Fashion fix

As the high street courts graphic designers and illustrators like never before, Dom Hall discovers what it takes to cut it with the retail giants.

Graphic design and fashion have always had a close relationship, and it's not hard to figure out why. Designers - as early adopters with a broad interest in what could be loosely dubbed urban culture - are usually pretty cool. They've also always been suckers for a well-designed T-shirt or fabric print. But, while graphic designers are always keen to produce limited edition silk-screened T-shirts for themselves and their mates, selling those ideas, illustrations and designs to the mass market via big retail outlets and leading fashion brands is an entirely different matter.

The prevailing tastes in illustration and graphic design have always either mirrored or been one step ahead of the trends in fashion. But how have the illustrators who develop the prints, designs and ideas that end up on the catwalk made the leap from paper to fabric? For 22-year-old Paris-based illustrator and graphic designer Marie Blanco Hendrickx, aka Mijn Schatje, the chance to work with the Lindsay Lohan-fronted Italian fashion brand Fornarina came after label bosses spotted her work on a magazine cover.

"Fornarina's CEO and art directors are passionate pop surrealism, Japanese, and lowbrow art collectors," Hendrickx says. "They discovered my work and asked me to come to their headquarters in Italy. I always appreciated the brand so was very excited about it." From the initial meeting, Hendrickx's relationship with Fornarina developed so quickly that before long she was collaborating with the company's designers on its entire 2008 collection. But how did the process of collaboration between illustrator and fashion designer actually work?

"They already had some ideas, trends and themes, which I used as a guideline to create some original artworks," recalls Hendrickx. "Later, the style department picked some details from that to create the patterns, but they also used the full pictures as all-over prints. It wasn't easy, since my art is usually very detailed and full of gradients."

While Hendrickx's playful surrealism merges seamlessly into Fornarina's already funky aesthetic, other designers are adapting their work for the blanker canvas of the high street T-shirt. French designer Mehdi 'Shoboshobo' Hercberg had been setting the design blogs alight with his full-on, Yellow Submarine-esque hand-painted sweatshirts for a while before he was contacted by high street retailer H&M last year. His collection for the store consisted of 12 designs, sold on a limited edition basis. Given the scale of the project, was the design process trouble free, or was Hercberg forced to make commercial compromises?

"H&M first picked a few designs they liked from the things I had already created, and from that selection I did the whole 12 designs," says Hercberg. "They let me have the final word on the artistic choices. The only input H&M really had was on the colour, because they have seasonal colours they have to fit in, so I had to compose with that in mind."

Another designer to have made the leap to the fashion world is illustrator Marcus James. Working across a range of projects, from billboard advertising for Orange to collaborations with a number of leading fashion designers, James first became involved with the fashion industry when a friend he had met at the Royal College of Art approached him to do a set of drawings for a forthcoming Chlo collection.

For James, the process of turning illustration into wearable design is straightforward. "My concept for working doesn't change, but the fact that it's for fashion - and a particular label - will determine the way it will look," he reveals. "It is often a collaboration [with the fashion label] from an early stage, and that is what makes these projects good to work on."