New hues on the block

As we hop happily on the color-block cavalcade, let's be a lot bold, a little careful.

Ellen Shepp and I were at fashion odds.

We were pulling examples of fall's color-blocking trend from the racks at her Rittenhouse Square boutique, Joan Shepp, when I became obsessed with a pair of skinny red Rag & Bone corduroys.

I wanted to pair them with a royal blue, purple, and black sweater vest. But what would I layer it over? A long-sleeved gray T-shirt? How about a white T, or perhaps black?

Not so fast, Shepp said.

Color blocking is about mixing unexpected hues together for maximum pop, I argued. I wanted to pull it all together with a shiny lemon-yellow bag.

"Some of the downtown girls can maybe pull that off," Shepp said. "But care must be taken. This is tricky."

Shepp had a point. I admit it: I was taking this color-blocking thing a bit too far.

But I couldn't help it. After years of depressing looks grounded in grays, blacks, and deep purples (remember when eggplant was the new black?), I was excited about using color. Why not go all out? Aren't we beyond being cautiously optimistic? It's time for a splash of pizzazz.

The truth is, color blocking may be the ticket for infusing 2011 freshness into our wardrobes. But knowing the new rules for mixing colors can be complicated. One unfortunate pop of a not-quite-right shade and you could be labeled tacky quicker than you can say cutting-edge.

"Women are having a hard time pulling this look off," said trend watcher and on-camera fashion expert Robert Verdi last week when we caught up outside Lincoln Center during the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week 2012 shows.

Not to fear, there are many examples out there of how to color-block correctly.

Probably the most readily available example is Ann Curry of NBC's Today show. She's been mixing color blocking into her wardrobe, wearing a bright orange and pink color-blocked dress by Lisa Perry on her first day in the Today show coanchor seat, and recently a blue and orange frock courtesy of Prabal Gurung's Spring 2011 collection.

Sarah Jessica Parker is partial to Prabal as well. She was spotted this month wearing a Gurung dress that featured a floral bodice and black and yellow color-blocked skirt. And Parker was also photographed on the cover of this month's Marie Claire in a red-and-purple-blocked frock.

The trend is popular among some newly svelte stars too: Jennifer Hudson embodied hotness in an orange and purple color-blocked ensemble by Gucci for a Good Morning America appearance in spring, as did Jordin Sparks in a banded-style gray and yellow dress by Yigal Azrouel in May.

A good color blocker is confident.

So what exactly is color blocking? The trend dates to 1965 when Yves Saint Laurent created his famous sheath that placed red, blue, and yellow fabric in the same pattern that French artist Piet Mondrian did in his 1920s paintings.

This geometric pattern was copied on clothing and accessories throughout the 1970s, but was most popular when the blocks were primary shades separated by thick black stripes.

Fast-forward 30 years, and color blocking is freer. The squares are separated by other colors, or no color at all. And the squares are any color from the color wheel.

Shaquille O'Neal's ex, Shaunie, of VH1's hit television show Basketball Wives, rocked a Mondrian-inspired color-blocked long-sleeved dress recently on the third season's reunion show. The bold combination of orange, yellow, periwinkle, and hot pink by Georgia-based designer Nicci Hou was fresh and unexpected.

Although the geometric dress is an easy way to ensure you get color blocking right, the trend isn't limited to clean, multicolored frocks.

In fact, the real fun comes when you replace your tried-and-true neutral base with a vibrant solid like a candy-apple red pencil skirt or a pair of kelly green wide-legged pants. Then you can get a little crazy and add, say, an orange sheer blouse, or maybe a printed one, and grab a structured bag that incorporates all those colors.

Color was slowly introduced into our Fall 2010 fashion psyche with tights and statement jewelry collections, but the trend hit the runways hard at the Spring 2011 preview, said Clara Henry, Philadelphia University's director of fashion design. Gucci creative director Frida Giannini was among the first to take such an innovative stance.

Giannini "did shocking pinks and paired them with tangerine in head-to-toe looks," Henry said. "This newer version is about feminine silhouettes, softer, more sensual movement of fabric. There are really beautiful, intense tones of pinks and greens and purples everywhere."

By the time the Fall 2011 runway collections were shown in February, designers had jumped on the rainbow-inspired zeitgeist. New York favorites Phillip Lim, Narciso Rodriguez, and Diane von Furstenberg got that electric-shaded memo.

One hot look for this fall: brightly colored skinny pants with contrasting riding patches or tuxedo stripes in contrasting colors. I admit I'm unable to resist a bold-hued trend: I bought a pair of reddish-orange skinny pants from J.Crew. These shades will be seen in fur vests (also known as chubbies), skinny jeans, high-waisted trousers, midi-length skirts, and simple cardigans.

"The silhouettes for fall are basic, even classic," said Lisa Hayes, director of Drexel University's fashion department. Color blocking is such a big trend, Hayes' students are basing their first project on it this year.

"The look is so modern. The clean lines, the graphic elements. We haven't seen this in a while," she said.

Local retailers, who have spent the last 10 years building outfits around black, are thrilled.

"Everything has been so dark and gloomy the last few years, especially with the recession," said Candice Caprice, owner of Per Lei boutique in Media. Caprice's store is dotted with shocking prints and solids from brands like Halston, Theory, and Trina Turk.

But what to do if we can't pull ourselves away from black? When in doubt, said Ellen Shepp, go for bold accessories. A simple heather-gray turtleneck and pencil skirt look alive with a turquoise bag and red shoes.

I say be adventurous: Accessorize with a pair of feather earrings in hot pink, or maybe even an electric-blue fur vest.

"Try a green shirt or maybe a yellow bag," Caprice added.

And take her sage tip seriously.

"Keep it to three colors. After all, there is such a thing as color-blocking overkill."


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