not always denote gloom and glower - in fact, the shade is most serviceable to practicality. Marc Jacobs clashed schoolgirl greys with acid neons and black-based jewel shades, all dressed up in flirty, 1980s-style mini crinis and patterned leggings. And Teddy Willoughby's Bland, an all-black, horror film-inspired collection of meticulously constructed jersey dresses and wool coats, was all about wearable yet avant-garde flair.
"Black looks expensive, but it is actually less expensive to work with because you don't have to deal with lab dips and colour matching as much. It also shows the silhouette better by emphasising the negative space around the garment because of the increase in contrast," said Willoughby. This functional strategy is something Patrik Rzepski can identify with, featuring strong silhouettes in his huge coats with large lapels, tops with full shoulders, sheer skirts and monastic black dresses. "You can create linear shapes and keep the focus on that - plus black never gets old," Rzepski observed.
This approach goes for menswear too, with the designer Tim Hamilton sticking with dark shades. "Black is always our base color," he said. Hamilton effectively used the hue to convey mischief, as models donned washed and wrinkled motorcycle jackets, plaid shirts and jodhpur-esque trousers that evoked both functionality and intrigue. Even with these practical offerings, the most important response was that of the show-goers. "We are in an economy where we don't know how long things will stay on the shelves, so you can either go the safe route and keep it black or you can take the risk that way. Given the uncertainty of the times, we're more inclined to focus on what's going to be safe on the rack," admitted the stylist Julie Ragolia. And come rain or shine, whatever the season, economy, or global outlook, black always does seem to be the new black.
* Robert Cordero