When most of us see Michelle Obama in a yellow dress or watch the blue-green world of Avatar, we think: that looks cool.
Alice Chu sees next season’s popular colours.
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Chu was good at art as a child and worked hard to get better so she could attend university. She was born in Shanghai and moved to Taiwan with her grandparents to escape communism (her parents and sister stayed behind); getting into school was very competitive.
By the time she’d finished her degree, both her grandparents had passed away. With nothing to keep her in Asia, she went to Columbia University in New York for a masters in art. But being a fine artist wasn’t for her. “I thought to myself: ‘If I just paint, it’s not a career that can provide me with a job and money.’”
A summer job at a graphic design firm solved that problem. After she met her husband, she moved with him to Boston, then to Montreal after he got a job at McGill University. Since graphic design work was often sporadic, she decided to do her teaching diploma at McGill in 1972.
She began teaching in the visual arts department at Dawson’s College. Then a job posting at Ryerson in 1977 caught her eye. She moved to Toronto, seeing her husband every two weeks and during the summers. (Her son, now an adult, eventually moved to Toronto too.)
Chu was a bit unsure at first: the job was teaching basic design, but in the school of fashion.
As the years passed, Chu became increasingly interested in fashion, and in particular, colour.
She observed how strong coloured, fashion-forward garments pull people into stores, but they often purchase conservatively hued pieces. She wondered about favourite colours: do people like certain colours because they’re appealing, or because they look good in them.
Chu began writing about these issues and discussing them with her students. In the late 1980s, she joined Color Marketing Group. This US-based non-profit has members from a range of industries, including interior design, that meet twice a year to discuss which colours are popular and to guess what will be hot in upcoming seasons.
It then publishes the group’s predictions. Fabric manufacturers and paint companies then use these colour predictions to help formulate new products.
To develop her own theories of what’s the next hot colour, Chu’s always observing what’s going on in pop culture, politics, the economy and big events. She’s always looking at fashion magazines and what people are wearing whens she travels.
Chu’s not always spot on. She says guessing colour trends is like predicting the weather. “If you’re right 80 per cent of the time, you’re OK.”
Diane Peters once hawked magic pens at the Canadian National Exhibition. She’s now a writer and part-time journalism instructor.