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In just a few years, the London-based designer Mary Katrantzou totally revolutionized the way women wear prints. Her exploration of bold, bright, and busy digital prints redefined our relationship with pattern and the female figure. But after several collections drawing on inspirations like currency, postage stamps, lampshades, and objets d’art, she transitioned with her Fall/Winter 2014 and spring/summer 2015 collections to create garments devoid of any prints. Instead, adornments such as plastic frills and foam pyramids embellished her frocks. She spoke with Whitewall about transitioning from 2-D to 3-D and her mission of liberating women to wear clothes that tell a story.
WHITEWALL: You’ve said that you never thought you’d be working in fashion but knew you’d be doing something in design. Why were you so sure of that?
MARY KATRANTZOU: My grandmother was a ceramicist and one of the first women to open up a store in Athens in 1955. My mother worked in interior design, and together they built their first factory designing and making furniture. So I would say that design and the urge to create is in my blood. My uncle was an architect, but studying architecture at Rhode Island School of Design was my own decision. We went to visit one of my cousins who was there while we were looking at Ivy League universities. I loved the artistic nature of the people there—my heart was set! I then went on to realize that my interest in applied design was better suited to textile design and later transferred to Central Saint Martins when my boyfriend moved to London.
WW: What about design in fashion struck a chord with you?
MK: On a trip back home to Greece from New York, my partner, who was working in London at the time, suggested that I apply to CSM for a place on the textile design course. CSM was a place I’d aspired to go to from a young age as it has the reputation for being the best—my mother studied there, but my father wasn’t so sure! Before I knew it, I was at CSM designing prints and textiles, which I thought would probably lead to a career in interior design, but then I saw people engineering the prints for apparel and I had the sudden urge to experiment with textiles to see how you could take something not meant to be worn and apply that to a woman’s body. Digital print was relatively new at the time, but it was the perfect mechanism for me to realize my ideas. Louise Wilson MBE was the course director at the time, and it was my goal to be taught by her, so I thought I’d give it a try and apply for the MA in fashion!
WW: You really revolutionized the way we think of prints, and the way women feel comfortable in prints. A bold print isn’t obvious for every woman. What made you want to challenge that?
MK: Print, engineering, color, and new technology are things I will always work into my designs. My work has always been about texture, form, and perception and those are the pillars of the brand that we want to continue evolving. I want to push my designs beyond 2-D prints and explore other ways of interpreting them. As a designer it’s important to be innovative in what you do, and when I started working with print at the beginning, I was proposing something new. Print is so visual, you can do and say a lot with it, and it allowed me to create a very distinctive world. My collections were always thematic and did, and still do, look at the filtered beauty in art and design. As designers, our role is to translate that on to the body for a woman to wear in a beautiful but practical way. Each collection has a narrative, and in recent seasons we’ve chosen to communicate that narrative through a different medium, concentrating on developments and silhouette instead of print.
WW: You’ve worked in such a variety of materials—your Fall/Winter 2015–2016 collection used foam pyramids, plastic fringe, et cetera—where do you think your sense of freedom in material comes from? Are there any materials that you’re experimenting with at the moment?
MK: As a designer you have to allow yourself the freedom to pursue other areas of design. I always try to look forward and bring innovation to my work through experimenting and developing new fabrications. We’ve worked with Swarovski for over eight seasons now and have been able to create some beautiful, unique textiles from printed crystal mesh to crystal-embellished vacuum-formed silicon skirts! For Fall/Winter 2015 we created delicate guipure and Chantilly laces, crafted entirely seamless molded bustiers using automotive technology, and worked with PVC wefts to create a modern twist on a Victoriana ruffle. For me it’s all about challenging yourself and bringing new mediums to my work to make it stand out.
WW: You’re very good at changing and surprising expectations from season to season. You were known for prints, then moved on from that. You’ve said, “There has to be a phase that allows you to establish who you really are and I don’t feel like I’m there yet.” When do you think you’ll get there and what will that look like?
MK: At the moment every collection is a chance to explore and refine my design aesthetic. You slowly learn what works and what doesn’t—it’s a learning curve and you have to allow yourself to enjoy that.
WW: You’ve said that your collections aren’t so much tied to objects, but looking at applied design and filtering that into fashion. Could you elaborate on that a bit more for us?
MK: Marchesa Luisa Casati once said, “I want to be a living work of art,” and it inspires me to liberate women to wear clothes that are thematic and tell a story, allowing them to reveal more about their personality and taste. For me it’s about making the inaccessible accessible. In previous collections we’ve looked at priceless objets d’art: Coromandel screens, Fabergé eggs, and Qianlong Dynasty china—emulating these through swathes of rich silks and embroidery. It’s about transforming a concept, an artistic movement, an era, et cetera, and conveying our perception of that through innovating in surface design and silhouette.
WW: You’re a self-described maximalist, but even so, how much of your design process is about editing? Stripping back color to show form?
MK: People tend to think of me as a maximalist, but I actually see myself as more of a minimalist. I wear black a lot as I find it quite cleansing, and it allows me to channel all my creativity into designing. There’s a lot of editing when you’re designing, particularly when it comes to development validations and selecting prints for the commercial lines. Fall/Winter 2014 and Spring/Summer 2015 were pivotal moments in my career as they were the first collections where I didn’t send any print down the runway. They were a real opportunity for me to refine my silhouette and develop some really beautiful fabrication developments.
WW: You do wear a lot of black, but I’ve noticed from photos and interviews that you love some bold jewelry. And your first collection was a reimagining of oversized jewelry. What jewelry designers do you love? And would you ever want to design your own?
MK: I love jewelry—and I’m always coveting something! Sabine G, Noor Fares, Eugenie Niarchos are all young, cool, super-talented girls with a really modern vision. I also think that Defina Delettrez has an incredible eye for applied design, and bringing fashion into the art world. I’d love to design my own pieces at some point in the future; jewelry really adds another dimension to a collection.
This article is published in Whitewall‘s fall 2015 Fashion Issue out this month.