Her signature graphic prints and feminine silhouettes have seen designer Mary Katrantzou become one of fashion’s key players. Now she’s looking to the future, and it’s reassuringly bright
Multi-tasking comes naturally to Mary Katrantzou. Arriving at the designer’s bright and airy North London studio, she is running behind schedule but unflustered and welcoming. She has her hair and make-up done for today’s Toni&Guy magazine shoot, while taking phone calls and squeezing in a meeting with her knitwear team. ‘If only I had more time today,’ Katrantzou gasps with a smile, now ready for her close-up.
The last time I saw her was backstage at her London Fashion Week SS17 show. With just 30 minutes to go before showtime, the woman of the moment stayed calm as PRs, photographers and producers whirled around her and models put on their first looks. And gosh, what looks. Her most personal collection to date, Katrantzou drew on her Greek heritage to come up with a riotously colourful collection inspired by ancient Minoan civilisation and executed through an Op Art lens. Her prints portraying priestesses, horse drawn chariots and peace doves were framed by neo-futurist geometric checks, florals and swirls that collaged together to create flattering vantage points on the body.
‘It all came together naturally,’ says Katrantzou. ‘I was looking at different deities, which took me back to all the Minoan frescoes and artefacts at Knossos Palace depicting a culture that empowered women. At the same time I was looking at the psychedelic patterns of the 1960s and felt like those frescoes were the Pop Art of their time, so it was an interesting proposition to bring it all together in an abstract way.’
A return to her roots in more ways than one, SS17 was also her first collection in quite a while to fully embrace the signature digital prints that first made her name. ‘Because the context of the collection is Greece, there was only one authentic way to do it and that was to embrace the powerful qualities of the theme and inspiration,’ she says. ‘The focus was on using the perspective and placement of the prints to create a dialogue between the graphic and illustrative elements. I love that we really went there with it. It was daring and unafraid.’
Katrantzou has partnered with Toni&Guy for SS17 (as well as AW17). The Session Team, headed up by Global Creative Director Sacha Mascolo-Tarbuck, worked closely with her to create the show’s hair look. ‘Sacha was so supportive and introduced me to her team beforehand so we had the time to talk through ideas. We were thinking of tying hair up, adding waves or having sharp fringes. But because there was so much boldness in the clothes, I wanted the girls to be as natural as possible so we went with groomed, polished hair that moves and gives her a distinctive confidence,’ she says. ‘On the day of the show the team were so professional and flexible. To get a natural look isn’t easy but they executed the brief perfectly and the girls looked beautiful.’
Katrantzou has always had design in her veins but fashion was by no means her destiny. Born in Athens in 1983, her mother was an interior designer and her father a textile engineer. She studied architecture at Rhode Island School of Design but transferred to London’s Central Saint Martins to do textile design. By the end of her BA in 2005 she decided to focus on print for fashion and was accepted onto the university’s prestigious fashion MA. She readily admits that, at that time, she knew little about the industry.
‘It’s been a real pleasure working with Mary. From the start it felt like a true collaboration. As a fashion focused brand I was immediately drawn to her bold patterns’ Sacha Mascolo-Tarbuck, Global Creative Director
‘I went very nerdy about it because I had so much to catch up on. For a year and a half I experimented with new ideas while taking in disparate influences,’ she recalls. Her fondest memories are of studying under the renowned and dearly departed course director, Louise Wilson OBE. ‘Louise was incredible at pushing you to dig deeper, to know your subject matter and to talk about your work confidently. It was a huge privilege to have her as a mentor.’
It was under Wilson that she developed her approach to hyper-real digital print. Her 2008 graduate collection of trompe-l’oeil prints of oversized jewellery on jersey-bonded dresses earned her a distinction. And alongside fellow London Fashion Week designers of her generation including Peter Pilotto and Jonathan Saunders, she went on to spearhead a global trend for in-your-face prints as a backlash to the minimalist, recession mood in fashion at that time. ‘Back then digital was taboo but so much of my work was photo real that I couldn’t achieve what I was wanted to do without digital print. They were surreal in their composition but still photo real in their rendering, which hadn’t been done before.’
She launched her namesake brand for SS09 at London Fashion Week with the support of the BFC’s New Generation scheme, which picked up several sought-after stockists including Browns, Colette and Joyce – rare for a debut collection by an unknown designer. She hit the catwalk the following season with a collection inspired by perfume bottles – another critical and commercial thumbs-up – and her ascent has not ceased since. ‘I went into it quite naïvely but started achieving small victories, which gave me the confidence to be brave with my next decisions. The more people buy your clothes, the more responsibility you have. I wasn’t fazed but it was a lot of hard work and I had no social life! I was hungry, young and driven.’
Successive collections continued to thematically explore objects of art, luxury and the every day through print, ranging from everything from Fabergé eggs, blown glass and Meissen porcelain to postage stamps, lampshades and typewriters, each time pushing the possibilities of applied design. By 2014 she had begun to focus on lace, brocade and other embellishments to form textures that were not dominated by print. She worked with specialist ateliers such as Maison Lesage in Paris and Hand & Lock in London to achieve intricate embroidery techniques, and looked to new technologies to create fantastical pieces such as crystal- embellished, vacuum-formed silicon skirts.
Continually evolving her fiercely feminine aesthetic, accolades and collaborations have steadily flooded in over the years. She won the Swiss Textile Award in 2010, then was named Young Designer of the Year at the Elle Style Awards in 2012 and took home the British Fashion Award for New Establishment Designer of the Year in 2015. She’s done collaborative collections with Topshop, Moncler, Current Elliott, Longchamp, Adidas and Atelier Swarovski and created costumes for the New York City Ballet. And all the while she’s been able to grow her business to encompass more than 200 stockists and 50 staff.
Having been awarded the 2015 BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund, which included a £200,000 grant, Katrantzou is now looking to the future. Her plans include fully-fledged footwear, jewellery and bag collections as well as opening her first standalone store. ‘I’m taking what I have built and diversifying product, range and channels of distribution over the next two or three years.’ Meanwhile for AW17, she’s worked with Disney to create a collection inspired by the original Fantasia film and Alfred Hitchcock’s film noir heroines.
But the goal isn’t for her brand to be as big as it can be, no matter what. Given the tumultuous times we all live in, Katrantzou is also in a reflective mood in terms of how she, as a fashion designer, can have a social impact. ‘People are alarmed by the world around us. It’s an awakening of sorts,’ she says soberly. ‘There’s no point being negative though. It’s about cutting through all the noise and making sure you are true to who you are in terms of the brand, the business and where fashion is going generally. And associating yourself with groups of people or organisations to effect change.’