The Serbian fashion designer tells us about her penchant for creating modest wear for modern women
'Covering the body feels more mysterious and appealing': Roksanda in Dubai
As I am being introduced to designer Roksanda Ilincic, she is finishing up a FaceTime call with her 7-year-old daughter, Efimia, who is upset because they didn’t get a chance to speak the night before. Ilincic waves goodbye to the screen and snaps back into business mode. In this way, she is emblematic of the woman she designs for – one who leads a multifaceted life and juggles a successful career with an active personal life, and perhaps motherhood.
Ilincic’s clothes target the contemporary woman who favours tasteful glamour over gaudiness, and looks for comfort and ease of movement when buying a garment. “I don’t like to use restrictive things, like corsets or inner supports, which may slow down a woman in her busy life. I like to use things that are done in a very light and fluid way, similar to how architects build houses without the walls; they’re just supported on pillars,” she explains.
The designer studied architecture and applied arts in her hometown of Belgrade, Serbia, before moving to London, where she specialised in womenswear at Central Saint Martins. In 2002, she debuted her namesake label at London Fashion Week, and it has steadily gained traction ever since. Last month, Ilincic was the designer of choice for the royal wedding gown of Danica Marinkovic, who married Prince Philip of Serbia. Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton and former first lady, Michelle Obama, have opted for Ilincic’s structural dresses on numerous occasions, and the red carpets have seen a myriad of Roksanda designs, on celebrities such as Emma Stone, Rooney Mara, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett and Keira Knightley, to name but a few.
When we meet, the designer is ensconced in a bright yellow maxi dress from her upcoming spring/summer 2018 collection. Although her designs are worn by royalty, and her runway shows are frequented by the fashion elite, the Serbian creative is grounded, practical, poised and slightly reserved. As we sit in the Mall of the Emirates during the annual World of Fashion event, Ilincic is wearing slip-on pointed flats from her collaboration with London footwear brand Malone Souliers, and our conversation starts with small talk about how flat shoes are essential when walking through shopping malls.
Naturally, Ilincic’s background in architecture shapes her approach to design. Landscapes, legendary photographers, and sculptural, abstract and expressionist philosophies have served as sources of inspiration over the years, and her models take on almost statue-like qualities as they walk the catwalks robed in her creations. “I have a big love for shapes and silhouettes, and a garment that is perceived 360 degrees all around,” she says.
Not only does she play with silhouettes and proportions in hemlines, but Ilincic also frequently adds a theatrical touch to the sleeves of her garments – from sheer with tiers of trim and bell-shaped with overstated peplums, to balloon-like, almost reaching down to a model’s knees. “It’s that possibility to create a shape and volume, in maybe a place that is slightly more unexpected than, for example, a skirt,” the designer explains.
Though Ilincic is renowned for her bold yet feminine cuts, she’s equally acclaimed for her unconventional use of colour. The average fashion designer might not pair corals with periwinkle blue, navy with yellows, or limes with pastel pinks, but Ilincic embraces unexpected colour combinations, and makes them extremely covetable. “I like to experiment with the mixture of colours, and how they are talking to each other – something that maybe in the past was considered a no-go area,” she says. “I wanted to bring a new view of using colours, not just [combinations that are] classic, that everybody knows and that go well together, but also to challenge the perception of how we wear and combine colour.”
She gestures towards the purse that she has brought with her this morning. It is from her own handbag line, which she launched last year. It’s a deep shade of magenta – an unusual colour to pair with bright yellow – with two handles on opposite corners: one made from wood and the other from Perspex. “My bag is pink today, so I like that kind of clash and unexpected element,” she says.
Although colourblocking has been a defining feature of the label for years, the designer has recently turned to a new method of achieving a similar effect – by layering dresses over trousers. When I see her later that evening, she is wearing a long, coral dress, with a hemline that stops just a few inches above her ankle, on top of wide-leg trousers, mimicking a styling technique she introduced at her spring/summer 2018 runway show during London Fashion Week.
Azure trousers peek out from underneath a pink and red spliced dress in one look, and in another, nude, spotted trousers are styled with a with a dress in marigold orange. Though she says this reflects a transition into a different way of colourblocking, Ilincic’s new approach is quite deliberate, and isn’t merely a new way to combine contrasting pigments.
“I think trousers are great alternatives to dresses. When women are moving and have many things to do, trousers are particularly easy to wear in our busy lifestyles,” the designer explains. “Like dresses, they cover a lot, and at the same time, they’re really cool and fashion forward in a good way; I think trousers are having a moment right now.”
The designer tells me that while creating a collection, she starts with her research, and then immediately begins sketching ideas as they’re formulated in her mind. But, concurrently, she’ll be draping designs on a dummy. “I think it’s very important that it’s happening at the same time as sketching, so it’s never just two-dimensional,” Ilincic says. “And I keep changing it up until the last minute, because I’m constantly creating, and constantly changing – even a week before the show, I’m still designing and adapting different styles.”
When Ilincic talks about her craft, it becomes evident that she is not only passionate about her design process, architectural influences and colour concoctions, but also about what she believes is the inherent purpose of the garments she creates. “It’s actually something that is protecting us from the outside world,” the designer says. “I don’t like to expose too much skin, and I feel that actually covering the body feels much more mysterious and appealing, than showing too much flesh.”
I highlight that this notion of shielding a woman and her body aligns with the purpose of the abaya, and ask the designer whether the traditional Arabian silhouette has ever been a source of inspiration for her. “I don’t think that it was directly, but the idea of sheltering and covering the body is similar,” she tells me. “It’s just my aesthetic, and in this case, I’m very lucky that it resonates with the aesthetic of this region as well.”
While modest silhouettes have been trending in high fashion over the past few seasons, they have featured in Ilincic’s collections for far longer. But the designer believes that although many designers have jumped onto the covered-up fashion bandwagon, the fad may not last much longer. “Modesty is in right now, but fashion is like a circle,” she says. “It’s going to go back to showing skin.”
Trends aside, Ilincic is committed to her clients, and she has diversified her label to include quirky handbags, abstract jewellery and even charming childrenswear. This is all in addition to a collaboration with Malone Souliers and a partnership with eyewear brand Cutler & Gross. She is constantly coming up with new ways to use colour cleverly in silhouettes that may be conservative, but are nonetheless innovative. “I always want to maintain the same DNA,” the designer explains. “It’s something that is timeless and beautiful; clothing that is appealing not just to one generation, but hopefully to a few generations.”