Mirror, Mirror: Gray matters

You may have first noticed the color on Michelle Obama's nails during her Democratic National Convention speech. Maybe you took note that more than a handful of young actresses wore the shade at last month's Emmys. Or perhaps you're even considering it for your kitchen walls, living room sofa, or your next must-have boots.

Once the domain of basic boardroom pantsuits and pencil skirts, gray - and all of its relations from silver to slate - is this season's breakout shade.

It may be a coincidence that the sexy E.L. James trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey, where gray eyes and gray ties rule, has topped best-seller lists this year. But it's no mistake that gray is ruling the runway.

"Gray is having its day in fashion now," said Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute.

Gray speaks to our times. It can signal depression and despair, said Eiseman, but it can also look ethereal, symbolizing open-mindedness. It's neutral, like black, but it's more futuristic, less final. It also matches everything, including those optimistic deep pigments that convey hope even if we don't know who the next president will be or whether we'll have a job in six months.

"We love gray because it's sophisticated and it can be both organic and mechanical," said Neil Blumenthal, owner of eyeglass company Warby Parker. "It represents the best of human innovation and adaptability."

The trendy eyewear company that was started by University of Pennsylvania students two years ago introduced a line of titanium frames this fall, most of which come in varying shades of gray.

At last month's Emmy Awards, Emily VanCamp's gauzy, almost nude gray J. Mendel gown floated down the red carpet like a rain cloud. And Modern Family's Ariel Winter wore a totally on-trend gown featuring both a racerback and a high-low hemline in a pewter gray floral.

"Gray is so glamorous and beautiful in satins and velvets," said Melissa Rivers, executive producer of E!'s Fashion Police. "It felt so fresh on the red carpet. There is something luxurious about gray."

Accessories are getting a touch of the gray infusion, too. Proenza Schouler features a rocking colorblocked blue and green pump with a gray-green rounded toe, and Chloe's Marcie Hobo bag is a fresh mahogany-tinged gray, which the company refers to as "nut."

"This season it's all about tones of gray," said Sissy Harris, owner of the Peter Kate boutique in Greenville, Del. Harris pointed to a knee-length boot by Tory Burch that's selling well. Its color is called elephant. "Gray is beigey and taupy and is tinted with olives and hints of brown. It pops on its own monochromatically, and it blends well with saturated jewel tones this fall."

Gray paired with wine and cobalt is the "it" combination for taking color-blocking out of the 1970s and firmly planting it in the now.

Gray promises to be just as important for the spring 2013 collections, too, a very unusual development for the fashion industry. Typically in spring, gray tends to take a backseat.

"Gray has a very chic quality," said Philadelphia-based designer Nicole Haddad, whose Lobo Mau collection features color-blocked dresses anchored in slate and charcoal grays. "It's a much more contemporary way of doing things that's clean and sophisticated."

Christophe Lemaire used a misty gray as a background to his collection of saturated florals for Hermes, and designer Olivier Rousteing worked black and white patterns into gray lace. Alexander Wang worked a taupish gray into his cutout leather looks.

In the 1950s, gray was the color to pair with pastels. The next decade, gray went away when psychedelic fashions came into style. By the 1970s, earth tones were back, and while clay gray was around, we didn't see gray become fashionable until the 1990s, when minimalist looks ruled.

Gray became of-the-moment haute about three years ago when OPI introduced its olive-hued gray nail polish, "You Don't Know Jacques!" It was an odd color for nails, yes.

When the company introduced it in 2009, the fashion police shook their heads - gray polish was too edgy for girly-girls. Now, said Suzi Weiss-Fischmann, executive vice president and artistic director of OPI, gray is coveted.

"When Victoria Beckham wore the color in Germany, we sold 480 bottles in an hour."

It's those funky shades of gray that are giving manicures their star power. During the Emmys, E! set up a glam "mani-cam" with a tiny red carpet for celebrities to walk their nails down. The most popular colors of the evening were in the gray family.

This summer, gray became the base color of ombre styles, the gradual shift in color from simple to saturated. Gray helps bridge the transition when it comes to makeup - think of the smoky eye - and clothing.

Even our graying hair has become chic as women of all races become more accepting of their natural beauty. Highlights be damned.

Still, said Rivers, when wearing gray, like red, beware of the undertones.

"You can easily look washed out," she said. "Some people look better in a bluish gray, others in a greenish gray. You have to make sure whatever gray you choose doesn't clash with your complexion."

How do you know? Figure out what colors suit you and then pick a gray in that family. If you prefer warmer tones, opt for grays with terra-cotta, olive, or maybe navy undertones. Cooler? Go for pewter or minty grays.

What's not a gray area: This is a power shade, the epitome of hip.


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.