Fashion Week: How the Season’s Hottest Colors Get Chosen

As the runways dissolve into a sea of plum, navy and green at New York Fashion Week, TIME talks to Roseanna Roberts, director of color trends at The Color Association of the United States, about how the season's most popular colors are forecasted and developed.

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Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

Diane Von Furstenberg's Fall 2012 fashion show, which was presented February 12 at Lincoln Center in New York City, captures the season's popular trends with green tones and pops of bright color.

One might say that Roseanna Roberts is a bona fide color expert. As director of color trends at The Color Association of the United States (CAUS), Roberts and her team directly influence the shades that define each season — from the hues marching down the runway at Fashion Week to the tints found at home goods stores and even makeup palettes.

But beyond the visual interpretation of color forecasting — namely, pinpointing the trends that designers, manufacturers and buyers will be working with in their respective industries each season — Roberts and the CAUS are responsible for developing a tangible sensory experience that reflects the mood of our changing culture at any point in time.

“We really try to capture a feeling or zeitgeist of what’s going on in society,” Robert says of color forecasting. “What are the common threads throughout our cultural patchwork?”

(SPECIAL: TIME’s Complete Coverage of New York Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2012)

The CAUS was established in 1915 by a group of textile manufactures. According to Roberts, this was a time when the department-store concept was developing, and they recognized the need for an organization to direct trends so manufacturers were able to produce large quantities of common textiles. Since then, the organization has grown to make up five categories: women’s fashion, menswear, youth fashion, interiors/environment and beauty, which was added in the spring of 2011.

Forecasting is a complex, intuitive process that occurs two years in advance of the season in question. So, for example, the color trends for Fall/Winter 2012 that Fashion Week attendees are noticing now were actually defined and developed in 2010. The extensive lead time is necessary, Roberts says, so that textile manufacturers can produce the materials that designers will be looking to use. But the delay does pose certain challenges.

“Because we’re working two years in advance, we obviously we want to root [the trends] in as many permanent facts as we can,” she says. “Anything from architecture and films to events, like the Olympics or elections; even a person who has been touted as someone who will be making waves. We try to foresee where our attention will be focusing.”

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The trends are forecasted by a panel of committee members who are experts within their industry, such as designers, buyers and textile manufacturers. This group of eight to 12 people brings in research on and examples of colors that are resonating with them. “We’ve had committee members come in with a stone they found on a street, a scrap of fabric, a flower, a spice, anything that really has a color,” Roberts says.

From there, the group distills the trends, focusing on four or five themes that contain 20 to 25 colors in total. Roberts claims it’s not as difficult as it seems, because each expert is so tuned in to colors that their examples often overlap. After the colors are decided, Roberts and her team research and formulate the trend, work with a dye house to create the palette and develop the color cards that members will receive 18 to 24 months prior to the season.

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It’s a fascinating industry, and something that people often don’t give much thought. But when a certain color story — such as deep blues, which were popular for Spring/Summer 2012 — pops up time and again, as a culture we are apt to slowly integrate it into our lives as we become more comfortable with the trend. “You don’t necessarily realize on a conscious level where the colors come from,” Roberts says. “But I think when we’re looking at it, we really do try to track what our attention is drawn to and anticipate what our preferences will be even if we don’t outwardly realize it.”

So with Fall/Winter 2012 Fashion Week in full swing, what colors can we expect to paint our world? “Moving forward, we’re seeing these blue-based greens, and a consideration of season-less dressing,” Roberts says. “We’re looking to nature not in an ‘eco’ way, but more as a new inspiration for luxury.” With that in mind, earthy jewel tones, such as rich wine colors and emerald greens, plus warm orange-yellows and browns will be popular, along with bursts of color that are “inspired by a sense of fun and absurdity.”

MORE: Diary of a Fashion-Week Fanatic

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