The power of black

17:00, Jul 09 2011
ALL BLACK ANTHONY BORIC: "You look at the jersey, and it means much more than just a black jersey ... and I think a lot of us, when our backs are against the wall, that's what gets us over the line."

From fashion to sport, film to tourism, Steve Kilgallon investigates how Brand Black got so big and why a colour came to define our national identity.

They dare not tamper with the All Black jersey. Although other, less-worthy national sporting teams the world over have suffered from creative design decisions and bloated advertising logos, New Zealand's rugby jersey has been immutable: deep, jet-black, free of the stain of commercialism (since the mid-90s, anyway).

The All Black jersey may have been the trigger, but black has permeated New Zealand society and become a shorthand for our very identity. It lives large in film, music, art, fashion, crime and tourism, and is deeply associated with our cultural icons (Billy T James, John Walker, Jake the Muss). It's become how we sell ourselves to the world, and also how we flog everyday products to each other. As the Rugby World Cup beckons, Brand Black will sell you black nappies, black beer bottles, black boxes of washing powder and breakfast cereal. What does that say about our identity, and the power of black?

Ironically, fashion designer Doris de Pont lives in a bright purple bungalow and is wearing a wide palette of colours when we meet. De Pont is astounded that she's the first to think of curating an exhibition about our obsession with black, Black in Fashion, which opens in Auckland in September and will include everything from an 1890s' black dress to the black leather jacket bequeathed by dying Chills drummer Martyn Bull to singer Martin Philipps and commemorated in their song "I Love my Leather Jacket".

"Brand Black is a phenomenon of the late 1990s and I suspect it won't go away again...there has been this ascendancy of colour as the national brand," says de Pont, who is also editing a book of essays on black's influence on New Zealand society.

They are legion: think the dark colours of New Zealand artists Colin McCahon and Charles Goldie; of Temuera Morrison's all-black attire in Once Were Warriors; Billy T James's black singlet. There's the universal choice of black leather, adopted by every New Zealand bike gang, to signify menace. The use of the black singlet to signify Kiwiness to external audiences.


In fashion, New Zealand, like no other country, relies on black, taking its cue from the determined monochrome of Kiwi designers Nom*D and Zambesi, although de Pont reveals that this season there has been a definite shift away from black in the New Zealand market towards bright colours. She suggests black's influence may partly be due to New Zealand's unique take on urban casual style, but admits: "People have different opinions [why we wear so much black], and they never reflect badly on them: for example, in fashion, people will say people wear black because it's easy, they're lazy, and that's usually said by people who don't wear black. People who say black's very sophisticated are often people who do choose to wear black."

Black has had a strong impact on New Zealand music in various genres and eras. Sunday Star-Times music writer Grant Smithies suggests that in many cases that was an overseas influence, from Johnny Devlin and Ray Columbus donning all black because American crooners did, through punks and goths in the 70s and 80s copying the Ramones and AC/DC to Supergroove frontman Karl Steven mimicking the Blues Brothers in another outing for the black suit.

And Smithies reckons the black pullover's role in the 1980s "Dunedin Sound" indie scene was as much about utility as a statement: "It was f---ing cold down there, and it was cheap clobber; Warnock's had them by the lorryload and they were easy to wash when you spilled Speight's on them and when the seeds from your spliff spilled down them, you didn't notice the burn marks. It was wearing what you got up in that day rather than any kind of a fashion statement."

The punk movement was big into black, de Pont points out, because punks dressed by subverting regular fashion, and the New Zealand palette was already much darker than the European one. Smithies ponders a moment, fishes in his record collection, and, sure enough, produces a 1979 compilation of Kiwi punk called AK79, the sleeve showing a punk clad in black leathers, jersey and jeans.

In sport, our middle-distance runners made the black singlet iconic. When Kiwi athletics coach Jack Ralston travelled overseas with national teams, he packed extra singlets because he found them in great demand for swaps with rival athletes, even from more successful nations like Kenya, Germany and America. He would also give a black singlet to aspiring athletes to motivate them, telling them to return it once they had earned their own.

Ralston believes the colour gives New Zealand teams status: "Black stands out from the crowd, no other country has black, we can stand out."

"It's like a real drug. You'll do anything you can to wear it once. Once you've worn it once, you'll strive to wear it every's the one thing you just don't want to ever give up."

– Andrew Hore

Yet adidas, which pays astronomical sums to the NZRU to make the All Black jersey, don't appear to particularly like the colour. Paul Stevens, their sports marketing strategic manager, does say that black "epitomises strength, power and stealth" but openly concedes: "Obviously, black wasn't our choice."

But he notes England recently changed their away kit to almost-black purple, and will wear it for their opening world cup match. Japan and Canada have changed their shorts and socks to black and France darkened their sky blue jerseys to a deep royal blue. Just as research shows red is the most successful colour for football teams, and jerseys with a V are better than those with hoops for league teams, black has some positive connotations for rugby teams.

Paul Green-Armytage, adjunct research fellow in the art and design school at Perth's Curtin University, who specialises in colour, says it's perfect for a rugby shirt, denoting masculinity, intimidation and even death (to the opposition): "It's a very strong national brand – Australia doesn't have the equivalent, the Wallabies wear yellow, which is unfortunate."

