x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The many shades of mary

Digital print has come a long way from traditional screen-printing methods, as Mary Katrantzou's kaleidoscopic collections prove. The designer is playing a conspicuous part in the avant-garde textile revolution that's given fashion a much-needed shot in the arm.

A handout photo showing models at the backstage of Mary Katrantzou's Spring/Summer 2014 show (Courtesy: Mary Katrantzou)
A handout photo showing models at the backstage of Mary Katrantzou's Spring/Summer 2014 show (Courtesy: Mary Katrantzou)

Mary Katrantzou is dressed in head-to-toe black. Not altogether unusual in fashion, I’ll admit, but for a designer who revolutionised kaleidoscopic print, it is somewhat unexpected. Katrantzou must be used to people questioning this incongruity, as she is quick to explain: “Whenever you work with a lot of print, you don’t want to wear it”. She prefers to keep herself, and her home, free of colour. “You just want to cleanse your palette and almost dissociate yourself from your work.”

The 30-year-old, Greek-born, London-based fashion designer visited Dubai last month to celebrate the launch of her first-ever resort collection, in association with the online Munich-based shopping retailer, Stylebop.com.

Why Dubai? Because she was curious. “I’ve never been to Dubai before, so it was great for my awareness to do something here and get to understand the women who were buying the collection. It’s a market that has a lot of potential and one that Stylebop.com wanted to nurture.”

Although her attire may be plain, Katrantzou is quite the opposite. Her animated persona and relaxed demeanour are far removed from the regular fashion types. Despite having told her story (a few years of studying architecture at Rhode Island’s School of Design before moving onto fashion and shooting to fame around four years ago), many times over, her eyes light up with a genuine passion when she talks about her work.

Katrantzou’s MA graduate collection for the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design garnered the fashion newcomer plenty of plaudits. Leila Yavari, Stylebop.com’s fashion director, who is wearing a Katrantzou piece when we meet, was a fan from the outset. “Mary’s been on our radar since her graduate collection in 2008; it was very rare that a designer of her generation got that kind of buzz and recognition so quickly,” says Yavari. She wasn’t the only one to sit up and take notice. The former British Vogue fashion director and current creative director at Topshop, Kate Phelan, has said, “I’d never seen anything like it before. I was amazed by her passion and new ideas for print.”

It just so happened that Phelan was also a panel member for the British Fashion Council’s talent identification scheme, Newgen – which was launched a decade ago to showcase and promote new designers in London by providing financial backing, supporting new brands’ show costs and offering use of the BFC Catwalk Show Space. Katrantzou was on the list, and, the following season, Newgen mentored her, even introducing her to buyers and journalists.

Through Newgen, Katrantzou joined a slew of young designers such as Erdem and Peter Pilotto whose design aesthetic relied heavily on digital print. What set them apart was the use of new techniques that involved printing from a digital medium directly onto fabrics. Unlike screen printing, which requires great precision in colour separation, this method presented fewer limitations. In addition, there was no longer a need to change printing screens between colours, thus reducing the time it took to create the final print – the equivalent of the transition from painting to photography.

Katrantzou’s collection hit the stores at the pinnacle of digital print, when it was on every designer’s lips. “I think the conversation around print is a complicated one,” says Katrantzou. “When I first started, no one was doing anything interesting with print. It was almost taboo because there were only certain brands with enough heritage that could work with print, such as Pucci.”

Perhaps it is Katrantzou’s rigid themes, which change every season, that help differentiate one collection from the next. Her references to everyday objects such as typewriters, furniture and, in her spring/summer 2014 collection, shoes, lend each collection a thematic focus, taking the emphasis away from print, in general, to the objects themselves.

The real question is whether print will hold its own after all the fuss has died down? Katrantzou is highly aware that without constant evolution, it will, like anything else, become stagnant. “As long as people within print are allowing themselves to really innovate and show a different side, I think print will remain relevant. Of course things will become static if you don’t push the boundaries of what you create.”

Pushing boundaries is exactly what Katrantzou did when she approached her current autumn/winter collection. Contrasting with her usual palette, which relies heavily on fantastical colour, Katrantzou stuck to a sombre palette of rich blacks and steel greys — the only real hint of colour being a snippet of blue.

“I think it’s important for people to see print beyond colour,” says Katrantzou, referring to her brand’s sudden change in mood, a calculated risk for the young designer. “I got scared – scared that it wouldn’t sell well, so I consciously brought colour back when designing the spring/summer 2014 collection.”

Yavari is quick to add, “The general movement in fashion trends is this dark romance, so it was very curious to see what Mary’s collection was going to look like in the midst of that.”

However, the darker pieces sold well, much to Katrantzou’s surprise – and exasperation. “With fashion, it’s a Catch 22,” she says. “You can’t really follow your gut, even though you should. You’re always looking for information and feedback on your past collection but that only comes after you have actually designed the next collection.”

Katrantzou designs and produces two full collections every year. And now that she’s added a resort collection to her repertoire, the workload has expanded further. But can we expect more resort and even a first pre-fall collection from her? “I would love, within a year, to do pre-fall but it really depends on how much the team has grown to take on the extra work,” she explains. Her team has doubled in number, from 12 to 30, in the last year alone. “My collection is a difficult product – and it needs a long developmental process,” she emphasises.

But it is obvious that Katrantzou has a firm business head. “The thing is, every collection you do marks a certain phase and it’s a sort of continuum; it’s important to push yourself and also to allow yourself the time to get there at your own pace.”

Nonetheless, Katrantzou’s pace is fast and her vision unwavering. “We want to evolve from print and work on more textile or shape-based structures,” she says. “I think it’s a good time for me to try new things.”

However they evolve, the one thing that Katrantzou’s pieces will always have, is character. “After all, a little black dress is devoid of personality,” says the woman in black, with a big smile and a little snip of irony.

Mary Katrantzou’s first resort collection is available on www.stylebop.com