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Trials and Tribulations of Color Management (and How Digital Tech Can Help)

When the infamous “What Colors are this Dress?” post went viral, many who work in the apparel and textile industry must have smiled knowingly. Color management is far from straightforward, and results can vary from person to person, store to store, device to device.

While the dress may have provided colossal website traffic for Buzzfeed, the real-life version of color accuracy is an everyday pain point for this industry. From conception to consumer sale, color management faces a variety of challenges, and getting it right plays a pivotal role in sales.

“Color is the first thing someone notices about a garment, and it can express messages and generate emotions,” Kelly Mallory, color manager at VF Outdoor (The North Face/JanSport), told Sourcing Journal. “Customers are likely to pass on a garment if they don’t like the colors it comes in, even if they like the style.”

These issues can crop up right from the beginning, said Doug Bynum, senior partner at Natific, a provider of digital color technologies. Designers may unknowingly select a color that isn’t feasible for the particular fabric in which it will be used. “This creates a lot of delays,” he said. “It’s a waste of development time and dollars to the brand.” To head off this problem, Natific generates a color-feasibility report for brands to access during the preliminary design stages, a process Mallory said saves on development time so designers can “design with the end in mind.”

Even when a feasible color is selected, subjective color assessment is perhaps the largest barrier to achieving color success rates. Anything from differing physical color standards from brands to mills, to using a different lightbox type with a different lightbulb, can have an affect.

Last but not least? The observer. (See, again, that Buzzfeed dress.*) “We all see color differently. With subjective assessment, we never get perfect correlation,” Bynum said, noting that results can vary depending on the day or even time of day.

Color management gone awry can be particularly cumbersome when garments from the same grouping are placed side by side at retail and the colors don’t match, said Bynum. “It speaks to the quality of the brand,” he said, and can affect a consumer’s impression of it.

E-commerce, meanwhile, faces its own unique trials. “What’s tricky about online color is that it can look different on different computers or phones,” said Mallory. “One day this issue will be solved, but for now consumers need to realize that different screens can show the same color differently.”

Bob Chin, director of color at Under Armour, emphasized the role that color plays at retail for the apparel brand. “Color is such an important part of our product—it’s one of the first things our consumer notices,” he noted. Partnering with a color-management firm has enabled UA to optimize the color development lifecycle by minimizing the need for physical lab dip and bulk lot submits from its suppliers for the majority of its textiles, while at the same time benefitting from receiving key color analytics.

“In just one year we cut weeks from our lead times and are continuing to see improvement,” said Chin. “We’ve also reduced the number of technical issues that we have to solve in-season by using Natific’s feasibility predictions for our seasonal color palettes.”

Getting everyone on the same page of approving digital colors can be difficult, Mallory acknowledged. “Design still often wants to see physical lab dips as they tend to be more visual people, and suppliers don’t always want to spend the money to invest in a proper digital color management system,” she said.

But investing in these processes from the beginning can prevent serious headaches down the road, in terms of both time and money. Not only can a traditional color cycle be reduced from 12 weeks to as low as two weeks, but it also eliminates the hidden air-freight shipment costs associated with lab dips, reduces costly adjustments during production, and prevents having to compromise on color results.

In the end, having the right mill partner is a key component of any color strategy. “A mill partner who is willing to invest in technology and the right dyes will be able to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for faster speed to market without quality suffering,” Mallory said. “A successful relationship with a mill is when both parties are transparent, so they can build trust. Trust leads to confident and quicker decisions.”

*White and gold, for the record

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