Summer parades the pattern of the computer revolutionThe digital dance of Polka Dot-Com
By Suzy Menkes
Paris, Tuesday, May 2, 2000
PARIS - Fashion has succumbed to the dot-com revolution - but not just in the expected ways.
We are familiar with shopping online, runway images at the click of a mouse and designer sites on the World Wide Web. But the creative side of fashion is also being transformed by digital technology, from pixels through graphics to infinite variations of color.
What once was a personal artistic endeavor, painstaking and demanding, has become easy and instant to realize. Yet as well as a tool, the computer screen can prove to be an inspiration. Digitally enhanced, manipulated or generated, familiar designs take on a new dimension literally in the case of this season's most pervasive pattern: the polka dot.
Not since the Neo-Impressionist painters launched pointillism a century ago or Andy Warhol made portraits out of dots in the 1960s have blobs of color been so on-message. Circles, spheres, confetti showers and coin dots have brought print back in fashion after a monochrome era.
The stores are filled with polka dots on summer clothes and there was barely a designer who did not show dotty prints, upscale, minuscule, as painterly whooshes of color or as geometric repeats. There were eye-popping mixes of dots and stripes from Dolce & Gabbana. British design duo Clements Ribeiro had a shower of colorful candy over their cashmere knits. A bull's-eye target punctuated a Thierry Mugler dress, while Marni played with dots among spiral techno doodles.
Even accessories have come out in a rash, from the dainty, dotty shoes (inner sole included) from Lacroix, Prada or Ungaro, through Saint Laurent's circle-scattered cylinder-shaped purses.
The common design denominator is that these graphic effects come on ultra-simple shapes - a sleeveless top, a shift dress, an A-line skirt or a square kerchief, so that each pattern is framed with the rectilinear precision of a laptop screen.
That is, of course, where the designs have originated. Susannah Handley, senior teacher at the School of Fashion and Textiles at the Royal College of Art in London, confirms that the computer is now as indispensable a design tool for her students as pencil, paper, needle, scissors and thread.
"It is so instantaneous - it opens up an infinite number of possibilities," Handley says, adding that the process of design is no longer "an organic system of creating," but instead the visual equivalent of cut and paste with words, or of "sampling" in music.
"You can now take a received image from anywhere and manipulate it within seconds," she says.
"That is the digital disease, the double-edged sword of technology, because the whole process of being a designer is changing," she adds. "You don't necessarily have to be good at drawing or coloring. It is the computer technicians who are the gateway."
The plus side is the inventiveness that smart students can bring to fashion - treating pattern, print and color tones in a fresh way. Technology can also be used to access existing images - although Handley says that often makes "design" more of a selection process than creation from scratch. But even familiar images - like those ubiquitous 1970s prints - are transformed by changing scale and color.
The culture of color-mixing by the human eye, formed by an aesthetic familiar with Matisse paintings, country flowers, ethnic spices or metallic automobiles, has been replaced by random selection. With a Photoshop program, a designer can bring up on screen and run through in seconds all the colors and their tonal ranges that would once have taken hours of trial and error on a palette.
This has produced the current fashion for "off-colors," the eerie, unsettling combinations - toast brown with puce or sea-green, mud and marigold - that have made collections from Fendi and Prada seem disconcertingly different.
Of course, there is nothing so new out there in cyberspace. Polka dots have been periodically popular since (as their name implies) the dance craze of the 19th century. In the 1950s, the itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini pre-figured this year's graphic Ralph Lauren version; and even in the power-dressed 1980s, Julia Roberts incarnated the prissy sexiness of the dotted dress in "Pretty Woman."
The idea that the digital revolution should prove a design catalyst also has a pedigree. Since fashion never appears in a vacuum, design has always reflected the changing face of the wider world. Previously it was the speed revolution of the 1920s when ocean liners, the motor car and airplane brought "Streamlining" in vogue and everything seemed to express the new dynamic.
Art Deco patterns, linear chemise dresses, sleek cropped hair, even chrome cocktail shakers, had the pared-down modernism we associate with the Bauhaus school in architecture or with Cubism in art. And the aerial vision, introduced by skyscrapers and flying, altered design perceptions, just as the computer now manipulates scale and planes.
The exuberance, excitement and enthusiasm that we feel today about the new media finds a parallel in the confidence 100 years ago in the limitless possibilities of the industrial revolution. Then artists like Fernand Leger and Pablo Picasso celebrated mechanics - famously using industrial concepts to generate modernist art. Only later did society become ambivalent about the machine.
So it is with the new technology. Although history tells us that every revolution has its dark side, there is now a sense of overriding optimism about the digital world. It is no wonder, then, that the fashion image of the moment should be those dots leaping off the screen and whirling like satellites.