By  on January 22, 2008

MILAN — Modern or vintage, soft or bold, spring is a print fest across the board, from Prada's ethereal fairies in watercolors to Dolce & Gabbana's hand-painted garden glory, Balenciaga's abstract water lilies and anemones to Fendi's circular intricacies.

"It's much easier to do prints now than in the past when it was done with the old system of screen-printing. There is such terrific progress that the impossible becomes possible and it's difficult to pretend today that it's difficult to do difficult prints," said Karl Lagerfeld, whose Fendi collection was awash with op art concentric circles in eye-popping colors.

Underscoring his fondness for mixes of prints, Lagerfeld agreed prints are more of a summer teaser that look best with sunshine. "The Fendi prints are made for that — it was a summer collection," he said. "I like refined mixes of color, shades, and dégrade — something possible now that was impossible 10 to 15 years ago."

And since the new prints are immensely complicated, and, in many cases, hand-painted, they're also increasingly a way for designer brands to differentiate themselves from the fast-fashion retailers — and counterfeiters — snapping at their heels.

"One of the main reasons we have chosen to explore two-dimensional design and surface through embroidery is that it is very difficult to copy. The labor involved is difficult and time-consuming, which makes mass producing and/or copying impossible," asserted Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler.

Added Stefano Gabbana: "Though our creativity is never influenced by counterfeiters, whoever wants to copy this collection is in for a tough time."

For spring, Dolce & Gabbana cleaned the slate of last fall's hard-edged dominatrix clad in crumpled metallics and body-enhancing shapes to focus on a garden glory of hand-painted florals liberally applied onto silk organdy and tulle. It all made for a modern rerun of the duo's past Baroque aesthetics and brocade flourishes.

The brusque change led to a manufacturing upheaval in the atelier. Seasoned seamstresses shared workbenches with artists, who brush-stroked stylized flowers onto tulle, organdy and cotton canvases, then whipped them into veiled skirts, frothy frocks and evening gowns.

"It was the first time we really changed everything. It was violent," said Gabbana.Each look will be handcrafted into a maximum of 300 pieces tagged with a "Hand Painted — Limited Edition" label. Prices range from $5,000 for a cocktail dress to $45,000 for the swooshing, full-skirted evening gowns in the finale.

At the end of November, 8,000 units had been ordered worldwide.

Even smaller labels such as 6267 and Debora Sinibaldi surfed the prints wave.

The starting point for Roberto Rimondi and Tommaso Aquilano of 6267 were floral designs with an oriental vein and van Gogh color. For six weeks, they brainstormed with mill designers to make their flower blossom into something modern, thanks to computer manipulations. The process included blurring the image by blowing it up, which also conferred a sense of movement. The outcome was then reproduced manually on fabrics, which added an artisanal flavor.

"It was a very long process that fully reflects the 'Made in Italy' workmanship," said Aquilano. "The second challenge, though, was to find a way to industrialize the print to make it accessible to everyone."

Such research and fine workmanship jack up the final price of a garment by 40 percent, so a pair of radzimir printed trousers wholesale for $370, while a dress sells for $2,968.

For her designs, Sinibaldi turned to Como, Italy-based artists, who removed any plainness from her silk frocks by painting orange macro flowers here and there.

At Prada, the starting point was the black-and-white wallpaper motif created for the Milan show space and for New York's Epicenter store. According to a spokeswoman, four different themes were extrapolated from the original composition and reconstructed individually to create four panels.

"The process is very complicated in terms of color study and choosing the best dyeing techniques to replicate the moody watercolor effect," said the spokeswoman.

Large-scale reproductions to satisfy the many Prada aficionados worldwide, however, pose no issue, though it's a time-consuming process if you consider a 1.4-by-1.4-meter, or about a 4.6-by-4.6-foot, panel takes five hours to print.

Besides silk, a runway favorite, the prints appear on organdy, stretch cotton poplin, jersey Modal and Lycra for swimwear.After seasons of sobriety, boho and casual stints, Balenciaga's Nicolas Ghesquière produced a floral explosion true to Cristóbal Balenciaga's tenets. Prints or hand-painted anemones, daffodils and lilies carpeted sculptured and radical silhouettes, sharply cut by lasers and ultrasound machines from silk, radzimir and gazar.

"I wanted to explore something I'd never explored before, something floral, from embellishments to patterns, but I didn't want the prints to be modern," said Ghesquière. The designer mined the archives, opting for faithful reproductions or completely reworked and recolored vintage prints found elsewhere.

Dries Van Noten said every collection he does somehow reveals his penchant for gardening, and ditto for spring, when his runway pulsed with prints, from florals to abstracts, from wildlife to graphic patterns.

"The creation and conception of a print has always been one of the most enjoyable things that I get to do when designing a collection. It took us over a year to complete the 40 new prints that were shown for spring," he said.

Van Noten explained how computer technology was vital to his pursuit. "You begin with a single piece of white silk, onto which you transfer up to five different floral and vegetable prints, such as large motifs of roses and irises," he explained. "In many ways, it's like photocopying, so we were able to use prints that date back to the Fifties."

The result was a clash of colors fused together that Van Noten freely mixed and matched.

Proenza Schouler's McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez said their spring collection focused on textures, and that some of the surfaces that might look like two-dimensional patterns are actually hand-embroideries. Before the pieces are sent off for the final embroidery, there are many back-and-forth trials of small swatches to make sure of the technique or what yarns will be used on the final product.

"The Japanese fisherman kimonos, along with the zebra motifs, are actually both hand-embroidered and are quite dimensional in person," Hernandez said.

It's an extremely technical process, since once paper patterns are complete, the designers draw the design by hand on the paper as it should actually appear in the end and ship it off to India. They then have to reproduce the drawings as dimensional embroidery."This takes about two months from start to finish and, as you can imagine, usually becomes a logistical nightmare," said McCollough.

Cynthia Rowley develops all her own prints, and for spring, she focused on party designs to enhance the theme of her collection. Rowley works with the same print houses for screen-printing and dye printing, and admits there is a lot of back and forth with the companies in China and South Korea.

She conceded that, while the prints remain the same, the proportions sometimes change for retail to make a print more commercially viable. "We develop a lot of different versions of an idea, and when we do a print, the idea is to get it to our own stores as quickly as possible, so there is less of a chance of quick knockoffs," Rowley said, adding that what distinguishes a real print from the knockoff is in the quality of the fabric.

Prints also are a huge part of Diane von Furstenberg's DNA. "As a matter of fact, the internship that influenced my career most was at a print plant in Como," she said.

Prints always abound in her collections, with more than a dozen original ones developed each month. "I work with Italian and with Chinese mills on an ongoing base....They trust me and we work directly with the technicians. [The] more colors, more techniques, more intricate a print, [the] more expensive [it is]," she said.

— With contributions from Miles Socha, Paris, and Marc Karimzadeh, New York

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