Catalog Merchandise: Of Wabi Sabi and Granny’s Fabrics

After meandering through the spring 2003 merchandise trade shows, I’ve decided not to bother dwelling on the dismal state of the economy and the effects of this downturn on show attendance and on trends in general. Instead, I’m going to stay upbeat and hope that the fall/holiday season will bring customers back to catalogs, Websites, and stores in droves. After all, the desire to shop reigns supreme in the hearts of most consumers today.

Good enough to eat

I am mad about the new “edible” colors. Everywhere I went at the shows I was assailed by shades inspired by food: pistachio green, apple green, guacamole green, blueberry sorbet, chocolate brown, espresso brown, mango, mimosa, and don’t forget apricot. Are you getting hungry yet?

Lately we’ve seen the reemergence of that boring word “neutral” to define color. This to me is really the absence of color, and in mail order I still believe that true success comes with color — and lots of it.

The new big neutral that’s emerging is a color that has several names. It’s hard to describe, but think of a pale flesh or nude tone. I think the best description for this particular neutral is “heavy cream,” which happens to be a paint color by Martha Stewart. It’s as if they mixed a bit of yellow with ivory. We saw this shade in several of the outfits at the Oscars in March.

Pink is still huge, and it’s all shades of pink — from the palest hues of the neutral palette to bright raspberry to the more sophisticated magenta and fuchsia. Last report we were mixing pink with orange and aqua, and now I am also seeing a mixture of pink with gray — very cool and contemporary. I detest the word “mauve,” but I like “ashy rose” and “blush,” and such tones of pink are hot. It’s as if you mixed lavender with brown, shook it up and out came “blueberry sorbet.”

Red, and all tones of red, from burgundy to terracotta, remain everywhere. Indeed, for warmth in the coming fall/winter season, red deserves a lot of focus. I am speaking about an Italian red (red with a mixture of black) vs. a Mandarin red (red with a mixture of orange).

Before attending the Paris Maison et Objet Show in January, I would have said that green was gone but not forgotten. The color was omnipresent at this premier home and gift show, however. I heard people saying that we should think of greens “as a neutral.” That might work for shades such as celery and sage, but not for the new, fabulous pistachio green I saw — that’s definitely not a neutral!

White is white-hot once again. White has been popular since the debut of the Swedish theme many markets ago, and it continues to have a big presence in the furniture market as well as in textiles. I believe it will be hotter in textiles next season.

In the home furnishings hard-goods area, we have been awash with black. The Italian hand-washed, distressed black or antique-look furniture that has been popular for a few seasons is still big in the High Point, NC, furniture markets and should be for at least the rest of this year.

We spoke about the combination of chocolate brown and robin’s-egg blue in the last report, and we will only be seeing more of it this summer. This duo is a stunning package.

The new Asian simplicity

Whatever happened to feng shui — the interior decorating trend inspired by the ancient Chinese philosophy of nature? Well, there is a new emerging trend, wabi sabi, an ancient Japanese philosophy characterized by the attraction of what is natural as well as imperfect.

Alice Chu, professor of color, theory, and design principles at Ryerson University in Toronto, recently explained the wabi sabi trend in Gifts and Decorative Accessories magazine, noting that “wabi is the beauty found in things that are simple, modest, tranquil. It is brought out in natural materials, like wood, stone, straw, and bamboo. Sabi is the beauty found in things worn and weathered with time and use. It is things that are imperfect and impermanent, unique and unconventional, modest and humble.” The spiritual in the home should be more popular than ever given the continuing aftermath of 9/11.

In keeping with the newly rediscovered appreciation of natural materials, chunky, even luxurious “naturals” were also big at the Maison et Objet Show. In my last trend report, I denigrated “natural” as a color, but now we’re discussing “naturals” as an element.

There is an intense feeling associated with the touch of the new textiles…an extrasensory aura happening here. The textures are soft and lush and highly tactile. There is so much texture that you can even become emotional about it. I supposed it started with using feathers and fur in home decor a few years ago.

In fact, when I was with the now-defunct home entertaining products catalog Panache a few years ago, we tried to sell feather placemats. That was definitely “edgy” in its day — we were ahead of ourselves. Now the textile market has become even more exaggerated, if possible.

I have even heard that “shag” is back! Please, never again, I had hoped. But yes, green shag throws are in! Flokati rugs (those crazy fluffy wool rugs native to Greece) are back as well. As evidenced on the fashion runways, and in recent movies such as Catch Me If You Can and Down with Love, the 1960s are indeed back.

As far as patterns, we are now seeing a hint of the old flame-stitch — which could be called southwestern but was so much more than that — design drifting back into the fold. And paisleys are making a return as well.

To Grandmother’s house we go

The mod ’60s of Mary Quant and Marimekko isn’t the only era enjoying a style resurgence. The retro looks of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s are perfect for the kitchen. Here you can find colorful and kitschy merchandise, such as tin canisters, breadboxes in vivid hues, and “vintage” tablecloths with cheery, folksy embroidery and patterns. This theme ties in to a longing for more innocent times.

At the same time, we are now seeing designers such as Ralph Lauren and Oscar de la Renta take looks from their grandmothers’ home furnishings and transport them into fashion. I think we will soon see this transported back into home by 2004.

Entertaining continues to be strong, and I am definitely seeing many more dinnerware patterns emerging with a new touch of casual elegance, as in Zrike’s Waverly Collection pattern called Blossom Hill. This is filling the void of the lack of formal dinnerware sales.

“Out of India” is the most “ethnic” theme I see, and that’s probably due to the abundance of wonderful textiles out there, from the bright-colored silk pillows to the crazy patchworks, especially in the bedding area. We saw Oscar de la Renta introducing his Indian prints to fashion, and I’m sure this is why we will be noticing the paisleys appear on the home scene again.

Cabana Joe’s — the casual tropical look — is still everywhere. Whether you call it Tommy Bahama or Caravan, you are going to see loads of rattan and wicker, not to mention palm tree motifs still prevalent on the home scene. The resort-area themes remain quite popular with the second-home customer — after all they have to furnish those $1 million condos with something!

Destination Tuscany

“At home in Tuscany” was a new theme in High Point, and of course, it was taken from the popular Frances Mayes book Under the Tuscan Sun. The Tuscany theme has always been a favorite — it’s all about simple lines with flowing shapes and curves. The designs inspired by the rustic elegance of that part of Italy are stylish yet understated, typically chestnut in furniture color with accessory tones in shades of terracotta, mossy green, and fresco coral.

I’m sure now that the Tuscany theme will become even more popular as French Provence goes into hibernation for a while. (Provence will be back once again, but many consumers are taking a break from France right now.) It helps that Tuscany is a theme that’s very easy to merchandise as there are so many Italian treasures out there in the marketplace. From the Italian-inspired dinnerware to the Italian-designed furniture, we can have another Italian Renaissance for sure!

Kathy Revello is a partner with Lenser, a San Rafael, CA-based catalog merchandising, marketing, and list management consultancy.

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