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Designers paint out grunge look

The mourning period is over. After fashion's somber mood turned away customers who found nothing uplifting about neutral clothes, some designers decided it was time to blast away the somberness with a surefire thing: color.

Not that they've done away with the blacks, grays and browns.

Across the best department stores in America, color is coming back in small doses, like buoys in a sea of darkness.

It's mostly found in the designer sections and in the trendiest parts of stores, but it will filter into the mainstream.

Among the biggest advocates of color this season are designers Gianni Versace, Donna Karan, Bill Blass, Todd Oldham, Anna Sui and Michael Kors.

Versace, Karan and Sui made strong color sizzle with slick and shiny fabrics. In patent leather, Versace's dresses, suits and trench coats looked as if they had just been drenched in a vat of Skittles candy color _ and hadn't yet dried.

Karan got raves for combining acid hues of lime and pink with wet suit fabric _ neoprene _ for ball gowns, of all things.

In his fall runway show, Blass ushered in the return of color with three double-faced swing coats in contrasting combinations of purple and orange, green and orange, and fuchsia with French blue.

Oldham, who has never strayed from strong color, played with rainbow stripes and gigantic plaids in his usual tongue-in-cheek way.

Sui's cheerleaders wore orange, lime and hot pink nylon and spandex T-shirts as well as pleated polyester skirts.

Kors lowered the intensity of color several notches for his beautifully cut collection. He used lavender, not violet, and butter, not taxicab yellow. But they were not too pale to qualify as pastels. Then he mixed them with browns, grays and blacks.

What makes these designer renditions of color different from the late '80s and early '90s versions is the use of interesting fabrics. From fuzzy mohair to fantastic plastic, fall color reaches out and wants not only to be seen but to be touched as well.

Why are designers bringing back happy color?

"Color has always represented optimism," said Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, a color trend tracking forecasting firm. "Bright colors are like an upper. This is what designers are trying to infuse into their collections after so many darks for the past fall and beiges and no-colors for the recent spring. Those two extremes reflected some of the concerns about the economy. Clothes had a pessimistic attitude. Now people are looking at things with a fresher pair of eyes _ everything, generally, is better.

"With that in mind, adding bright colors can bring people back into the stores. After all, how many beige or black outfits can you own?"

The problem with the saturation of black and other neutrals in stores is that these colors do not have any energy, said Mimi Cooper, consumer trends consultant for the Cooper Marketing Group, which tracks color trends. After a while, too many of these colors can give the feeling of blandness.

"Strong colors are pick-me-up colors _ they give an adrenalin rush," Cooper said.

Color is especially becoming important as baby boomers age, she said. "As the boomers get older, say, over 50 or 60, they'll want and need more color. Black tends to be a younger person's color, which was a big shock for us to find out in our consumer reports.

"As their skin tone changes with age, women's complexions tend to look duller, so they need to add color to their clothes," Cooper said.

Eiseman and Cooper agree that yellow seems to be the most ubiquitous of all the brights, followed by hot pink, then lime and orange.

Still, strong colors look best when they're tempered by neutrals.

This fall, the designers' favorite neutral to put against color is not the usual suspect, black.

"In the designer survey I did with Pantone, we looked at the numbers of color swatches that had been sold to designers," Eiseman said. "We noted 500 of the top colors, then narrowed them to 100. What we found was, the darker grays practically pushed black out of the picture.

"There's no question that black is still there, but charcoal is the neutral to wear with bright color."