London-based designer Mary Katrantzou is a bit of a star these days. Not only has she broken the mold of many of her peers by actually being stocked at plenty of American department stores (think Opening Ceremony, Barneys–even Neiman’s) she’s also influencing the next generation. (Seriously, so many of the collections at the SCAD fashion show were inspired by Katrantzou shapes and prints–I was blown away.)
I recently caught up with the busy designer to chat about the business, down time, and mystery collaborations.
London may be “the” place for young designers right now, but very few are enjoying the amount of distribution you have globally. To what do you credit your success with buyers?
I started at a time when recession had just hit and buyers were looking for something new to attract their customers. They took a risk in a young designer that had a brave product but it proved commercially viable. I think it was because it was something unique with a distinctive signature and they didn’t have to commit to great quantities, they could try it out, see if it works. Fortunately, it did! It has been amazing to receive that support and build our distribution globally. We do our own sales, so it’s been invaluable to be able to form a close relationship with the buyers and understand their needs.
Your prints are (obviously) pretty amazing. Can you describe the process of creating a print?
I always work on a thematic collection, so it starts with a strong image. I then work on a visual collage, creating my own surreal prints, from the research I have done. My prints are inspired by art and design, which makes the research even more interesting and challenging, as you are looking into filtered beauty but turning it on its head. I then engineer the print around the female figure and work simultaneously within the pattern to make it flattering for the woman. If the print changes, so does the pattern and vice-versa. It’s a long and arduous process because most of the prints are built from scratch with 3D shading but that is what gives them a hyper-real rendering that has become distinctive of my work.
Each collection has such a different theme. Do you ever worry that you’ll start running out of ideas?
My collections have been thematic, ranging from perfume bottles, to interiors, to 18th century portraiture, to Objects D’Art, but there are always layers of abstraction in each season. I feel the need to push the boundaries of print but there are only so many ideas you can come up with that will bring something new to fashion, without turning it into a novelty collection. My challenge was to move past just coming up with a strong theme, into showcasing a maximalist aesthetic and strength in colour and form. The perfume season was very distinctive as an idea but then the blown glass collection that followed, was an abstraction of that very theme on glass. Similarly, the Spring 2011 interiors collection with the room prints was very referential but it was followed by the Fall 2011 collection, inspired by the objects of art found in these elitist homes. It was a natural progression but it was all about pattern on pattern and a cacophony of print and colour, as an abstraction of the more thematic room collection. I think there are so many influences in design to draw upon that if you have a strong eye to see the filtered beauty, there will always be ideas that will manifest themselves into something new each season.
Now that you’re sold all over the world, have you made any observations in regards to different markets? How is your American customer different from your British customer, and how is your British customer different from your Japanese customer?
Different parts of the world wear print differently. In the US, there is a great duality in the way they buy. Some of the bravest collectors of fashion are American and we have customers, who have bought the lampshade skirts or the demi couture pieces from the collection, wearing them with great confidence. At the same time the majority of the buyers focus on commercial separates that women can mix up and style themselves. The British customer buys into the cocktail dress and is more ready to commit to the complete printed look. In Asia it is again a completely different story. They dress for the red carpet and for one of our stores in Singapore we develop bespoke pieces for special occasions. It’s a great way of understanding how women want to dress and it’s helped us diversify our range.
You’ve done a bit of work with Swarovski. What’s it like to poke around their archive, and what have you found that you were most excited about?
We have worked with Swarovski Elements for four seasons already and it’s been such an inspiring collaboration. It’s helped me not only add a sense of luxury to the collection but also to push my aesthetic and build on the prints, adding depth to colour. Looking at their archive has really been mind blowing. There are so many ways of applying the crystals to such great effect. I also worked on a collaboration with Atelier Swarovski, which was a great way to offer a range of jewellery that is wearable, compared to our show jewellery, without compromising on the design.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
That’s a rarity these days! I visit art galleries, go to the cinema, see my friends and I try to take some time off and go to Greece.
What’s next on your agenda?
A collaboration with Pablo Bronstein for his ICA retrospective, where we designed the costumes for his performance piece, a resort collection that we were due to launch this season but had to push back to next year and two very exciting collaborations that I can’t talk about yet, but will be unveiled in October!