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It's the economy, stupid. Those four words, first strung together two decades ago, not only helped secure Bill Clinton's place as 42nd president of the United States, but also helped explain why spring 2012 is shaping up to be the season of bold and beautiful prints.
Mismatched patterns, digitized photo prints and botanical motifs represent an arty, high-impact reaction to an ultra-safe period of "investment dressing" precipitated by the recessionary dread of 2009.
The other side of how we've arrived at this moment is the business imperative. According to Melissa Moylan, the Paris-based trend director for Fashion Snoops, a New York forecasting consultancy, brands started realizing halfway through 2010 that they needed a new way to seduce consumers. "Women aren't buying, so how do [the brands]excite them?" she asks. Eye-catching, dynamic prints, she explains, "give customers a new reason to buy."
Miuccia Prada understood this perfectly: Her spring 2011 collection featured rainbow-striped fur stoles, giant paisleys and banana and monkey prints. The novelty translated into critical praise and serious sales.
But the motivations aren't solely commercial.
Young, independent designers seem to be enjoying the boundary pushing made possible by the digital manipulation of prints. Calla Haynes, a native Torontonian who designs her namesake line, Calla, from Paris, explains that prints allow her limitless potential and a strong point of view. "I know that prints can be a bit divisive, but I want people to have a strong reaction and fall in love with a piece," she says.
Haynes made her debut at New York Fashion Week in February and the buzz in the American press confirmed what many of her Canadian supporters already know: She has found a niche with real potential.
In late 2010, Nicholas Mellamphy, creative director of The Room at The Bay in Toronto, helped bring a coterie of British designers, including Mary Katrantzou, Giles Deacon, Jonathan Saunders and Canadian-born Erdem Moralioglu, to the store for two days of press and public events. If any one quality united them, it was their unabashed use of colour and pattern.
Mellamphy says this group is succeeding not only because the British have never been afraid of eccentricity (see Biba, Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith), but because they are conceiving their own prints and customizing fabrics instead of buying bolts of ready-made material.
The result: patterns with attitude. "Traditionally, when a print was floral, like Laura Ashley, you'd think it was pretty," Mellamphy says. "But when you look at these, they're really subversive and challenging."
And yet, they have mainstream potential. "When you constantly see something, you become more comfortable with it," he adds.
Haynes agrees that prints – and all the creative wardrobe mixing they encourage – have moved beyond trend territory. Her long-term plan involves expanding her prints into home and lifestyle categories. At the very least, she hopes people don't consider her pixelated florals one-season wonders.
"If someone buys one of my pieces, I want them to wear it forever," she says. "In luxury fashion, I don't think you can ask anyone at this time to make the kind of crazy investment that they'll wear once or regret in three months."
So are upholstery-inspired jackets and geometric-patterned dresses the new investment pieces? Pick them carefully and they might be.