We have sneaked into Mary Katrantzou‘s office and atelier. That was only shortly before we finally sat down and started talking about her ever growing career, her unmistakable, yet almost invisible greek heritage, and prints.
“Where are you going?”, my boyfriend asked me casually on a sunny afternoon. “I am going to interview Mary”, I said. “Mary Queen of Shops?”, he joked, referring to a popular british TV show. “No, Mary Queen of Prints”, I replied dead-serious, as that is a title rightfully earned. Mary Katrantzou needs no introduction to anyone who follows fashion at the slightest. She is the girl that started from Athens and within a few years from her MA degree at Central Saint Martins, became one of the strongest names in international fashion and vital part of London’s “New Establishment”. Her collections with her signature intricate prints are nothing less than awe-inspiring and she doesn’t fail to impress season after season. I met Mary for the first time at her office in East London, when she walked in and saw us, she exclaimed “I’m so happy to be with people I know for this interview!” and made us feel right at home. She showed us around her offices and studio, then we sat across each other and like genuine Greek girls we started non-stop smoking, laughing and talking about her continuously rising career, greek heritage and of course prints, prints, prints.
What impresses me most about your collections is that you combine both tailoring and prints, while most designers tend to see one or the other. What is the creative process behind it? How do you start from the print to the final garment?
When I first started, my knowledge of pattern cutting and my understanding of the silhouette and how to bring it to life was a lot more limited, so I started with shift dresses with strong prints that defined the entire silhouette. But as a designer, I wanted to grow and challenge myself, I was interested in creating something that was a lot more sculptural, in essence creating a second skin for a woman, so it started becoming a lot more tailored, season after season.
The process, I guess, at this stage (for a collection that was highly tailored) is that I start with a visual image and that may be anything and then, what I do is I work on a collage of the visual imagery around the body -digital always- it’s usually with images that are found and then it starts defining shapes; because of the subject matter, usually it accentuates certain parts of the body, then I take that collage and work on a 2D form, which is in the real measurements of the woman that we dress, and then that gets painted from scratch, so you’re almost painting that type of collage to have in a way a more hyper-real rendering. Then we print it out and we start working on the silhouettes. And then we engineer the print on the actual pattern pieces, so it’s quite a gradual process and they both influence each other. I think when the print changes throughout the process, the silhouette has to change and vice versa. It’s important for me, because I started by studying architecture and I like being able to form the body in that way. And it’s very interesting when you work the print to create an illusion and almost define a silhouette, because that’s, I guess, what makes my prints more unique.
Do you feel that sometimes you have to sacrifice one for the other?
Yes, I always sacrifice the less strong of the two, if the print is stronger then the silhouette, then we’ll work the print exactly for that shape and it’s interesting. It’s different from season to season, but this season a lot of the prints were engineered on the pattern pieces, so that was I guess a challenge and it has allowed me for the first time to forget about the print and really just work with the fluidity of the fabric and how the pieces drape, fold and gravitate.
Do you always set yourself challenges? Do you place the bar a little bit higher each season?
I usually do, but it’s not a very far-fetched goal that you know you’ll never be able to attain. It’s what I feel is the next challenge and maybe it’s working more with silhouette, maybe it’s elevating the embroidery, maybe it’s working outside ready-to-wear and doing some interesting collaborations. I think from now on a big challenge is to diversify the product, because we do have certain shapes that have become signature and perhaps start working with not necessarily such a heavy printed collection, but start building on our other strengths as well.
Οn the other hand you have created a movement in fashion and in prints that has now dominated the market, would you do something completely different just to break the norm?
We are constantly considering it every season, should we not do prints? Should we be the first to stop print when it’s such a trend? But it’s part of my visual language, so I don’t think that print will ever be completely removed from the collection. What will happen and what we’re working on for the following collection is that the print takes up a percentage and it’s not necessarily the king of the entire collection, because, as you said, everyone is wearing prints now. It’s great and it’s very flattering, because at first (when I first started it was when Phoebe Philo went to Celine) everyone was afraid to wear print on the red carpet and I think in some cases there is a print-phobia, even among the most daring of people.
Because they are classic, safe choices and they will always be.
Yes, and I think that’s absolutely fine, but I think what changes is that people are a lot more open now to wear print and I think a strong print should be able to do what a black dress does to your silhouette. It should be able to create an illusion, define your figure and one should feel really confident wearing it. I feel it’s interesting what print can do, when you wear it, because a lot of women we sell to usually just dress in monochrome (and again that’s a huge compliment, because it means that they feel it’s representative of something different and something unique).
Is there a woman in your head that you design for? An idol, a muse?
