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06 Feb 2012

It is as reliable as the appearance of the first crocuses: every spring, fashion embraces colour. This year, however, colour will be different. The couture shows on the runways of Paris last month have made it clear that consumers are being invited to face up to a riot of layered, clashing, bright digital prints like nothing seen before.

While fashion pages have already warned cautious British women to prepare for a palette of cheery pastels this Easter, it turns out that striking patterns and bold floral photographic images on fabrics are just as likely to mark out the look of 2012, both in home furnishings and on the rails of dress shops.

The sudden flurry of colour and rapid spread of busy prints is largely the result of the new ease of computer printing in fabric design. Five years ago London-based Turkish designer Erdem was one of the first to set the trend rolling, with his distinctive blurred photographic fabric designs, many digitally printed.

As the technology has become more and more affordable, the hyper-real digital look has spread not just to the famous design houses known for their vibrant patterns – such as Italy's Missoni and London's Liberty – but even to more restrained fashion houses such as Chanel and Armani, where customers are being urged to consider wearing contrasting prints in a rainbow of hues.

"It has become easier to manipulate these images, particularly to do the sort of layering of images that is popular," said Devon-based international fabric designer and painter Kate Rowley. "So some of the new photographic look is down to the ease of new digital printing, or to its influence at least.

"You have always been able to create bright colours, but the photographic look and this kind of layering of images has become much easier."

Vanessa Gounden, the South African designer of celebrity clothes behind the label Vanessa G, sees the new techniques as essential to her style. "Digital prints allow for a higher level of creativity, with enhanced flexibility and versatility," she told the Observer.

She also argues that she works on the border between fashion and visual art, where bright colours and digital printing have also had a strong influence. David Hockney's exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art is the latest and most powerful testament to the impact of the iPad in creating works of art.

"Technology allows me to translate pieces of artwork into print in the most realistic manner and my signature is 'art'outure', the merging of art and fashion," said Gounden, adding that both commercial and artistic creativity have to reflect the digital age.

"I draw my inspiration from real life and current events. This medium of communication allows me to freely express my emotions and moods as a designer. It allows for individualism."

Digital fabric printing was developed by the British/Brazilian designers Basso and Brooke in 2004, and had picked up a wide following by the end of the decade. The late Alexander McQueen's 2010 spring/summer collection was hailed for its use of computer graphic design.

"Digital printing has levelled the playing field," Philip Delamore, director of the Digital Studio at the London College of Fashion, has said. "Emerging designers can compete with large, established houses without having to have the huge investment required with other techniques. Printing digitally means the cost of printing one or 1,000 colours in an image is no different."

Other fans of the technique are designers William Tempest and Peter Pilotto. Pilotto's spring 2012 collection was applauded in Vogue for using "images of mercury to digitally enhance the kaleidoscopic line of their prints". "That slight cyber distortion," the magazine went on, "made for an otherworldly, Avatar-like brilliance."

The new prints are also a reaction to the grim economic climate. Designers planning fabrics for 2012 have been able to calculate for some months on a new appetite for colour. "In a recession people want to be cheered up," said Rowley. "They want colour and they want recognisable images. I am a furnishings designer who pays attention to fashion and in furnishing you want designs you can recognise in a time of recession."

Coco Chanel once said: "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening." But for the British consumer making such a date with vibrant colour is perhaps a bigger ask than in other international markets. "The English people are quite afraid of colour," said Rowley. "There is a lower-middle-class timidity about attitudes to it. There have been times when wearing sombre colours was a way to seem like a serious and intellectual person."

In America, Rowley has noticed a steady demand for colour in a fabric category known as "tropical". "It is a constant. Demand may change with fashion, but basically you know it will be there. In furnishings, where I mainly work, it might be a bit less bright and colourful than in clothes, because there is only a very small percentage of people who are going to want a psychedelic sofa, but if you think of Hawaiian shirts that kind of thing always sells in America."

Our tentative love affair with colour came in, Rowley says, as part of the fashion for 60s and 70s looks: "On one hand you had smart shift dresses, reminiscent of Mary Quant, but you also had the swirly colours of psychedelia from nostalgia for the hippy look."

Working women who need a smarter, business look tend to use bold prints by going for the "block colour" look, much favoured by television newsreaders.

Rowley sounds a final note of caution: "National taste, of course, does take account of skin colour, as it should. We look dreadful in acid yellow. Yet you can sell it in Italy, so it is to do with skin tone and the quality of the light. In Britain, if we want to be bright we wear red."


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