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Monotone Boom in Fashion, Cars, and Packaging

December 18, 1997

White is the color of choice for more and more drivers. (Photo: Toyota Motor Corp.)

The monochrome look is back in style in Japan. For clothing, the "in" color is black; for passenger cars and packaging for food and other products, black and white are the keynotes. These colors were last popular in Japan about 15 years ago, during the early 1980s, in the aftermath of Japan's second oil crisis. One theory holds that black and white are popular in times of economic uncertainty. According to another viewpoint, however, monochrome feels fresh in contrast to the changing parade of colors that deluge our senses today.

From Fashion to Food Packaging
In the style-setting neighborhoods of Tokyo and Osaka, a growing number of young people are dressed in black. Some women go for a fully color-coordinated look, with black nail polish and blackish lipstick to match their shirts, pants, and shoes. People have different reasons for choosing black. Some are individualists who feel that wearing black makes them stand out from the crowd. Others are economically minded, pointing out that because black goes with any color, it's the ideal choice for people who don't have many clothes.

According to people in the fashion industry, black is also good from the design and manufacturing standpoint, because an abundance of black fabrics are available and the color looks good on everyone. Stores, including a famous Italian brand boutique known for its colorful designs, have changed their fall and winter lineups to black and are dressing their display-window mannequins accordingly. A new clothing brand with black as its keynote color has been coming out with one new item after another, and is doing very well.

The monochrome revival isn't limited to clothing; it has also spread to passenger cars and product packaging. In the automobile industry, white is making a comeback. Toyota Motor Corp., which had chosen emerald green as the signature color for one of its more popular sport utility vehicles, has added white to its lineup. The manufacturer now says that 40% of the sport utility vehicles it sells are white. The Japan Fashion Color Association (JAFCA), a private organization that does research on popular colors and disseminates its findings, reports that white is back as a popular color for cars, after several years of dormancy. Throughout the first half of the 1980s, over 60% of new cars sold were white. After that, the color's popularity trailed off, reaching a low of 17% of new car sales in 1994. But it started to make a comeback in 1996, when 21% of new cars sold were white, and its popularity has continued to grow through 1997.

The monochrome wave has also reached the realm of food packaging, where bright colors once ruled. Many new products--even cakes and cookies whose manufacturers want to emphasize a dreamy image--are coming in black and white packages these days.

Even black-and-white film is showing signs of making a comeback. In October 1997, Kodak Japan began selling black-and-white film that can be developed using color printing equipment. Disposable cameras with black-and-white film are also popular.

Color Choices Reflect the Times
Some say that consumers' color preferences are strongly influenced by social and economic conditions. Bright colors, for instance, appeal to people's acquisitive instincts. During Japan's recovery period following World War II and its phase of rapid growth in the 1960s, consumers were snapping goods up right and left, and the popular colors were bright: primary colors, pink, sky blue and yellow-green.

Around the end of the 1960s, environmental issues began to enter the public eye. And in 1973, Japan was hit with its first oil crisis. Under these influences, people began to place more value on quality of life and less on material things. Consumer preferences shifted to natural colors like beige, off-white, and brown.

In the early 1980s, after the second oil crisis of 1979, black came into favor, especially in the world of fashion. In 1982, avant garde Japanese designers featured black in their Paris collections, which were very well received. Young people clad entirely in black thronged the streets. They were dubbed the Karasu-zoku ("The Crow Gang"). According to one theory, people readily turn to black in times of economic stagnation because it is safe and easy to work with. During the early 1980s, when Japan was struggling to revive its economy in the aftermath of its oil shock, some viewed the Crows as a symbol for the economic slump.

In the 1990s, the fashion industry has not been able to define new color trends. Instead, it is said to be turning back to the fashions that prevailed from the 1960s through the 1980s. The phenomenon may reflect the current social and economic confusion. Some view the current popularity of black, like the previous monochrome craze, as a result of a sagging economy, which has cast a pall over domestic consumption. According to one operator of a brand boutique, "In the fashion industry, we say that when the economy is bad, black is popular. So we laid in our stock of black clothes for this fall early." Meanwhile, a food manufacturer that uses black and white in its packaging offers another take on the monochrome boom: "With the constantly changing parade of colors out there in the marketplace, consumers find black and white refreshing."

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