Photo finish (Blueprint)

This years Spring/Summer collections point directly at something of a nouvelle vague turning point for fashion. The digital photo prints that were catwalked at the prêt a porter last autumn were more numerous and infinitely more accomplished than anything seen before – from the stark and restrained pictures of the late Pina Bausch on the ankle length drifts of silk gazar at Chado Ralph Rucci in New York City to the Rorschach-like abstract techno fantasia of Alexander McQueen’s Atlantis Reborn collection in Paris.

While the aesthetics of audio visual media are constantly changing, from the hand held cameras and faster film speeds that liberated 60s French art cinema to the renaissance of 3D in the multiplex, things don’t tend to change so quickly in fashion beyond the cyclical (hems up… hems down… Jackie O…. Out of Africa…). They certainly don’t change as radically. Odd perhaps, given that it’s the only industry that reinvents its product twice yearly.

The technological advances in digital textile printing over the last couple of years invite parallels with the rise of the pixel in film and photography. Originally developed for flat panel exhibits in museums and galleries, a growing interest in its potential for garment adornment has fuelled development. The Japanese Mimaki-built machinery has become more sophisticated as well as cheaper, and the designers using the technology have brought their expertise to the table and helped expand the range of what fabrics can be printed on.

Maria Cornejo has been celebrated for her strong use of prints since she was one half of the feted Richmond Cornejo label in the 80s, working with then partner John Richmond. Now based in New York, the last two collections of her decade-old Zero label have relied heavily on photo print. For spring 2010 the artfully skewed volumes of her dresses come printed with shots of the Bosphorus that Cornejo shot on her iPhone during a ferry journey. ‘This collection began by looking at architecture, and how nature always finds a way to emerge in any environment,’ says Cornejo. This is fashion as intensely personal art project, made possible by leaps in technology: ‘To do this used to cost us around $100 a yard,’ says Cornejo. ‘Now it’s much cheaper.’ Cornejo’s operation is high end but, as an independent, relatively small in scale. Accessibility has made digital print possible for limited production runs, and even students. Previously, labour-intensive screen-printing would require the commitment of something like a 1000 metre minimum order at a factory.

‘Essentially it’s a bigger version of the kind of laser printer you might have at home,’ explains Andrew Groves, the head of the University of Westminster’s BA fashion course. ‘The fabric is coated, then it goes through the rollers back and forth at the speed of about a metre every 10 minutes and then it’s steamed to fix it. Then it can be washed like any other garment.’

Students at Westminster are being taught digital print as a potential alternative to silkscreen. ‘To do four or six colour printing with screens would take forever,’ explains Groves. ‘With this process you can print half a metre and put 40 different samples on it.’

The digital aesthetic is still very much in its infancy. James Bosley has worked on prints for Diana von Furstenberg and Louis Vuitton and teaches students on the Westminster course. ‘Many designers are using the process to achieve a screen-print aesthetic, effectively ignoring the traits of the new process. It’s a common early use of digital technology – assuming the look of a previous, highly skilled process, with less craft skill, time and money. But there are designers who are exploiting the new possibilities: Dries van Noten has produced numerous multi coloured highly detailed prints within the same garment. Marc Jacobs has printed on both sides of the same dress fabric in a way that could not be done by hand and Prada have produced impossibly airbrushed looking prints.’

London based design duo Basso & Brooke are the masters of digital textiles. Bruno Basso focuses on print, and Christopher Brooke on cut. Groves describes their influence on print in fashion as being similar to Gilbert & George in the art world: ‘When they started working five years ago it was a really hard thing to do, like Gilbert & George creating their really large scale pieces. Now the technology is accessible and everyone can do it, but Basso & Brooke are still more sophisticated – they aren’t just using the printer as a photocopier.’ Bruno Basso’s imagery, in terms of colour and graphic impact, is modern and suitably maximalist, but determinedly focused. With less skill it could teeter into kitsch, but it never does, and as a fashion house they are taking things to the next level. ‘We can alter any element of a garment and make it special,’ says Basso. ‘When we created our flower dress for our Japanese collection last year, we printed the same flower four times in different parts of the dress, angled in different directions, so that when the parts were sewn together, it became a three dimensional flower. And we printed different flowers everywhere, we didn’t just repeat it.’

As well as exploring the possibilities by manipulating cut and dimensions alongside their prints, Basso & Brooke are pushing the boundaries of print. ‘We still can’t print on textured surfaces, but when we work in Lycra, we work with our printers so that we expand it to its full extent, glue it down and then print, taking into account the expansion. Then when it relaxes, and is worn, and stretched again, there are no white gaps visible, as there would be with a high street version of the same piece. It’s a very precious way to work, but this is high fashion.’

For Bruno Basso, the key appeal of digital print is in that high fashion preciousness, something that sure to fuel appetite for the aesthetic: ‘Digital print is about the necessity of exclusivity. The era where you want to wear the same clothes as me, of everyone wearing D&G, and mass production, is over. This technology allows for a totally new kind of exclusivity.’ Digital print might well be the 21st century answer to haute couture. The pixel marches on.

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One Response to “Photo finish (Blueprint)”

  1. Excellent site. Thanks for the info will be very useful. Keep up the good work. Hope to see more soon.

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