Shortly after three o’clock on Sunday, October 10th, I sat down with designer Mary Katrantzou and the Fashion Director for StyleBop.com, Leila Yavari, at the Ritz-Carlton DIFC in Dubai.
Admittedly, I’ve done a serious background check prior to my interview with the Greek-born designer. Katrantzou, who was born in Athens, originally studied architecture at the famed Rhode Island School of Design. Later, encouraged by her boyfriend who was studying neurology in London, she decided to pack up her bags and join him there, where she made her foray into textile design and ultimately fashion.
Katrantzou is popularly referred to as “The Queen of Prints” for her hyper-real, surreal pieces, which can be seen everywhere from the runways of London Fashion Week to accentuating the toned and tanned bodies of the most adored red carpet darlings. Today, the talented designer wears a black dress, a forest green cardigan, and 60s-inspired Prada hoop earrings. Yavari wears a Katrantzou dress which suits her so flawlessly that it looks like a second skin.
Before beginning our interview, the necessities are handled, which for Kantranzou include ordering an iced coffee and cigarettes. Next, a bit of small talk ensues. The highlights: this is Katrantzou’s first time in Dubai, but not in the Middle East. She explains, “I’ve been to Doha, but I suppose Dubai is more impressive.” She laughs. “It’s nice to be able to travel, so as soon as Leila suggested Dubai, I said, ‘yeah, it would be really great to do’.”
Iced coffee and cigarettes arrive, the latter served on a dainty tray. As the waiter delicately places the order on the table, I take the opportunity to ask Katrantzou if she has any connotations about Middle Eastern women.
“The Middle Eastern women I know are mostly from the women I know personally who travel a lot, so my connotation is that Middle Eastern women are world travelers. I know people who live in Riyadh or Kuwait or who live in Dubai, but they are women who travel to Paris or London, and so, I know more so-called international Middle Eastern women. And they are always extremely chic”, Katrantzou remarks.
The Middle Eastern women I know are mostly from the women I know personally who travel a lot, so my connotation is that Middle Eastern women are world travelers.
When I ask her how she thinks her blooming Monet-esque Resort 2014 prints will appeal to the chic, international-minded Middle Eastern women that she’s just described, she delves into a thoughtful reflection, completely neglecting her iced coffee in favor of an articulate verbal contemplation.
“I think, and I hope, that my work is perceived to be intelligent enough to make a statement without being something that becomes a gimmick. The Middle Eastern women that I’ve met are very educated when it comes to fashion, they are knowledgeable about many designers, and they know where those designers have come from so they can position you in that history.”
She continues, “For resort, both the color is there and the print is there, but the silhouettes are very easy. Further, I think landscape is something that is not alien to anyone. It’s a very easy and relatable theme.”
“Leila, what did you see in the Resort [collection]? How do you think it will appeal in the Middle East?” Katrantzou asks Yavari, who is seated across the table taking elegant drags of her cigarette.
“I think you’re right. I think there’s something very optimistic about Mary’s work. Again, I think it’s a very strong-minded woman who loves modern cuts and silhouettes. Clearly, when you wear a piece of Mary’s, it’s a statement. You really feel like the belle of the ball. I think it appeals to those women, but there are also pieces that women can wear every single day, and I mean, I personally, have been historically more about monochromatic pieces and looks, and with Mary, I find that I can wear these prints and take them to daywear from evening. So it’s also very practical and wearable.”
Katrantzou, who is in town for a cocktail party with StyleBop to highlight her landscape-inspired Resort 2014 collection, has watched her namesake brand blossom with the same fruitful verve as the printed blooms in her Resort pieces.
Besides her brand being on the lips of every fashion editor, buyer, and street style personality, her London team has doubled in less than one year. “I think last year we were twelve people in the company, maybe fifteen, and now we’re thirty-something. Even positions we never had, we now do. It’s great that people are falling into place. It’s an exciting time.” She explains with a humble smile.
“An exciting time” is quite the understatement, I think to myself. However, an understated demeanor seem to be the modus operandi for this designer, who explains her success with the same I-can’t-believe-this-happened-to-me attitude that a tween who just won Justin Beiber tickets might have. She bubbles over with an appreciation for the opportunity she’s been granted, her team, and the “liberated spirit and strong sense of style” of the women who wear her designs.
“The women I meet who wear my designs are either entrepreneurs in their own right and have grown their own business, or in arts and cultures and have an appreciation for design”, Katrantzou explains.
“It’s a woman who wants to make a statement beyond wearing a dress that is flattering. She wants to make a statement about her aesthetic. And when she enters a room she doesn’t mind being looked at. So in that sense, it’s a woman with a strong presence. It’s not a woman who wants to be a wallflower and disappear at a party, and whomever I’ve met has had a strong presence and conviction. They know their style, they know what they like, and they know why they are buying my designs. And I like the spirit of somebody who has a strong direction of their style and that knows their style well.”
“Are there any specific muses?” I probe, curiously.
“I don’t have a muse, but it’s very interesting to see all the different types of women wearing my designs. And sometimes it’s not really someone who is in the public eye, sometimes it’s even more impressive when you see someone who doesn’t have someone curating her style, but someone who has her own wardrobe and picks her own pieces to see how she styles the clothes, how she wears them. I find that even more inspiring because you see it in the most real sense when you’re designing. Leila is a great example of that – not that she’s not in the public eye!”
