Color is suddenly prevalent within the New York City fashion scene.
With the exception of a seven year hiatus in Gensler’s NJ office, I have worked in New York City for my entire career. The unofficial dress code for city dwellers and commuters alike has always been black. Black coat, black pants, black shoes. The only color you would ever find on a self-respecting New Yorker was white, grey, or the occasional navy blue. I mention my hiatus because during that time I discovered color, and it infiltrated my wardrobe like ivy in a garden. When I came back to the city, colleagues remarked that my “New Jersey side” was showing – referring to my penchant for color. As the years progressed, the color slowly slipped away from my wardrobe, and I once again became a proper member of the establishment, blending in with my city camouflage of black/grey/white. Every now and then I’d throw in a tan jacket, or the occasional splash of red jewelry, just to shake things up.
But something has happened over the last year, something very strange indeed, and it took a morning walk up from 33rd Street to my office at 48th & 6th to realize the transformation. Suddenly, New Yorkers are wearing color. Not just a few people, but lots of people. I’m talking crazy colors too, all over the spectrum. To be honest, I actually started laughing out loud as I walked up 6th Avenue.
It is amazing to me the transformative power of fashion. Someone somewhere had a thought – let’s make jeans in colors. I mean really, how much more can you rip the jeans – we needed something new. I think people in general were in need of a little color in their lives. Between the round robin of economies in trouble, unemployment, gas prices, and the post-recession malaise, I think people crave a reason to smile. I have a woman in my office who has had a standard uniform for the 15 years I’ve worked with her: black pants, black blazer, white shirt, black pumps. She wears the same thing every day. It’s her thing. Last week she wore a pair of cobalt blue jeans. My first thought was that aliens had possessed her body, or possibly she had undergone a life altering event—then I thought my new prescription glasses were playing tricks on me. I asked her about it, and she very matter-of-factly declared that she almost wore a pair of purple that day instead. I almost passed out.
And it’s not just women. I was having a business breakfast with a client at Brasserie last week. It was a rainy morning, not the kind that inspires colorful attire or anything that shows puddle splash residue. During the course of breakfast, the woman at the table next to me dropped her napkin. It landed closer to me than to her, so I bent down to get it. As my head cleared the level of the table top, I was greeted with the revelation that the gentleman she was with was sporting red jeans – and the guy defied stereotyping. I never would have pegged him as hiding red jeans under that table.
So you’re probably wondering what this has to do with retail. Well, the obvious connection is that retailers have struck a chord with consumers in that they have created a trend and demand for a product. But that is too obvious. No, I was inspired to write of this trend because I think it speaks to the elements of change and surprise. Something struck me that day on 6th Avenue as transformative of the urban environment.The presence of color on the streetscape affected me. It made 6th Avenue seem like a happier place. The colors changed from block to block as I passed people and they passed me.
This infusion of color made me think of pop-ups, and how their temporary nature allows retailers to abandon their typical store environments and the rigidity of their brand identity for something more bold and unique. People flock to these temporary installations because of the unique manifestation of the brand expression. They wouldn’t actually put it that way if asked, but they are cognizant of the fact that these environments are markedly different from the same old-same old.
Department stores in particular should take a look at this strategy. They have so much square footage, and so much redundancy of goods with their competitors, that they can afford to carve out a thousand square feet. Doing so creates a special environment for a limited time that can showcase products not typically in their bandwidth or provide other services that enhance the overall retail experience. The financial metrics with which we measure the effectiveness of department stores and pop-up store alike need to move beyond dollars per square foot or ROI. We need to start looking at the level delight and surprise these stores convey. My takeaway is this: retailers need to relax, be less rigid, have some fun, and sport some of those colored jeans they are selling.
Kathleen Jordan is a principal in Gensler’s New York office, and a leader of our retail practice with over 24 years of experience across the United States and internationally. Kathleen has led a broad range of retail design projects as both an outside consultant and as an in-house designer. She has led projects from merchandising and design development all the way through construction documentation and administration, and many of her projects have earned national and international design awards. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.