Life through a lens (Financial Times Weekend)

Take a walk around any major gallery this weekend and observe how in love with the digital image we all are. Forget what’s on the walls and count the people snapping exhibits with their iPhones. For some, it’s a way to own an aspect of the environment, for others it’s a distraction from the truth that they’d rather be having lunch. From holidays to food blogs, the digital image now serves as our brain’s external hard drive – a visual diary. For fashion designers working with photo prints it’s also a way to incorporate intimate experiences and personalise their work.

Zero + Maria Cornejo S/S 2012

Zero + Maria Cornejo’s spring collection is full of electric-bright, draped abstracts that began life as candid images shot in the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris. For an earlier collection, Maria Cornejo used her iPhone to capture details of the Bosphorus from the deck of a ferry. “Taking pictures has become my starting point,” she says. “I am always looking for patterns and colour – it’s how I look at the world and it lends a more personal narrative to the collection. We’ve started creating tags that go with each printed garment so that clients can read the story and feel connected to the clothes.”

For Cornejo, travel is vital for inspiration. Like Cornejo, Christopher De Vos and Peter Pilotto of the Peter Pilotto label shoot images while on a journey and then abstract the results until they are nearly unrecognisable. Still, an emotional connection to the source material remains. “We took many photos on a recent trip to Indonesia,” says Pilotto. “Some images went on the mood board and some began as a starting for a print. But we always rework everything.” Like those gallery and museum visitors with their iPhones, they are staking a very personal claim on an experience and a captured image.

Last summer, Bruno Basso of the London design duo Basso & Brooke drove across Siberia with two friends, a couple of smart phones and two cameras. The new spring collection that stemmed from it features a mix of images from Russia, manipulated with unlikely tropical colours. “I shot water, forests and skies,” says Basso, “The countryside was beautiful but very bleak; it’s hypnotic and never changes. I found myself fantasising about my childhood and luscious Brazilian flora for comfort, and I put the elements together.” Chris Brooke received the prints back in London and worked them into garments: “There was a clear and emotional feeling to them from Bruno’s unique experience of the journey.”

Basso & Brooke S/S 2012 © Fernanda Calfat

Many designers manipulate photographs out of all recognition, but some reproduce them faithfully and directly. Dries Van Noten discovered the work of James Reeve while judging at the Hyères Festival of International Fashion and Photography and reproduced some of his unpopulated nighttime landscapes on dresses this season. Reeve’s work is quiet and dark. Distant light sources punctuate his landscapes in a way that makes them work as abstract patterns, but on Van Noten’s garments they remain works of art in their own right. “I liked them for their urban and modern sentiment,” says Van Noten. “Although they are dark, I hope they lend the clothes an optimistic mood.” Fellow Belgian Ann Demeulemeester has used a monochrome photograph of a bird in flight as a T-shirt print this season.  It’s been blurred through Photoshop, but it’s still clearly figurative. “It’s an image that my husband shot,” she says. “I have adapted it to represent the memory of a bird; something that has faded away. I like the mystery and freedom of birds – you can’t own them.” Both Van Noten and Demeulemeester embrace photography as a fine art form in a traditional sense, with respect for the integrity of the original image. Demeulemeester’s first experiment with recontextualising imagery was via the painter Jim Dine. She put photo prints of his raven paintings onto dresses in over a decade ago. “I saw the original image and fell in love with it,” she says. “I got in touch with Dine and told him that I wanted to wear the image as a photograph, not just make a garment with it.”

Demeulemeester works predominantly in monochrome, which takes an image one step away from the obvious Kodak moment and two steps in the direction of wearability. Designers working with identifiable images, in colour, have to walk a more perilous tight rope; to wrong-foot would be to land in the realm of 1970s kitsch. “Mary Katrantzou and Erdem both use digital prints that are immediately recognisable,” says Samantha Lewis, one of the head buyers for the influential Italian store and online portal Luisa Via Roma. “But both have a feminine touch that doesn’t limit wearability. Erdem’s floral prints are soft, often with delicately embroidered overlayers.”

As with any graphic, a photo print lends a garment an often dramatic new level of style and meaning – from Maria Grachvogal and her pretty eveningwear florals to Mary Katrantzou and her edgy metal flowers. The democracy of the camera phone and the immense capacity of digital memory have now changed the kind of imagery that designers are experimenting with. It’s now less obvious, more intimate. “There’s a line in the film One Hour Photo about analog photography,” says Bruno Basso. “It’s about how most people don’t take snapshots of the little things – the used Band-Aid and the guy at the gas station, the wasp on the Jell-O, and how these are the things that make up the true picture of our lives. But now, with digital, they do.”


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