I’ve never had a muse or somebody that you put on your pin-board and they inspire you. But as I gradually notice more and more women wear my dresses, when I design a collection I think “would she wear it? and if she wore it, how would she wear it?”, so at some point you actually start to think about those women. And they are not necessarily celebrities, it could be buyers that come to the showroom, wearing your clothes and giving you feedback about their customers, it might be somebody you’ve seen on the street and I think it just really gives you a bit more of a deeper understanding to the different kinds of women who can wear it. For example, I was recently creating a dress for Maureen Paley (gallerist who owns the Maureen Paley gallery in east London) she has a very iconic hairstyle and she always wears black. She approached me and she came in (and please do note that we’ve literally never ever seen her in prints). So, to create a dress for her was a huge compliment and a challenge, since she obviously would never wear it in the gallery (she would never want to clash with the artwork and that is why her “uniform” is all black). It’s interesting to notice that certain women who have a career that does not really “allow” them to wear print, still want to have that freedom to wear something a little bit more colourful and daring in their personal life.
Speaking of the black “fashion-uniform” (I point to me and her as we are both dressed head-to-toe in black) you are known for wearing black as well, do you wear your own creations?
I wear some of them, I think black has become a uniform, since I was 15 years old, so it’s difficult to step out of it and I didn’t know I was gonna be a fashion-designer! So, I guess I came into it from a different path, but I do wear our knitwear, I do wear our scarves, but at the same time when you work with so much colour, I think you’re almost…
Yeah! You almost need to cleanse your palette and feel a little bit detached from it.
Which other designers do you like to wear, other than yourself?
I don’t change a lot in terms of my outfit, it’s almost one uniform that gets repeated and I have two different versions of it and that’s the whole year! So, I wear Azzedine Alaia, which is what I’m wearing now and I have a good dress and an everyday skirt. And that’s it! When there’s a special event to attend, the “heavier” Alaia dress comes out and for everyday it’s literally paired down because you’re at work and social life is limited, so there’s no reason to dress up! (laughs)
Are you a workaholic?
One has to! I wasn’t. I went through a phase that I was actually bored, but then since this hype started, it’s been non-stop and it’s been 4 years now and I don’t think i’ve had many weekends off – or much of a holiday. It goes like this: going back to Greece, visiting my parents and my friends for few days and then immediately back to work.
Your creative route must have been a roller-coaster ride for you, you’re in your 4th year now going to 5th. Young designers after their MA, they usually have to work for a big house, until they are ready to take their own independent steps but you went straight into your label and you became quite big, quite quickly.
I don’t know if it was very quick, I think it took time, but there was commercial virability from the beginning, which I think was the biggest surprise. To think that I never wanted to be a designer! I think the most important of it all is to find a style that’s defining your work and that’s strong enough for you to carry on an entire label and continue. I went to it very naively, because I had just finished my MA and that had helped me to find a little bit what I’m about, technically I was strong without having found my signature yet. At that stage, I decided to apply for the BFC NEWGEN sponsorship and I thought, if I get it, I’m going to go straight into it and if I don’t, I’ll just go and work somewhere, I even had my portfolio prepared. I went into it with two interns and I just had a collection of 8 shift dresses, because it was really the only thing I could actually fund. And, note, my parents had already supported my MA and funds were drying out, but they were still supportive! (laughs) Then my first collection got sold immediately to the best of the best stores, Collette, Browns, Corso Como bought, and I think that was a wake-up call for me. That I needed to find a manufacturer in London, I needed to start employing somebody. Which I did immediately. I employed a pattern-cutter, and afterwards, I created a team.
In a few words, you became a brand. Can you imagine yourself as a super-brand, as one of those fashion houses that have everything: shoes, eyewear, cosmetics, fragrances?
Because it’s print and because it’s very transferable, I’d like to be able to create a world around it, so the goal is one day to be able to have accessories and be able to go into homewear. But do it in a way that’s maybe slightly unconventional. I don’t want to rush into creating a print for a cushion, when we go down that route, it has to be a collaborative effort, where you’re part of the design of the actual furniture and it’s a little bit more thought through. I definitely want to create a world around ready-to-wear, and I think it’s important. Labels who have done so in the past, like Pucci and Missoni, have become lifestyle brands and there’s something very interesting in seeing a print in a different way and in a different light. Obviously, they are different from us, because it was a different time and also they had iconic prints that got transferred into all of the objects, whereas my work is very thematic, changes every season, so there’s not an iconic print that you can put on plates and everything. So that’s why it needs to happen in a different way and hopefully, it will happen.
However, you have done your own jewellery pieces in past collections, you have a collaboration with Christian Louboutin for your catwalk shoes, so you have done your own baby steps towards that direction.
