The critic Terry Castle once described the artwork of abstract expressionist artist Agnes Martin as filled with “sippy cup” colors. The mint greens, the baby blues, the Laffy Taffy yellows. These are the colors that feel approachable, silken, serene; a balm to the dark days that have defined the past two immunologically downward years.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that a similarly sedate lilac purple is the hue that’s dominating the visual identity of young brands as of late. Far before Pantone whipped up Very Peri, and dubbed it the color of the year, light purple staked its claim across the internet. If you scroll through the websites of various budding direct-to-consumer brands, you are bound to find some version of a muted lavender cross your screen. This color features prominently across the branding of undergarment and accessory lines like Pepper, the place for “bras that finally fit small chested women”; Studs, a cleaner, sleeker version of the shopping mall piercing parlor, Claire’s; as well as sustainable beauty and wellness companies like Saie, Tower28, and Billie. You might also recognize the color from the backdrop of pop-rock singer Olivia Rodrigo’s latest album cover, the promotional graphics for Euphoria, the metallic shell of the iPhone 12, or Phoebe Bridgers’ quicksilvery hair. Whereas cotton candy pink has become an oversaturated visual shorthand for the Millennial generation—particularly women—lilac purple is dominating the lives of Gen Z, who are bringing a new worldview and set of expectations to their color preferences.
Lilac on packaging, product and brand campaign images, brand mood boards, and album covers. Image 1: Screenshot: Saie Instagram. 2: Screenshot: Phoebe Bridgers Instagram. 3: Courtesy Billie. 4: Screenshot: Outdoor Voices Instagram. 5: Screenshot: Pepper Instagram. 6-7: Courtesy Sony Music Entertainment.
The color-generation phenomenon leads us to the question of how such trends come about in the first place, and how culture shapes them. Kassia St. Clair, a UK-based cultural historian, author of The Secret Lives of Colour, and former color columnist for Elle Decoration, explains that beyond the traditional understanding of purple as a symbol for royalty or honor, this lighter shade of lilac has a historical association with queer identity. One figure responsible for this is Neil Munro “Bunny” Roger, a British socialite and high-end fashion designer who wore a purple catsuit and egret feather to his 70th birthday party in 1981. Another, earlier example is Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright who referenced purple frequently in his writing. (“Never trust a woman who wears mauve," he writes in The Picture of Dorian Gray.) Lilac’s association with the queer community outlived both figures, continuing to represent queer solidarity well into the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st. Starting in 1990—after years of lobbying by activists—the Empire State Building illuminated with lavender during pride month. It’s only in the past few decades that the rainbow flag has replaced lilac as a more popular symbol to represent queerness.
This history provides an interesting cultural context for how brands are approaching marketing to a generation who, in their formative years, came to understand that there is a spectrum of gender and sexual identities. While baby blue is the traditional signifier for boys, and light pink is associated with girls, purple is somewhere trawling in the middle; an ambiguous, umbrella color that eschews traditional gender norms. “I wanted a color that didn’t feel like it was only for women—I wanted it to be universal and fresh,” said Laney Crowell, founder of Saie, in regards to landing on lilac for her company’s branding. “Our design partner, Kapono Chung, of Combo NYC identified lilac. At the time nobody was using or wearing lilac, so it was truly creating a new look and feel.”
Images courtesy Saie.
The color features prominently across Saie’s website, which has a lilac menu bar, drop-down list, and host of buttons. The color transcends the digital design space too, covering iridescent bottles of tinted moisturizer and vegan leather cosmetic cases. The shaving brand Billie uses an almost identical shade across its digital and physical assets too, including product shots featuring models in lilac tank tops and eyeshadow. The clean beauty brand, Tower28, and the jewelry piercer, Studs, take a similar approach in their digital and physical designs, though for them, lilac is more of an accent than a dominant register. For nearly all of these brands, the color accompanies another overarching aesthetic shift, from minimal design and curated Instagram feeds to a louder, Y2K-like sensibility, which pairs lilac with neon yellows and oranges, swirly typefaces, and animated graphics.
The shade of purple splashed across these brands’ platforms and products is similar—albeit slightly lighter—than the hue Pantone chose for its color of the year, which now wraps coffee mugs and lanyards for sale on the brand’s site. It’s unclear whether Pantone considered their color, Very Peri’s, generational appeal when selecting it, however. Debbie Millman, cofounder of the Masters in Branding program at The School of Visual Arts and cohost of the Design Matters podcast, notes that since the company launched their color of the year in 2000, the annual shade often contains some element of blue or purple. (In 2018, the color purveyor came up with “Ultra Violet,” a slightly warmer Very Peri.) Perhaps, she theorized, purple isn’t too politically polarizing, and thus is attractive to a company looking to appeal to as many consumers as possible. (It’s worth noting that it’s quite difficult to get a universal read on color when it's largely dependent on our cultural context.)
Web design applications of lilac, or as we like to call it, "palliative purple" hues. Image 1: Screenshot: Billie website. 2: Screenshot: Saie website. 3: Screenshot: STUDS website. 4: Screenshot: CO. by Colgate website. 5: Screenshot: Tower28 website.
Practically, color is also the first thing our minds process when we see a product on a shelf, Millman explains, followed by shape, numbers, and finally, language. Given the speed with which we move through the internet, shuffling from tab to tab senselessly, it makes sense that merely the placement of a color like lilac on a brand’s website could signal some kind of solidarity, or knowingness to a young browser. The color itself becomes an indicator for “hip,” which is often a primary consideration for young adults, especially this group, which has grown up in an era of seamless design.
The past few years have come with a considerable amount of stress—and for that reason, it might be more fitting to call this on-trend color “palliative purple.” Like its baby pink predecessor, lilac is a chromatic comfort blanket. A soft pastel, it does hang on to some element of the “comforts of babyhood” that Molly Fischer, features writer at The Cut attributed to millennial pink in a viral essay about the previous generation’s aesthetic. If speckled soup bowls and rosie bubble wrap dopp kits came to represent a certain class and cache of twenty- and thirty-year-olds, perhaps lilac will envelop the lives of their younger siblings, who are scrolling through Depop in search of the perfect tiny t-shirt.
Like anything trendy, though, there will be an inevitable end to it. In the 1850’s, a chemist named William Henry Perkin discovered the first aniline dye, which was in the color mauve. It skyrocketed in popularity, coloring dresses, skirts, and womenswear purple for the first time. The novel shade became so pervasive that the British magazine, Punch, published an article proclaiming that the city of London had caught “the mauve measles.” “What you see a few years later is that this purple is nowhere…because it had been everywhere, people no longer wanted it,” St. Clair says, in her account of this story. There was a similar erratic craze— “violettomania”—in the fine art world, when impressionist painters like Monet inundated their landscape pieces with the color.
Lilac is already filling the TikTok feeds and medicine cabinets of our youngest generation. But how long until those purple butterfly clips end up at the bottom of their closets, and pastel purple Instagram filters get abandoned? Considering how fast the internet-fueled cultural currents move these days, it could be only a short matter of time before the Gen Zers give up their color du jour, and in typical fashion, go searching for the next best thing.