I don’t have a muse, but it’s very interesting to see all the different types of women wearing my designs.
Katrantzou continues, “But you want that personality; it’s a little bit more than just the classical beauty physically. It’s how she talks, what she talks about.” Of course, the endless list of celebrities who adore Katrantzou’s designs don’t hurt, but for this designer the real thrill comes from meeting the diverse melting pot of women who cherish her designs. She recalls a time when she was in the US and a forty-something-year-old mother and her sixteen-year-old daughter attended her trunk show, both wearing her pieces. “It was really surprising to me that someone that young would appreciate my aesthetic”, she humbly remarks.
Her innovative designs not only have a magnetic quality that appeals across generations and countries, but perhaps most impressively, they attract one of the most persnickety consumers – the woman in a monochromatic uniform. On that note, I take a moment to inquire about the age-old fashion wives’ tale that black is the most flattering color for the female figure. Katrantzou barely lets the words leave my lips before she chimes in, “Completely wrong! I think it’s a taboo that people think it is the print [making their bodies look unflattering]. And I think when people are afraid of prints, they are afraid of prints across all silhouettes. I think you need to find a silhouette that’s you and that’s really flattering and then the print can work to enhance that further. The illusion of the print is to really sculpt the body, which is part of what I do, to make the silhouette really flattering.”
And how exactly are these flattering prints created? (I kindly ask for the “Printmaking for Dummies” version). The astute designer begins with “Okay, without getting too technical and boring you,” and goes on to explain that she starts with a visual reference, something that interests her, before conducting image-based research around the theme. “We get very nerdy about that,” she says with a smile. From there, she creates a collage, which she builds the print from, creating a 2D figure on the computer to see how the print will “map around the body”. As for the silhouette? “The silhouettes usually are inspired by the digital collages that I do because they kind of define shape anyway, and so when the silhouette starts being created you build the silhouette in it so if the silhouette changes, the print needs to change and visa versa.” And did I mention she taught herself Photoshop?
Katrantzou’s inspirations have ranged from interior spaces to landscapes, to her most recent Spring 2014 theme: brogue shoes. “So how does it happen?” I ask. “Is it an organic process? Have you seen anything in Dubai that might inspire you?”
“It usually happens when I’m talking to somebody. I could be talking to you now and then I’ll see something and I’ll think “ah-ha”! She laughs. I mean usually it’s when you’re talking to a creative person, or traveling or visiting an exhibition; it could be anything.”
The ease with which Mary speaks of influences and life is endearing. She untangles her ideas out loud with an unguarded honesty that’s rare to find in any first conversation, let alone a first conversation with an acclaimed fashion designer.
Even when I gently pry into her personal life, asking if she’s still with the boyfriend (the one who helped convince her to move to London), she laughs at how well I know her personal story before warmly explaining, “Yes I’m still with my boyfriend. Eleven years on. I think he’s a huge part of the reason that I came to London. It was three years that we were doing this long-distance relationship, but by that point, I really loved London and I wanted to stay there.”
Next, she launches into a bubbly explanation of a surreal moment that recently occurred for her, in which a driver in London started asking her personal questions, including “do you feel you made the right decision switching from architecture to design?” and “are you still with your boyfriend?”
“Is that when you realized you had arrived?” Yavari asks Katrantzou with a smile.
“Leila! I hadn’t arrived.” Katrantzou exclaims, quickly deferring the compliment. “Basically, this guy told me that because I was running late, he decided to Google me while he waited for me.” She giggles.
“So you jumped careers, just like the driver said.” I inquire. “A lot of Savoir Flair’s readers are looking to make a jump to fashion and are curious about the industry. Do you have any advice for young women that are making to look a career jump to fashion?”
Katrantzou pauses, choosing her words carefully, “I think that sometimes, it’s worth taking a risk. The first two years I was really resenting my boyfriend for having made me make this move, and not knowing necessarily if that was the right move for me. But I don’t think you ever regret making a big decision even if you feel hesitant, because even if it’s the wrong one, you learn from a wrong decision, and you will always question what you haven’t tried.”
She continues, her steadfast tone signaling a deep sense of personal awareness, “For a woman I take risks; not fearlessly, but I try to take risks when I know there’s something new to learn or something new to try especially if you haven’t found exactly what you want to do. You know it’s a long life that we have, hopefully, so I think it’s worth taking risks and seeing where it will lead. You need to be open to change.”
For Katrantzou, who began her design career in the height of the 2008 recession, drive and determination coupled with a willingness to go with the flow (not to mention her brilliant eye for design) fused together to unlock the key to the fashion industry. She explains, “I kept my expectations really low and then I became more driven.”
Adding, “I think I’m a lot more confident now. You know Leila was saying to me, ‘you’re such an extroverted person’. And I told her, ‘if only you knew me before I started; I was so shy that if someone asked me a question I would barely answer, and now I feel completely open.’ So I think it opens you. You need to allow for things to shape you, otherwise you will be the same individual forever.”
Click through our gallery below to discover Mary Katrantzou’s Spring 2014 collection.