From the slickest advertising campaigns to spontaneous iPhone snaps, the digital image now serves as our brain’s external hard drive; a visual diary of our lives. Given the desire of fashion designers to capture the zeitgeist, it is hardly surprising that they are capitalising on the power and prevalence of digital imagery: photographic prints are everywhere this season.
Take Zero + Maria Cornejo’s spring/summer collection, which is full of electric- bright, draped abstract prints that began life as candid images shot by Maria Cornejo in the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. These follow an earlier collection depicting the Bosphorus, shot on an iPhone from the deck of a ferry. “Taking pictures has become my starting point,” says Cornejo. “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.”
Similarly, 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. However, 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 point for a print. But we always rework everything.” Like gallery and museum visitors wielding iPhones, the designers are staking a 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 smartphones and two cameras. The new spring collection that stemmed from the trip features a mix of images, manipulated with 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.” Christopher 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.”
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 night-time landscapes on dresses and shirts 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 and 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 has been blurred using Photoshop but it is 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, with respect for the integrity of the original image. Demeulemeester’s first experiment with recontextualising imagery was with the painter Jim Dine. She put photo prints of his raven paintings on to dresses more than 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. Designers using identifiable images, in colour, walk a more perilous tightrope; to wrong-foot would be to land in the realm of 1970s kitsch. “Mary Katrantzou and Erdem both use digital prints that are recognisable,” says Samantha Lewis, a head buyer for the Italian store and online portal Luisa Via Roma. “But both have a feminine touch that doesn’t limit wearability.”
As with any graphic, a photo print lends a garment an often dramatic new level of style and meaning. The democracy of the camera phone and the immense capacity of digital memory have changed the kind of imagery that designers are experimenting with.
“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.” That film was made 10 years ago, however, and a decade later, thanks to the rise of digital pictures, the details are made to be worn.