Mary Katrantzou The Outsider

Walking into Mary Katrantzou’s London office, I encounter a happy Cyclops, a figure with a wide-open eye and long voluptuous hair wearing a dress from her 2009 collection inspired by perfume bottles. The portrait by artist/illustrator Craig Redman, who uses the name Darcel, is part of a series for the Parisian boutique Colette. The series includes fashion legends like Coco Chanel, members of the current fashion establishment such as Anna Winter and rising stars like the Greek designer Mary Katrantzou who shows up a few minutes later matching in real life the cheerful spirit of the portrait.

Mary has just arrived via the Eurostar from Paris where she attended the jewelry presentation of her friend, fellow Greek Eugenie Niarchos. For the opening, shipping heiress Niarchos chose to wear a refreshingly modern dress from Katrantzou’s 2015 cruise collection, which is all about typography, calligraphy, and fonts. Now, however, the mood boards in the office have an entirely different theme – geology. She has set Pangaea and Panthalassa as the starting points of this new work and magically developed these ideas into garments put together like puzzles alluding to the earth’s interlocking tectonic plates. Textures include delicate laces, ocean colored beadings, and reflective embroideries like serpent skin.

Greek born Mary Katrantzou photographed in her London studio.
Dixicult dress in the making, inspired by heraldic insignia, traffic signs and tribal symbolism.
Mary Katrantzou studio detail.

In this office where ennui is never an issue, the white walls contrast with the wooden floors. A dress form stands naked next to a picture of a young Christy Turlington, and the wooden beams on the ceiling add warmth in the minimalist interior. My inquiring eye discovers a small Spanish dancer doll sitting on top of one of the beams. Mary speculates that “someone from my assistants must have put it there for inspiration!” when she, together with designers Carolina Herrera, Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen and Thom Browne, was asked to design costumes for the New York City Ballet’s fall gala. “We designed costumes that were like second skin. They reflected the subtlety of the music,” she says in a soft manner as she lights up her cigarette close to the opened window.

Mary’s rise to fashion royalty was rather unconventional. She started at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design inAmerica in interior design. “It was the obvious choice for me, as I was brought up with Architectural Digest and World of Interiors.” But then, to be with Marios Politis who was doing his MSc in Integrative Neuroscience, she moved to London where she pursued a B.A. in textiles at Central Saint Martins and worked on surface decoration, which became the fundamentals of her craft. “When I started, print was such a taboo. Even working on a computer was no go.” Mary dismissed the traditional techniques of screen-printing, knitting and weaving and chose to work with Photoshop, which “was the only way to translate what I had in mind.” Having completed her degree and imagining how the knowledge she had gained could be applied to fashion, she enrolled in the school’s popular and competitive MA Fashion program. “I was terrified and I don’t know how they took me on!” she says with the same look of perplexity she must have had back then. Soon she became accustomed to the mentality of being an outsider and started working hard in order to get into the graduation show. Mentored by legendary course director Louise Wilson, Mary found her medium within digital print and explored the potential of this new technology of which “no one knew the scale.” The first example of this new visual language was shared with the fashion world at her graduation show in 2008: a collection of simple shift dresses with prints of oversize jewelry.

Mary Katrantzou working in her studio in London.
Digitally printed fabrics arranged in rolls.

Despite her father’s insistence that she knew nothing about fashion, Mary decided to start her own label. “When you do something really naively, you don’t know of all the difficulties that will come, so it puts you in a better position to face them.” Her first ready-to-wear collection debuted in London Fashion Week for Spring/Summer 2009 with the support of the British Fashion Council’s NewGen program. For it she printed vintage perfume bottles onto more developed dress shapes. The Cyclops portrait reflects the attention she garnered then, but the collection that most likely put her on the map, as she says, is spring/summer 2011 Ceci n’est pas une chambre, a title inspired by Rene Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe. For this particular show she challenged the viewer by printing fragments of images borrowed from old issues of Architectural Digest and World of Interiors on her designs. As she worked with volume, depth and perspective, the clothes acquired an engaging three-dimensional quality. “With digital printing you get that precision engineering where everything is marked around the body in a perfect way.” In addition to the architectural fragments, she chose to include a striking piece, the lampshade skirt. At that moment she seemed on the brink of a breakthrough. “I felt that I was crossing that fine line between something being gimmicky and something being novel, and I wasn’t sure on which side it was going to land.” But her gamble paid off. She succeeded in attracting the right attention and enjoyed a golden moment in her career.

