LONDON, United Kingdom — In recent seasons, a cyclone of dizzying digital prints has blown across the fashion landscape, quickening the pulse of fashion editors and making cash registers ring. Perhaps nowhere did the whirlwind seem stronger than outside the shows, where ‘it-girls’ in graphic, printed pieces by young designers like Mary Katrantzou, Jonathan Saunders and Peter Pilotto made coquettish plays for the attention of street style bloggers.
But the Spring/Summer 2013 collections ushered in a new mood, with many designers sidelining head-turning prints in favour of calmer, cleaner clothes. In Milan, bellwether designer Miuccia Prada presented a primarily black collection, a striking departure from the cacophony of prints and jacquards of Prada’s Autumn/Winter 2012 collection, which was widely copied on the high street and sent the clashing print trend mainstream. A week later in Paris, she drove the message home with a restrained and sombre collection for sister label Miu Miu, which saw the distinctive harlequin prints of last season cast abruptly aside. Even Marni’s Consuelo Castiglioni sent out a number of boxy peplum dresses, streamlined tunic tops and leather t-shirts in a monochromatic palette — a shocking move for a designer known for her clashing prints and experimental colour combinations.
Has print finally peaked?
“The palette shifted this season, often rooted in monochrome and neutrals, which does feel like an antidote to the riotous prints that have dominated [previous seasons],” said Ruth Chapman, co-founder of online boutique Matches.
But come next spring, the stark shifts seen on the runway may not be as clearly reflected at retail. “While clean lines and simplicity may have dominated the Spring/Summer 2013 runways, our customer’s responses were not as unanimous,” revealed Aslaug Magnusdottir, CEO and co-founder of Moda Operandi, a website that lets women pre-order next season’s fashion straight off the runway, many months before it arrives in store. Amongst her customers, Magnusdottir noted a particularly strong preference for print-focused label Peter Pilotto’s Spring/Summer collection. “They were not deterred by this [pared-down] runway trend.”
Indeed, according to a number of influential retailers, passion for prints seems unlikely to drop. “Our customers love colour and interesting prints,” said Elizabeth Hui, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Bergdorf Goodman. “We definitely bought into the pared-down trend, but also tried to find colour and fun prints where we could.”
“Print will always be relevant,” said Tomoko Ogura, senior fashion director at Barneys New York. “Even when prints don’t emerge as a strong statement on the runway, there will always be a customer who wants to wear an element of pattern.”
Magnusdottir concurred: “The Moda Operandi customer really responds to lively, bold, attention-getting prints. Season after season, runway trends come and go, but prints will never go out of style.”
The power of celebrity culture will also help sustain demand for bold prints, as long as personal stylists continue to seek out graphic, attention-getting looks for their clients’ heavily photographed public appearances, predicted Lisa Armstrong, The Daily Telegraph’s fashion editor. “There’s no way you’ll be ignored by the photographers when you’re dressed head-to-toe in clashing Thakoon or Prabal [Gurung prints],” she said.
“There is typically a direct effect on sales when one of [my] more recognisable prints is worn by a handful of leading ladies," said Gurung, whose dresses have appeared on the Duchess of Cambridge, Zoe Saldana, Eva Mendes, Demi Moore and Michelle Obama.
But Armstrong is cautious. “It always takes longer than you might think for a major trend to fade away. There’s still a lot of pattern around, especially among British and American designers and I’m sure there’ll always be a customer for print. But designers have to move forward,” she insisted.
Indeed, print may have seeped so deeply into the fashion consciousness that it’s almost hard to remember a time when it was truly cutting-edge. But back in 2010, the bold digital prints of London labels like Erdem, Mary Katrantzou and Peter Pilotto, in particular, were considered revolutionary products of what Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, called “the cauldron of cyberspace wizardry.”
But as the print trend — now mainstream — inevitably wanes, these young labels, whose brands and businesses have been largely built on prints and patterns, run the risk of being too closely associated with the aesthetic. “It’s fine to specialise, but you can’t become known as a one trick pony,” emphasized Armstrong.
So how are London’s young print designers responding?
For Spring/Summer 2013, Jonathan Saunders moved dramatically away from the signature prints that have formed the foundation of his business. “Digital prints became easy for mass manufacturers to reproduce — they could never do that before with labour-intensive engineered placement screen prints,” he said. “Suddenly an aesthetic starts to lose its value and it felt like the right time for me to do something different.”
Saunders is focusing on complex fabrications that are trickier to copy. “Customers are not wanting one-dimensional, pared-down clothes, but highly crafted pieces," he said. "These pieces may appear more pared-back, but women are ready to invest if they feel they can notice the craftsmanship in a piece. I’m excited by craft and process and special textile techniques, and so is the consumer.”
Mary Katrantzou is careful to point out that her designs are about more than just print. “My work goes beyond print and I always focus on the silhouette and the innovation in fabrication. I use precision engineering to flatter the female form and I am interested in the way that printed textiles can change the shape of a woman’s body. Shape, colour and fabric innovation are equally important to print,” she said.
This season, Katrantzou focused more than ever on ultra-sophisticated shapes, while retaining the bold, digitally-printed aesthetic that is central to her brand’s DNA. But the designer has also been taking an increasingly artisanal approach. One of the more complex, handmade dresses in her Spring/Summer 2013 collection — which featured graphic, metallic brocade based on postage stamps and defunct bank notes — took a painstaking two weeks to complete.
Design duo Peter Pilotto and Christopher de Vos also introduced an artisanal element to their Spring/Summer 2013 collection, working intricate beading into their complex graphic prints. “We visited India in the summer and travelled to Rajasthan and Calcutta, where a lot of the beading is done. It was impressive to see how skilled and fast the craftspeople are, how elegant,” said Pilotto. “For this season, we used more beading than ever,” he continued.
Summing up the new direction, Chapman observed: “It was exciting to see how designers moved away from pure digital print and continued to push the boundaries of fabric development, creating print effects through texture and fabrication.”
Indeed, print designers aren’t waning as much as evolving.
What’s more, the changing nature of women’s dressing makes it more likely that print will endure for quite some time. “Women are so much bolder and willing to experiment with their clothes these days,” said Pilotto. “The beauty of today’s wardrobe is being able to pick and choose from everything. A woman can be one day minimal, the next opulent, then wearing vintage — that’s the fun of our time.”
Women today not only feel confident to flit between aesthetics, but desire it, making it improbable that the rise of a new pared-back style will spell the end of print. Much as Phoebe Philo has continued to build a fan base of Céline disciples who covet her architectural, restrained clothes despite the recent torrent of print, it’s likely that print will continue to thrive in the context of the coming season’s reductive clothes.
Tilly Macalister-Smith is a London-based writer and acting fashion editor at Vogue.co.uk