Yes, baby steps. I think that’s what you need to do at the beginning, but I know that in the near future I would like to go into accessories and expand. Not every woman is ready to commit in a fully printed look head-to-toe, but every woman can wear a printed bag, every woman can have a scarf and that’s okay too, it doesn’t have to be just about couture pieces that are highly designed. It’s absolutely fine to have a duality (part of the collection being pieces that are really special, with elevated craftsmanship) and really showcase what you’re about and at the same time have pieces that everyone can buy and wear on a day-to-day basis.
What I find really interesting with your latest spring/summer collection is that even though it’s womenswear there are a lot of men who love to wear it, even though they are aware it’s made for women! (laughs) Have you thought of your own menswear line?
I never thought about that. Until we did one flower suit (two seasons ago) and a lot of my male friends in the showroom were trying on the blazer. And they actually ordered it for themselves. So I thought “this is so strange, men wearing something as bold as that”, because that wasn’t for the fainthearted. (laughs) Then, we were approached by Cameron Silver, who owns the boutique “Decades” that has a lot of special vintage pieces and he wore it at the Seduction Gala in Paris. And then Henry Holland bought a piece as well. It’s a brave piece and I was like “wow guys!”. Obviously these are men who work in the fashion industry, so we”re not reaching a completely broad market, but it made me consider it and just think about what would it mean, if we really had a menswear line.
Another thing that surprises me about your design style is that you don’t go back to your greek heritage a lot; what I call as a stylist “the Greeks” (laughs) and I mean you, Marios Schwab and Sophia Kokosalaki, what Marios & Sophia have in common is they do go back to Greece in their own unique way, either by draping in Sophia’s case and Marios who tends to be more modern, he did go back to the Greek summer and old cinema for his last summer collection, for me when I was in there I was so moved because it made me think of my childhood summers, his collection Chiaroscuro was very “Jenny Karezi” (laughs out heartily and agrees). But you haven’t done that, is it something you chose consciously or is it something that just hasn’t happened yet?
I think you can read a lot of things in it, I think there are things, but they are just not as obvious, for example, I think my sense of symmetry, my sense of balance does go back to my greek heritage and Tim Blanks (contributing editor at Style.com) once backstage, when I did the interiors collection, he came up to me and he said “what is it with Greek designers? You know Sophia does it and Marios does it, you work on the body in a way of symmetry and balance that really embraces the figure.” They do it through drapery and I do it through print, so only the medium is different. I think it’s about re-inventing what’s the core concepts behind that history and just employing them to do something that’s a little bit more graphic. When I did my MA collection that was based on oversized jewellery a lot of people were seeing amphorae references for example, even though I was looking at Russian constructivism. There are links that pop up, because that’s the way we’ve been brought up, looking at classicism and I think that is part of my work, but because it’s so colourful and so bold, it’s not as obvious, but it’s still there.
Tell me a little bit about you outside of work, where do you go in London when you wanna switch off?
Me outside of work is something of a rarity (laughs) and I can’t switch off easily anymore. When I’m at home, I’m thinking what the next print will be or our sales numbers and so on.
It doesn’t matter, I can go watch a movie with my boyfriend or we may go to dinner or I may go to a friend’s place for dinner, but again the friend I’ll be visiting is probably another designer and it’s very difficult to talk about anything else outside work. It kinda creeps in every discussion of your life, so at some point my boyfriend told me that my knowledge of the news and the world is only a sentence deep. So now I try to read a little bit more (laughs) what’s happening in the world, but -again- there is no time to have a social life, it’s non-stop and there’s no-one helping me on the business side, so I pretty much do everything myself. At least now I have a strong team, we are 14 people, whereas before there was nobody, so I’m at the process now that I start delegating a lot more, but I think it’s very very difficult to remove yourself. I can’t see the light, I don’t know if it’s gonna happen, it’s all-consuming. Every six months there needs to be another collection, business decisions need to be dealed with and I need to be on top of the cash flow (thank God I have an account manager now, and I no longer need to do all the accounts myself), so there is really no time.
Can you give us a tip of an interesting place to go, anything that you like, that would interest our readers?
I really like the Institute of Contemporary Art, I did a collaboration with Pablo Bronstein who had his retrospective there. Last time I was there, they had this day where they were connecting different artists and there was a Tracey Emin lunch, where she was drawing live and then the pieces were auctioned and they tried for it to be as interactive as possible (not just for the art collectors but for anyone of the public to go). I think that’s truly inspiring. As for my favourite pub, we usually go to the Cat & Mutton, it’s a nice pub and I think it’s interesting, because it’s part of the Broadway market. I definitely recommend a visit.
All images shot by Nikolas Ventourakis.