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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Designer Mary Katrantzou: 'Seeing people wear my clothes makes it all meaningful'

Ten years after launching her eponymous fashion brand, the Greek designer talks to us about creating outfits for the theatre, shifting shopping habits and unwanted nicknames

Mary Katrantzou, centre, with models backstage at one of her shows. Courtesy Mary Katrantzou
Mary Katrantzou, centre, with models backstage at one of her shows. Courtesy Mary Katrantzou

In 2008, fashion was going through a muted phase, defined by plain surfaces largely devoid of pattern. Into this arena stepped Mary ­Katrantzou, whose work brimmed with complex digital prints, explosive colour combinations and dense collages inspired by jewellery, architecture and intricate floral patterns. Wildly optimistic and diametrically opposite to everything else on offer, her pieces were an immediate hit.

It has been 10 years, and her designs still shout their arrival from across the room. Her latest spring/summer 2018 collection is a giddy melange of parachute and puffball silhouettes, polka dots and Designers Guild-­inspired florals, in verdant greens, acid yellows and tangerine oranges. In less skilled hands, such styling might easily descend into chaos, but the confidence with which it is all drawn together shows exactly why ­Katrantzou is referred to as the “queen of prints”. Although, as I learn when I meet her in Dubai, the ­moniker clearly makes her uncomfortable. “To be called the queen of anything is very flattering,” she tells me. “But I think I don’t deserve it.”

Either way, Katrantzou’s bold designs are not for the faint-hearted. Her clients “obviously love pattern and colour, and the positivity that wearing a bright dress will give them”, she says. “It is a confident woman who wears my pieces. They want to feel that they are wearing something that is a little more thought-provoking, perhaps.”

It’s an approach that has clearly struck a chord. In 2016, the brand turned over a reported US$15 million (Dh55m). “When I started, I did pretty much everything myself,” Katrantzou explains, “and it was very tough, especially since I didn’t have a business degree. But, strangely, I loved that part. I am very driven towards making my brand successful, but I didn’t realise that I had business acumen. I was thrown into the deep end so early, I had to learn fast.”

The brand has enjoyed a steady ­upward trajectory, including winning the prestigious BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund award in 2015, securing a Dh1m prize in the process. This financial boost enabled the Greek designer to hire a bigger team, including her first CEO, Trino Verkade (who ­previously worked for Thom Browne and Lee McQueen).

Unlike most of her competitors, Katrantzou does not have any stand-alone stores, preferring instead to collaborate with partners around the world, such as Harrods, Selfridges and Liberty in the United Kingdom; Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue in the United States; Harvey Nichols, Etoile and Boutique 1 in the UAE; and The Modist, MyTheresa and Net-a-Porter online.

“We would love to have our own stand-alone stores one day,” she says, “but we know that retail is shifting, and I don’t just want a store in the classic sense of having a boutique. I have only been in business since 2008, but even in that time, the industry has changed. It’s a tough environment out there, and it pushes brands to be very true to who they are, and to their audience. It really focuses you. When I started, I didn’t know the woman I was dressing, but when I design now, I am thinking of all the women who I have met on my travels. What are they wearing, what occasions are they wearing it to, what other brands are they mixing it with and how are they styling it?

“I am not about imposing. I don’t come out and say: ‘That’s my target audience and I am going to design for them.’ No, I design instinctively, what I love and feel. And that gets a reaction. I never thought of my product as mass, but I have always wanted it to appeal to a diverse group of women. For us, it’s about figuring out how to make a product appeal to different sizes, ages and occasions, and less about flooding the market. There has to be a sense of uniqueness about the brand, and if you take that away, then we are just a print brand.”

Having pioneered the use of digital printing techniques, Katrantzou also introduced methods that allowed her to mould patterns perfectly around the body, creating a uniquely flattering image, as well as dramatically reducing wastage. Such innovation does not come cheap, but the designer is quick to defend her use of time-consuming techniques.

“They are precision-engineered. The production process is very elaborate, and there is no way to now change my business model to be very commercial. I think it is all about value. It’s not about pricing. If we are doing a cotton shirt covered in embroidery, it should be worth that. A piece that took two months to make by hand, like the friendship bracelet dresses we did for spring/summer 2018 – that cannot be mass-produced. A machine never touched it, it was all done by hand. Okay, ­perhaps only three women in the world appreciate that, but that becomes your archive. I only need one woman to be happy, and that makes all the work worth it.”

In recent years, Katrantzou has strived to show that there is more to her label than just digital imagery. Aware of the risk of being pigeonholed, her autumn/winter 2014 collection was remarkable for its total lack of prints, and instead used lace, embroidery and jacquard weaves to create a surface design. “I felt I needed that space to explore different techniques, because I am a textile designer at heart, and digital print is just one part of that. There are endless possibilities in print, but I just had to step back and widen the spectrum of what my work is about,” the designer says.

Nonetheless, her prints are emblematic enough to have been exhibited at both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. More recently, Katrantzou was invited to showcase a retrospective of her work at the Dallas Contemporary museum in January, to coincide with her 10th anniversary.

“It’s very exciting,” the designer says, “because it allows me to create a common thread between all my work and showcase it. We will also be allowing people to buy pieces from our archive in a made-to-measure way, which we weren’t able to do at the time, as we were too small.”

Katrantzou relishes the idea of re-releasing her past collections – even on a small scale. “For me, seeing women wear earlier collections is so refreshing. If I go to a wedding, and see a woman wearing one of my designs from 2011, I am amazed. At an event where everyone is dressing up, she chooses a piece that she already has in her wardrobe? That’s a huge compliment.

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“Seeing people wear my clothes makes it all meaningful. When you are designing, you are so into that world of design, it doesn’t become real until you see someone wearing it. It puts it into perspective – that somehow we have created something that makes people feel good. That’s an incredible feeling.”

For 2019, the Greek designer has an exciting project in the pipeline – creating dance costumes for the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. She will be working alongside composer and fellow Greek Vangelis (the man behind the soundtracks for the films Chariots of Fire, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Alexander and Blade Runner), and is clearly excited about the opportunity. “It is a long way away, but it is always such a privilege to be asked to create costumes. I react to the choreography and the music, and having it all come together is very beautiful,” she says.

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