Art on your sleeve

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 May, 2009, 12:00am

There is no question that pretty doll-shaped dresses top fashion's must-have list this summer. But what makes them different from last season's styles are the striking and colourful prints on them. Gone are the ditsy florals; today's prints are bold and dynamic with great sweeps of colour that blur, merge and bleed into each other, suggesting strong, independent femininity. The trend has shown no signs of abating, and has continued through to the autumn/winter collections.

Technology has helped to liberate the modern print. Digital prints are now created on computers, blending myriad colours with no clearly defined outlines that can't be replicated by traditional screen printing.

'A screen print using up to 60 colours is physically not possible,' says Erdem Moralioglu, a young British designer whose swirling digital prints have become one of his signatures. 'I like to listen to music and play around on the computer. It's a very natural, organic process and it's how I start each season.'

A number of young designers with a strong print aesthetic have emerged in London in recent years. Jonathan Saunders, who shows in New York and also designs for Pollini, is known for his highly complex geometric patterns, while Marios Schwab's visceral patterns and thermo image prints of body heat represent a radically different approach than the 'body-conscious' trend of last year's spring/summer collection. Giles Deacon, an illustrator of flora and fauna in his free time, has worked camouflage, tribal and Bambi prints into his recent collections. For autumn there are raw abstracts and fly-fishing prints.

'Some of the designs were based on my illustrations scanned into the computer, laid on top of each other and mixed to the point that you might not recognise their origins,' says Deacon.

Digital printing gives designers the freedom to work with dizzyingly complex patterns, such as the faceted mineral and wood-grain print dresses, leggings and frock coats in Alexander McQueen's current summer collection. A computer program allows them to scan an image and enlarge it beyond the point of recognition. Peter Pilotto did this with butterfly wings for his namesake London-based fashion label.

'We look at nature - familiar things - but in a different way,' says Pilotto. 'We studied butterfly wings microscopically and recoloured each of the hairs. Similarly, we layered up images of smoke and changed the colours. In the autumn collection, we drew upon the awe and wonder of the Big Bang theory and we were inspired by artist Cornelia Parker's 'explosion' installations.'

Although the patterns are intricate, Pilotto, who creates the graphics, controls the designs in such a way that his design partner Christopher de Vos can sculpt them into party dresses that are both flattering and modern. It is easy to underestimate the skill required to combine print with drape. The results are so subtle, colourful and appealing that the clothes are flying off the rails.

As young designers (they met at Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 2000 and subsequently worked for Vivienne Westwood) they are into just their fourth season and are too cash-strapped to give celebrities dresses as gifts. So the fact that Rihanna and a host of Hollywood stars are buying their dresses at Opening Ceremony in Los Angeles testifies to their cool, fashionable appeal.

Print and sculptural shaping are Peter Pilotto signatures, but it's colour that most inspires the duo. They explore other dyeing techniques, beading and feathery yarns to replicate a print for a top, or simply use them as detailing on the yoke of a draped dress.

Similarly, Erdem Moralioglu's demi-couture autumn collection prompted rave reviews for the Anglo-Turkish designer, who was raised in Canada. During the past year, Kirsten Dunst, Chloe Sevigny and Keira Knightley have worn his silk dresses and he has scooped a number of industry awards and bursaries, including the coveted Fashion Fringe Award in 2005.

'I am very into textiles. I don't think there's a line between where embroidery ends, a print begins and a dress starts. I quite like blurring them all together,' says Moralioglu.

His parade of pretty watercolour and lace summer dresses is inspired by a 1970s production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was produced on a white-box set with costumes like blotches of saturated colour - quite faded and weird, he says.

'I like the idea of something imperfect and faded,' he says. 'Imagining the prints like watercolour irises that have been rained upon or toile de jouy left to fade in the sun.'

These gentle backgrounds were then over-printed with scattered dragonflies.

Like Pilotto, Moralioglu adores colour. 'I've always been into colours that don't really go together,' he says. 'There can be something odd and beautifully wrong about them.'

He admires Yves Saint Laurent, the way he combined hues and his devotion to making women elegant. But his decorative skill and sense of colour align him more closely with Christian Lacroix.

For autumn, Moralioglu has bled together intense blues, greens and yellows to create prints that look like pools of liquid on satin dresses, and giant abstract florals for his doll-like mini dresses. They are perhaps a little too pretty to be cool, but like Peter Pilotto's draped print dresses, the designs are seasonless and classics in the making.

Shopping list

Erdem is available at Harvey Nichols, The Landmark, Central, tel: 3695 3388

Peter Pilotto is available at Joyce, Queen's Road Central, tel: 2810 1120