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Club Tropicana: Totally tropical fashion comes in from the cold

Bright, bold and brash, the tropical print is back from fashion Siberia thanks to designers with a taste for the exotic

There are two images that spring to mind when you think of the Hawaiian shirt.

One is Elvis Presley, airbrushed to matinee-idol perfection on the LP cover of – appropriately enough – Blue Hawaii. The other is the archetype of the American abroad, as brash and overblown as, well, the Hawaiian shirt across his back. Think of the pop artist Duane Hanson's hyper-real Tourists. Could the American everyman wear anything other than a Hawaiian shirt? That's the tussle in considering this oft-maligned, mostly reviled garment. In fashion terms, the Hawaiian shirt is less Wallis Simpson, more Homer Simpson. It's mass, crass and terribly bad taste. And for spring, it's just about everywhere.

There's no single place to pinpoint the upsurge in interest in the Hawaiian shirt – but, when you examine its composite parts, it's simple to see how it slots into fashion's current obsessions. It ticks the eye-popping print box first – and, loud though it may be, that's perhaps the easiest part to understand. Lush desert-island foliage is a small leap from standard florals, and an effortless way to zing up a T-shirt or basic shift dress.

"You felt it starting in people's pre-collections," Kate Phelan, creative director of Topshop, says. "Stella McCartney's pre-summer started with that tropical feeling, as did Givenchy. There was an exoticism I think that was coming through." McCartney and Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci both succumbed to jungle fever, splashing hibiscus prints and suspiciously idyllic sunsets across cotton T-shirts, sleek pencil-skirts and buttoned-up blouses. After all, the Americans call those collections Cruise – the perfect excuse for a Palm Springs-ready palm-frond screen print, a mood picked up by Altuzarra and Proenza Schouler in New York's spring collections. By the time of London Fashion Week, the jalapeño-hot hues of Peter Pilotto's prints and newcomer Maarten van der Horst's out-and-out ode to Kid Creole were less jarring and more intriguing. The decidedly wrong Hawaiian shirt had started to look right.

Before we go any further, there are a few things we should clear up. Firstly, the name – it's really an shirt, although when they began to be exported in the 1950s they acquired their region-specific moniker. Most high-fashion "Hawaiian" shirts over the past two years have come from Milan, courtesy of Miuccia Prada. Her September 2010 womenswear collection was awash with Hawaiian shirts, splodged with prints of sketchy monkeys clutching pineapples. The latter, alongside bold humbug stripes, came closest to a Hawaiian print true, but the boxy, simplistic shape in classic cotton poplin was bang-on. She revived it for her spring 2012 men's collection, splashed this time with Lily Pulitzer-inspired florals – last summer, it even ended up manufacturing those banana and baboon-emblazoned shirts for men.

Mention that "Chiquita Banana" spring 2011 Prada collection to the stand-out Fashion East star Van Der Horst and his eyes close painfully in a flashback to designing his MA collection: "It was horrible – I was working with the Hawaiian shirts and then Prada did the Hawaiian shirt!" Central Saint Martins MA head Professor Louise Wilson pushed him to carry on (via an expletive-laded speech) and in February 2011 Van Der Horst's collection leapt off the MA catwalk.

"Perfectly tailored separates, those deliciously lush tropical prints, topped off with enough absurd frills to put a big smile on my face," is how Fashion East's Lulu Kennedy summarises Van Der Horst's graduation show, hibiscus-prints hula-ing their way across boxy, frill-packed separates that seemed to cross-breed the Hawaiian shirt with petticoat nylon. Or maybe that should be Polyester – not the fabric, but the John Waters movie that Van Der Horst could well be recostuming. "The Hawaiian shirt... it's not John Waters, but it's so John Waters!" Van Der Horst says.

That's part of its appeal. Over the past five or so years the shirt has been subject to many an ironic revival, vintage shirts splashed with lurid prints snapped up for a song. The Hawaiian shirt is the very nadir of naff, which for many immediately rendered it credible. In layman's terms, it's so uncool it's cool – the key to all the best fashion moments. But this summer, designers' Hawaiian moments are set to go mainstream, not just in the inevitable high-street "homages"to the designer prints, but in full-blown collaborations. Van Der Horst's graduation show not only caught the attention of Kennedy and just about every fashion editor in the Western hemisphere, it also attracted Topshop, which put its money where its mouth was and enlisted Van Der Horst to created a collaborative collection. "Maarten's choice of the tropicals is totally on-trend with how everybody is thinking," says Kate Phelan of Van Der Horst's seven-piece high-summer Topshop collection, which is launching in-store and online on 19 April. "The clever thing he's done is making the Hawaiian shirt a jacket and a Bermuda short, making it into a cool boy-girl feeling... it's very easy, it's very lo-fi design. It's based on the principles of quite a simple idea, but the print is what makes it feel special and right for this season."

Van Der Horst's printed blooms have been specially designed for his Topshop pieces, but for his own-label spring 2012 collection, he looked closer to the home of the shirt. "We found a souvenir shop in Hawaii – and we just bought everything!" Van Der Horst says, explaining that he bulk-buys his cottons in Waikiki. "I thought we would find a factory that could make it, but no. We bought everything from a souvenir shop – the owner had no idea what happened to her!" Couple that with Van Der Horst's designs, true-to-classic shirt shape with turn-down V-collar, a loose-fit and transparent buttons, this is an authentic ode to that so-wrong-it's-right shirt.

Van Der Horst's clothes may share an aesthetic heritage with Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez's spring collection for Proenza Schouler, but the approach is different. Rather than true Hawaii, Proenza Schouler looked to middle-American Tikki culture in their raffia-embroidered skirts, eel-skin leathers and burnt orange and chartreuse Polynesian prints halfway between an shirt and beach-motel wallpaper. "It was the idea of these land-locked people re-imagining primitive life," Hernandez says. "Artifice, total fantasy." Bang – escape. That's what fashion's always searching for.

"It's so 'Disney', isn't it?" Kennedy says. "An unrealistically brighter, cuter, less-messy version of reality." Oddly enough, that's what the shirt represented way back when – exoticism, fantasy and escape. To less-sophisticated eyes, this garment was an indicator of world travel, a jet-set souvenir, a true slice of island life. And today? It's still symbolic of escape, albeit into a kitsch fantasy of Americana past. "I love the escapism of the references," Kennedy says. "How it takes you someplace else, a happier place." Tasteful or not, isn't that what fashion should be all about?