I had such a fear when I started that I was going to run out of ideas, but not anymore. I think creativity brings creativity.

Mary Katrantzou

After that collection Mary gained the confidence to develop a series of ever changing print themes and became absorbed in whatever she took up. “I had such a fear when I started that I was going to run out of ideas, but not any more. I think creativity brings creativity.” Once, she tapped into the decorative arts and reproduced the shapes and opulent textures found on “objets d’art” like Fabergé eggs, Qianlong dynasty china, and Meissen porcelain. Another time she looked at vintage stamps and old bank notes, and for yet a different collection she looked at the black and white photogravures of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Mary has discovered an extraordinary delight in her work. “All these sources educate you, and you never get bored,” she says enthusiastically as the thin smoke from her cigarette sways in front of her.

Pattern cutter at the Mary Katrantzou studio in London.

In the studio, a floor below her office, large windows flood the room with a velvety morning light, and the seamstresses work unperturbed. The only sound is the mechanical noise of sewing machines. The needles and thimbles create shiny reflections, and the colorful threads are the delicate confetti that decorate the work surfaces. Some pattern cutters shift around the heavy steel pattern weights on fabrics while others carefully draw necklines using undulating rulers on paper.

Mary tells me that this season they worked with heraldic insignia and military types of embroidery. “A friend asked me, ‘What makes this garment so expensive? Is it the mink?’ I said, ‘No. It’s the gold!’” She is speaking of the piece on which she collaborated with the Royal embroiderer Hand & Lock which specializes in gold bullion thread. Farther away on a rack hangs what looks like a colorful inflatable bubble, but is a vacuum formed dress. “I was very excited by this technique. Our stylist was like, ‘No, Mary.’ I said, ‘Why not? It’s going to be amazing!’ We did the vacuum forming like they do the cookies and then we over printed it. But you can’t sit in this dress. You just wave at premieres!” she says with a wink. In storage hangs another spectacular piece — the pencil dress, done in collaboration with Maison Lesage, the famous Parisian Couture Embroidery House. and embroidered with real yellow 2 HB pencils. “They like working with unconventional materials, because they are so classic. If you come with something they haven’t tried before, it gives them great excitement.”

Detail of the vacuum formed dress by Mary Katrantzou.

Having left behind the early morning tranquil landscape, the studio is now buzzing with the energy of the midday craze. People come in and out carrying racks of clothes, posting updates on the mood boards and asking Mary for guidelines. “I design at night, because it’s the only time I am uninterrupted.” It is then that she comes up with the original ideas not only for her showpieces, but also for the basics of her collection: “anything that is part of woman’s wardrobe, taking a little of the theme or the techniques of that collection to allow for wearing on a day-to-day basis.” Her team of fifty-five that helpsher materialize the collection started with just two interns. “I had a tiny studio in Hackney Wick and two non-English speaking interns. Apart from ‘hello’ and ‘this is a dress,’ they didn’t speak a word of English. My mum was like ‘What is this place?’ But that was the least of my problems,” she says half seriously, half in jest. Mary felt that not being British and being a woman designer were the real obstacles. However, her steely ambition outgrew all obstacles. “I became entrepreneurial without having thought that I was an entrepreneur.” An accomplished designer now, she is selling to sixty countries, and her clientele has grown to include first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, and numerous Hollywood actresses.

Mary herself always wears black. “It’s my way of cleansing my palette.” Like a painter who uses black to control the intensity and saturation of colors in a painting, she decided to tone down her prints. “A print nowadays is appropriated by the high street in no time. So I feel as a designer you have to find a way to make it a little bit more difficult to be copied. In the beginning it was more about establishing awareness, now it is about developing the brand in ways that are a lot deeper.” For autumn/winter 2014 she concentrated on a new kind of visual symmetry. “There was no print on the runway and I don’t think anyone missed it, because my aesthetic was there,” she says, and I see a contented gleam of light come into her eye.

London, 2014. All photos © Alexia Antsakli Vardinoyanni