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The colour of the future?

Li Edelkoort says she’s never been wrong in her predictions of lifestyle trends – so where does she think design and fashion will go next? Less consumerism, less individualism and lots of grey, she tells DEIRDRE McQUILLAN

‘WE HAVE BEEN living in a period of marketing, not creativity,” says Li Edelkoort. Her name may not have household resonance in Ireland, but in many industries Edelkoort is recognised as a leader in trend and lifestyle forecasting, a business that in the last 20 years has grown in importance and brought her worldwide fame and fortune.

Described by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential fashion experts of our time and by I-D magazine as one of the world’s most important designers, Edelkoort has advised companies as diverse as Nissan, Philips, Swatch, Estée Lauder, Coca Cola and Camper, among others. She has even advised on horticultural trends and has been working on long-term ecological and transport projects for the Dutch government for more than 20 years.

Her advice to Nissan, for example, was that it needed to build a rounder, more family-friendly car – a tip that resulted in the Micra.

She claims that she’s never got a forecast wrong, but admits that she doesn’t have the instinct for the exact timing and potential volume of a trend. Her best fashion prediction, she says, was of the emphasis that would be placed on the colour of skin.

“It started in the 1990s and has been building in fashion, in fragrances and cosmetics,” she says. “It was not such an obvious prediction then, and was totally new.”

A design director of the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands, considered one of the world’s foremost design schools, she describes her work as primarily intuitive, acting as a kind of barometer of the zeitgeist, “a catalyst for the spirit of the day, turning it into trends as early as possible. It is about catching, receiving, understanding and telling.” This year she is starting a design school in Poznan in Poland, the first of its kind in the country.

Born in the Netherlands in 1950, Edelkoort demonstrated her visionary power at an early age: “I always knew what turn fashion would take next. I always knew.” A carnival costume she designed for a newspaper in 1965 anticipated the mini-skirt phenomenon and led to much comment. A fashion journalist suggested she should make a job out of studying future trends.

After studying at the Arnhem Academy of Arts, her first job, at 21, was forecasting trends for a department store. Later, she moved to Paris, where she is now based and from where she travels all over the world offering her prophecies on what we will wear, how we will live and what we will eat in the future.

She spends a quarter of the year on the move to New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and the major European cities, as well as south and north Africa. Global style bores her.

“People who travel are so tired of finding the same shops everywhere,” she says.

I CATCH UP with her in London, where she is giving one of her regular colour, fashion and lifestyle presentations for 2010-11 to a group of more than 250 mostly female designers and retailers at the Royal Institute of British Architects. She speaks at some length about her optimism for the future despite the current crisis, and of her belief that seeds of revival are already beginning to sprout in places such as Tokyo.

“Networking is really the word. We feel that the relationships forged now will have staying power,” she says.

The colour grey, now so fashionable, is all about nuance and dialogue, and is an important metaphor for our times. It’s about a mature and democratic lifestyle, “an appeasing tone in times of change and financial crisis”, she argues. She lists 45 different shades of grey, from pearl grey to concrete, washed grey, mouse grey, and more.

“I had an incredible urge to see nuance and end the black-and-white dialogue,” she says. “I believe the grey mentality will be the renewal of our planet.”

She speaks about the importance of narrowing the brief in order to be more creative and discard the unnecessary, “and not have designers doing hotels, cosmetic companies giving us pharmaceuticals. It’s not back to basics, it’s the merging of luxury with ecology.”

Other predictions include the continuing appeal of black in fashion, “but in shades like blue-black”; the comeback of a softer suit; the cardigan for everybody; the more androgynous boy; the importance of belts; the colour brick; and a stress on the importance of sustainability.

On lifestyle and interiors, she is particularly interesting, elaborating on the notion of family and how it applies to product development. She refers to the growing tendency of people to work as couples. “How do we make product lines that link like a family?” she asks.

At a design show in New York recently, she counted 35 fathers in two days with young babies in slings: “I call it mothering fathers – it’s a new idea in society.”

Other changes she has noted are grandparents spending more time with grandchildren in public places, because grandparents are younger, fitter and bridging the gap more easily, combining old and new, another social phenomenon. Designing merchandise that fits snugly together reflects the idea of being in a group yet individual, a concept that spreads to all areas of interior design.

“It’s a revival of modernism,” she says.

Farms will be an inspiration to architects, she believes, and black important in the finish of materials.

A HANDSOME WOMAN with slicked black hair shot with stripes of white, she seems often to speak in a vague, generalised way, but can be direct and pointed when it comes to her opinion of recent retail trends.

“Marketing likes to do what we did yesterday and what everybody else is doing, and not soul-searching,” she says. “It has taken horrible forms, like copying. The greed factor has to be overcome.

“I am very Dutch, very grounded, and yet at the same time I have this unbroken fantasy. You connect both with the clouds and the earth, and it is a strange combination to be a realist and a surrealist at the same time, or a fantasist. If a client phones me, asking me a question, immediately my brain, like a film, starts to roll and I start seeing scenarios and solutions and almost never waver from that first image.”

Six forecasts: Li Edelkoort predicts a less egocentric era

1 Being together as a group, yet always individual, is a major new social phenomenon that will modify this century, helped along by this information age. To start living in a society that is less individual and therefore less egocentric is a major shift.

2 In fashion there will be a focus on one garment, one colour, one fibre. We need to narrow our brief to do as little as possible as well as possible. Global brands need to have local influences, local colour and local production.

There are too many consumers and not enough ideas, so we need to foster talent. The coming generation will reject consumerism. Going to a shop will be more like going to a gallery.

3 The body-enhancing dress will disappear. A dress will not necessarily be an item of seduction, but more like male dress, such as kaftans, tunics, ponchos, long shirts, the type of dress traditionally worn by men in the Middle East and other countries.

4 After a rebuilding period, there will be an opening of the floodgates of creativity, which will resonate and resurrect economies.

5 Although we will continue to be keen on arts and crafts, there will be a resurgence of pure industrial design and a revival of modernism in architecture and interiors, an increased sparsity of form and colour. Yellow will be important in upholstery and used with black and white.

6 Generally speaking, the creative spirit will dominate society and there will be a bigger place for creativity in politics, in economics and other spheres and not just in making things and design, but much more embedded in society, especially in European countries and notably small countries, which will use the creative industries to survive economically.