Jack Ralston was the New Zealand Rugby Union marketing manager in the 1990s when the union first began promoting the idea of crowds turning up dressed in black, running a "Black Out" campaign (using the Stones song "Paint it Black") around a Bledisloe Cup match. That paralleled a worldwide trend towards sports fans wearing replica gear, but Kiwi fans seem more tractable: Ralston says he observed subsequent crowds continuing the practice without prompting and the appeal has been used with success by other Kiwi sports teams such as the Warriors.

But he says one issue the union grappled with was fans owning the jersey and wearing it to the stadium, but not during everyday life because of its mana. Stevens agrees there was that "perception", which adidas has worked hard to change, but not overcome to the extent of the UK market.

"We saw a shift in mentality around the 2005 Lions tour," he says, "when there was a fear of the `Barmy Army' coming over and taking over, and they stood up and ensured they wore black into every stadium." It was a significant boost for Brand Black.

"Once I put the jersey on, you're explosive, and you feel great in it. And it's something I constantly say to myself before the game – I even write it just want to go out there and explode and that's the mentality I take."

– Mils Muliaina

What is clear, says de Pont, is that black "communicates very means something to people. It's not a neutral decision, even in the corporate sector, where it's a decision to fit in or embody the job. It's a very deliberate choice".

In language, notes Green-Armytage, it's often very negative: think black mood, black day, black spot, blacklist, black books, blackout, black economy and blaggard. In marketing terms, he cites a Japanese study that when paired with dark colours, it's seen to convey dignity, masculinity and majesty, and with light colours, to suggest intellect, modernity or progression. He notes how black was sometimes used to "spoil" something perfect so it wasn't seen to blaspheme, to the extent chimney-sweeps were hired to attend some wedding ceremonies to "dirty" them. In nature, it symbolises death and desolation (through burning). He mentions historical theories of black being coveted, due to the expense of all that dye, but also being considered cheap, because of the single colour tone.

Colour therapist Thelma van der Werff, who lectures on how colour can affect your potential, says black suggests elegance, strength and masculinity (thus men's grooming products are usually packaged in black), but also mystery and concealing emotions.

"It's how the country portrays itself: it's a strong country, and it will not be easily influenced by those around them, that's why we say we won't have any nuclear here," she says.

But she also notes that black is a colour to "go unnoticed" – deliberately adopted by orchestras, waiters and interior and fashion designers, who all want you to focus not on them, but the music, food, decor or clothes on display. Van der Werff wears black when travelling long distance to avoid being drawn into small talk; but worn professionally, she suggests, it could cause you to be disregarded by your boss.

"[Brian Lochore] said when you put it on, you shouldn't be able to fit out the door. That's the way he felt, and I always remember that, and it is a figure of speech... but yeah, you put it on and that's what you feel like... you're that big that the door, the room, can't even keep you in. It's something for a little guy like me."

– Conrad Smith

Designer and author Jonathan Gunson, who stirred up the Auckland "waterfront stadium" debate by suggesting a waka design, told a colleague four years ago that the black brand was "merely a handy space-filler" until New Zealanders discovered their own national identity.

Now, he says, because black has become so ubiquitous, we have. "It used to get up my nose that we were very parochial, we had only one thing and that was the All Blacks," he says.

"It was a really shallow point of view, but within the last few years, it has ceased to mean that.

"It has been taken up by so many parts of New Zealand culture that it now means just about anything we want to jump up and down and wave a flag about."

Gunson says that cultural maturity is the result of New Zealanders, particularly immigrant New Zealanders, wanting to discover and assert their own identity, having seen how certain Maori are of their place and their culture, and of a growing confidence, embodied in filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson, that we also have our place in the wider world.

"We see powerful icons all around the planet, and we want our own, thank you, so we have broadened this black identity far beyond where it started," he says. But he believes that New Zealanders far overstate what Brand Black means to outsiders, and it's a much more powerful internal message that gives us self-confidence.

How far can we take Brand Black? Green-Armytage has written about the corporate takeover of colours, citing legal action by Cadbury (purple) and BP (green) and Orange (well, orange) to gain some control of their preferred hue. He says it's ridiculous but not inconceivable that the All Blacks, or even the New Zealand government, might attempt to trademark black.

But actually, warns Van der Werff, black isn't really our colour anyway. We'd look much better in turquoise: it's the colour of paua shell, a mix of the green of the land and the blue of the sky, and apparently the colour of invention.

"Black is also about not really understanding or living up to your potential, and I do believe the New Zealanders have far more potential than they are living up to, partly because of big brother Australia next door," she says.

And, after all, it's a bit bloody dull. "I've often heard when people go into Auckland, they see all these people going out for lunch and it looks like they're all going to a funeral. No one stands out. If just one person wore a bright yellow blazer..."

Black in Fashion, 36-42 Customs St, Auckland, September 9-October 24.

All Black quotes extracted from a forthcoming documentary commissioned by adidas on the history of the All Black jersey.

Sunday Star Times