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Prints for the cyber age

Suzy Menkes / 23 May 2010

Torrents of colour, turbulent whorls of pattern, violent clashes – the effects that appear on summer dresses often look more like a wild weather chart than the more familiar prints charming. Printed matter has undergone a digital revolution, as the new millennium has witnessed a dramatic change in the way that a pattern is developed to follow the shape of the body and to overlay actual images with virtual versions.

The cauldron of cyberspace wizardry has bubbled up in London, where, as Erdem Moralioglu, the recent winner of the British Fashion Council/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund award, says: “I don’t know anywhere else where I could study prints in a printing studio, like when I started at the Royal College of Art.”

“I’ve always been able to do all my prints digitally,” adds the designer, who is known as Erdem. “It’s about tricking the eye, whether it is done by digital technique or by human hand. I didn’t really learn the techniques. It is much more about trial and error. My prints are quite organic – I might find a piece of old wallpaper, Photoshop the print and add watercolour.”

The result for the summer collection was florals that seemed to grow like a patchy herbaceous border, some faded away by computer, others “cut-and-pasted” by handwork, creating a magical, but modern, effect.

Overlays of print creating striking collages was the summer focus of Peter Pilotto. For the Antwerp-trained design duo behind the label, most of the work is digital.

“Every season we work differently,” says Pilotto, whose co-designer is Christopher de Vos. “But we always do illustrations of the collage on the figure, because the pattern needs to connect with the body. ”

For the summer collection, Pilotto’s starting point was seeing fireworks exploding over the Venice Lido. That was then enhanced by asking a photographer to capture “linear light reflections” on the Thames in London. The duo then reworked the colors, but kept to the original story line.

“It is so easy to use crazy effects – and I don’t like it when the computer does it for you,” says Pilotto, adding that he might have up to 100 trials for one finished print.

The way that the late Alexander McQueen embraced technology led to an explosion of print, whether it was the 3-D Art Nouveau patterns in his last men’s collection or the writhing snakes and super-enhanced nature effects on sculpted dresses.

Another producer of vivid and original prints, including effects of blown glass and giant jewelry, is Mary Katrantzou, a designer of Greek origin and a graduate of Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London.

Susannah Handley, a former teacher at the Royal College of Art in London, and now a Paris-based fabrics consultant for Louis Vuitton, saw the global impact of the new digital age in the mid-1990s.

She describes the difference between traditional and digitally printed textiles as akin to painting versus photography. Her heart remains with “the picturesque romance of copper rollers, silk screens, and the luxury of eye-mixed liquid color.” But she admits that it is “as antiquated as grinding up lapis lazuli to make paint.”

Does anyone really care about the method behind the special effects?

A discriminating customer can apparently tell the difference, as screen-printed pigments saturate the cloth and the image penetrates both sides, while digital “sits on the surface.” Yet the ink-jet printers are integral to materials sourced in a country like Turkey – and even the famous Italian fabric manufacturers of Lake Como are now using both methods.

For young designers, the power of digital is that it requires only a desk, a chair, a computer and a creative mind. And if the price of a complex and originally patterned designer dress is lowered by new technology – so much the better for the consumer.

Although Ms. Handley regrets the passing of “some kind of magic hanging over the long-stained print tables,” who can be sure that Photoshop will beat out traditional pigments?

“The question for the future is how to understand and accept the new textile balance,” Ms. Handley says. “Painting was declared dead the day photography was invented in 1839 – but we know now that it was not.”

© IHT

 
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