We take a look at 2021’s selection of Illuminating Yellow and Ultimate Gray through the lens of regional fashion, global architecture, and culture. 

by lindsay samson

Jan 4, 2021

You’ve probably heard by now that Pantone’s Colors of the Year 2021 are Illuminating Yellow and Ultimate Gray but what does their selection even mean? Who exactly determines the annual choice and what’s the basis of the selection, you may be wondering. Basically, the Pantone Institute wrote the book on color matching, with their nearly sixty-year old Color System turned to by everyone from the paint and textile industries, to the design world. The Pantone colors—of which there are over 1000—are known by a three or four digit number, with the Fashion, Home & Interiors range going by descriptive names, their suffix indicating whether the swatch is a dyed cotton or printed reference. The Color of the Year selection is made by a committee of people deemed by Pantone as “color experts” who analyze trends and influences within art, fashion and design, all the way to travel and entertainment. And though it has historically had a definitive influence on the year’s color zeitgeist, the annual announcement is less of a decree and more of an aesthetic guide for the branding, marketing and creative worlds.

Monochrome + Pantone’s Colors of the Year 2021 Hoodie. Photo: Courtesy of Pantone

Following the announcement of the two colors’ (PANTONE 17-5104 and PANTONE 13-0647 are their numerical shade names) reign for 2021, reactions were, as usual, mixed. Dazed termed the choices “depressing AF”, while Vogue US thought it was just “really weird.” Twitter users also chimed in, with some joking about the color duos frequent usage in the protective gear of workers, and cheekily terming the shades “Concrete” and “Safety Yellow”. British Vogue on the other hand lauded the wardrobe brightening abilities of the pastel, sorbet-like yellow, while The Independent shares Pantone’s sentiment that the shades represent ideas of endurance, optimism and cheer. Whatever side one may tend toward, there’s no denying that the fresh, zesty lemon hue and subtle yet dependable gray are a departure from the saturated shades—including 2018’s Ultra Violet, 2013’s Emerald, and 2012’s Tangerine Tango—chosen in previous years; this time, the colors feel like they’re at once a dose of fresh air and a grounding force, their seemingly opposing spirits merging to reveal a quietly assured and cheerily hopeful spirit.

The first time an achromatic shade (gray) has been selected, and only the second time two have been chosen, the color duo of yellow and gray may seem unexpected at first, the one an energetic and happy hue, the other presenting a subdued, almost flat tone. But if we consider the Color of the Year’s position a reflector of the times, their pairing begins to make more sense. According to the Pantone Institute, their choice is a reflection of “two independent colors that highlight how different elements come together to support one another. Practical and rock solid but at the same time warming and optimistic, the union… is one of strength and positivity… that encapsulates deeper feelings of thoughtfulness with the promise of something sunny and friendly.” And given the uncertainty of the past year we’ve had, a combination of energy, clarity, and hope is certainly called for, however surprising their form.  

Independently opposite though yellow and gray may be, as a combination they’re a lot more familiar to us than we may think. Consider the last time you drove down the street; paved roads more often than not oscillate between an asphalt black and gray, while road markings are frequently yellow. It’s truthfully a ubiquitous marriage of shades. The color pairing is also a popular one in architecture, with some of the year’s prominent architectural projects having utilized it in their design. Your Place at the Table—a Montreal installation conceived of to safely offer passers-by a space to relax following early—COVID-19 lockdowns, is a perfect reflection of the color combo, while Jiaxing, China’s art installation-like DSC Select Store utilizes yellow and gray to quirky effect.

Your Place at the Table, in Montreal, Canada. Photo: Raphael Thibodeau.

Viviers 2019. Photo: Nico Krijno

DSC Select Store in Jinxang, China. Photo: Minjie Wang.

On their own though, yellow and gray have been hinted at in the collections of designers for a number of years, with Vogue even questioning whether the collections of brands like Off-White, Balmain, and others may have predicted Pantone’s 2021 selection. But we’ve also spotted both the shades emerge as strong elements of recent work by some of the continent’s most prominent. In Thebe Magugu’s Spring/Summer ‘21 collection, a delicate, pale yellow made a strong appearance. Delivered in the form of sheer button-downs, a ribbed fringe sweater with cut-out shoulders, and an asymmetrical jersey dress, the hue lent a degree of softness to a collection inspired by imagined scenarios of hardened espionage. Designer Rich Mnisi appears to have long ago fallen in love with the delicious tone; from swirling, sunshine yellows emblazoned on crew-necks, to monochromatic matching sets in the color, yellow almost always emerges in his collections in some form or another.

As for gray, it’s status as a reliable neutral remains unshakeable, with designers including Mmuso Maxwell, Tzar Studios, and Kiko Romeo turning to the shade to emphasize the impeccable tailoring in their more recent collections. This year, the three labels sent inspired ranges down the Arise Fashion Week runway, each one peppered with the dependable shade. Lukhanyo Mdingi on the other hand has utilised gray in his work for years, the varying tones employed in his "Soulful II" collection consistent with a signature color aesthetic. Meanwhile, South African designer Viviers embraced the combination of yellow and gray in the editorial campaign for her 2019 label launch, presenting them via a boldly layered, avant-garde confection. 

Rich Mnisi FW'17. Photo: @rich_mnisi

Lukhanyo Mdingi, FW'19. Photo: Kyle Weeks

Thebe Magugu SS'21. Photo: Courtesy of Thebe Magugu

With their message of happiness and fortitude, Illuminating Yellow and Ultimate Gray serve as a visual antidote to the fear and hopelessness many are feeling at the moment. And as we approach the uncertainty of 2021, there seems to be no better metaphor for the kind of unity that’s called for than the bringing together of these two disparate but harmonious colors.