Achromatopsia is a visual disorder which is characterised by the absence of colour vision. It’s a day blindness, which leaves individuals locked in a world of black, white and shades of grey. That perpetual gloom is something we rarely think about, not because we don’t care, but because we're far removed from the reality of a life without the comfort of a blue sky or the familiarity of the green grass; it's so ingrained into our own reality that we take it for granted. They are constants from which we gain a sense of ease, and a world without them can appear unfathomable, in a different dimension far away from us. We exist in an inescapable sea of hues where colour is everywhere we are. On a scientific level, it’s simply the makeup of different light waves and frequencies. Light shines on an object and the hues which bounce off are the ones that we see. Those which are absorbed disappear forever. But when it comes to fashion, the concept of light waves and frequencies becomes mythical, and colours adopt a role, saturated with meaning, imbued with emotion. We begin to comprehend their necessity and what they give to us.
As a fan of bright and overly saturated colours, which hit you like a sucker punch when they catch your eye, my wardrobe is one giant rainbow on acid. I gravitate towards those brazen dyes like a moth to a flame, and despite the confused, comical and sometimes-outraged glances of passers-by, my love for bright colours will never wither. And there’s one designer in particular who has adhered to the rainbow philosophy throughout her career, worshipping at the temple of eye-watering vivid chromas: Spanish-born Agatha Ruiz de la Prada is synonymous with colour, and not just a dash of green or a speck of blue thrown in for good measure, but ensembles with at least four or five equally bright, equally contrasting colours. Imagine a retired clown trying to assimilate themselves into the everyday, and there you have a fairly accurate description of what she strives to do. They are a physical representation of vitality and her clothes perpetuate joy. The AW14 collection was as far away from the dark and typically moody tones of winter as you can get.
And this approach never wavers. There’s no changing the format for Prada. She has an aesthetic, which remains constant, season-to-season. As other designers dance from trend to trend, altering and adjusting, Prada’s steadfast commitment to those incandescent shades remains. There are some who lament that lack of change; constancy can become wearisome and it isn’t always conducive to creativity. However, her bright colours are the support system on which her entire brand stands. Far from being just a whimsy that motivates Prada’s creative choices, it can be traced back to the early 1980’s, after the death of the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. His passing sparked a creative movement called La Movida Madrileña, which saw everyone, including artists like Prada, expressing their sense of new found freedom through their life and work. It was a period of transition in which a revolutionary atmosphere saw the punk/new wave subcultures flourish, in which fashion, theatre, movies, sexuality and nightlife thrived like never before. Considering that was when Prada made her way into the creative sphere, you begin to sense the value of colour within her designs and why it has become so important to the Madrid-based designer. "Colour is important, and has [always] been important for me. It's part of my personality.” It’s where she was able to make her “own world” and “protect” herself. Not only is it her trademark, but a part of her very being. If that was to disappear, you feel like she would lose her way, and through that, herself.
But beyond our deep and personal attachments to colour, the psychology behind different shades and tints is a subject which has long been prodded. On countless occasions, I’ve been told by women’s magazines that red is the colour to sport if I have any hope of attracting a mate, a colour which supposedly interacts with chemicals in the brain, tinkering on the keys of sex and physical attraction. And if that mattered to me at all, Valentino would be the designer to wear – a brand which has a direct and intimate relationship with the colour red. This doesn’t even revolve around its strong associations with the red carpet at star-studded galas and the loyal companion of the wealthy. Valentino Red, also recognised as Poppy Red, was popularised by Mr Garavani, becoming his trademark and a pillar of his many collections. From the very first Valentino Red dress, which appeared as part of his 1959 debut collection, to that unforgettable red party at the end of his final haute couture show, where 30 models all dressed in identical red dresses paraded down the runway, there’s no denying the importance of the colour in his fashion journey. It has become as much a part of the Valentino name as the Italian himself. As a teenager, he was reported to have been captivated by the women who sat in the opera house balconies in Barcelona, like “baskets of red flowers” and that fascination with the most passionate of colours continued throughout his life. “Red has guts…. deep, strong, dramatic. A geranium red. A Goya red … to be used like gold for furnishing a house … for clothes, it’s strong, like black or white.” Valentino understood and championed the intense and mystic power of the colour red. His overwhelming desire in life was to dress women, to celebrate the beauty and strength of the female through his clothing, and the colour red contributed to that. It was a potent symbol long before he arrived on the scene, but through his work, you feel as if it grew in stature.
Coco Chanel once said, “Women think of all colours except the absence of colour. I have said that black has it all. White too. Their beauty is absolute. It’s the perfect harmony.” That absence of colour stands in complete contrast to the work of Prada, or the sumptuous reds adopted by Valentino. But there certainly isn’t an absence of power when it comes to the colour black – a shade which maintains a strong status within fashion. It isn’t the garment itself, but its colour, or absence of colour, which remains. Black itself is a colour long cited by the fashion pack on fashion week, like a murder of crows, flocking in unison. It’s dependable. Chanel’s promotion of that hue derived from her interest in the garments worn by those in mourning and the uniforms of servants – including the attire of those who worked at the Aubazine orphanage where she grew up. She wanted to design a “frock that all the world would wear”, a design that would allow an elegant uniformity to develop. It was an influence that developed into what we see today. Whether that’s simply her stylistic eye or a subtle nod to her past, it’s unclear, but black itself has prevailed, and fashion owes much of that to Chanel.
With the arrival of Adidas x Pharrell’s Superstar Supercolor trainers, the focus is entirely on colour, with 50 shades to choose from, both bright and subtle. There are no right or wrong answers – only the language of colour and the effects which different hues spark within the human psyche, as flimsy or evocative as people allow it to be. The reason for this collection, according to Pharrell, allows individuals to embrace that uniqueness, allowing us to choose for ourselves, and even more striking than that, to “connect with people all over the world”. It has been used as a very effective marketing tool, but it feels more than that in this instance. With entire institutions dedicated to colour, like Pantone, with designers' collections very often beginning with a palette and developing from that, there’s no escaping its influence. But more importantly, to see colour, you have to have light. So next time you look at a collection, don't merely admire the colour for its aesthetic, or pass your eyes over the colour palette without thought – think about what it symbolises, and how a designer is translating their psyche and vision, speaking a language through, and putting a thousand words into, colour.
Words by Abby Robinson