She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge… and digital-print pioneer Mary Katrantzou continues to this day to innovate, experiment and create sought-after pieces at the highest level. Henrietta Shirley meets the unconventional fashion designer and talks Disney, Warhol and femmes fatales. Photography by Petros.
"I love to obsess over one idea, dissecting the inspiration to reassemble a collage of contrasting references and create unexpected narrative arcs.”
I’ve met with fashion designer Mary Katrantzou to learn how she arrives at the theme that defines each of her collections. “Each collection is a visual narrative in its own right. The starting point for this [Autumn/Winter 2017] collection was kingdoms, which led to [Disney’s] Magic Kingdom and the 1940 film Fantasia. I wanted to juxtapose the fantasy that inhabits that world with the strength and resilience of femmes fatales of Forties film noir.”
Speaking her own visual language, her artistry with digital imagery and embellished surfaces has led to the title “Queen of Print”, and Katrantzou can pinpoint for you the moment this direction came into focus. It was in the final months of her BA at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design: “After three years of feeling increasingly frustrated at the limitations of screen printing, I decided to learn how to use Photoshop.” Katrantzou could see that by using technology she would be able to push her ideas further, blur the lines between creative disciplines and accurately translate what she had in mind. Believing firmly that “creativity creates more creativity”, Katrantzou finds her inspiration in “pioneers who challenge the boundaries of their discipline and interpret an idea with cross-disciplinary intelligence”.
Her design concepts read as a spectacular embodiment of nature and nurture at play. Born in Greece to an interior-designer mother and a father who trained in textile design, Katrantzou grew up surrounded by copies of Architectural Digest and World of Interiors, and began a BA in Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. Then nature tapped in, and transferred her to a BA and MA at London’s Central Saint Martins, where she shifted from textile design to womenswear, with a focus on print. However, those sources that first inspired her have endured. “I find inspiration comes from everywhere, from symbolism to applied design to art and architecture.” More specifically, she admires “Francesco Vezzoli, Andy Warhol, Oscar Niemeyer, Ettore Sottsass, Azzedine Alaïa, Le Corbusier and so many others.”.
Her fascination in crossing the boundaries of the real, and a desire truly to integrate a sense of cross-disciplinary creativity in her designs found their freedom in technology. “I realised that digital technology allowed me to create surrealism out of realism, possibility out of impossibility, and vice versa. That in turn formed my creative process and my interest in mapping 3-D images around the female form”.
Katrantzou is a pioneer; she was creating computer-generated prints when that was deemed to be a no-go area. As Ida Petersson, buying director at Browns puts it, Katrantzou is “the first designer to elevate digital print into an art form”.
“I strive to push beyond the two-dimensional in both print and tangible fabrications, using the digital and physical to alternately enhance and support one another. I have laminated and embossed plastics, laser-cut Perspex, embroidered vacuum forming and remoulded silicon to explore the three-dimensional space around the female form.”
Sculptural silhouettes, feathers, embroidery and beadwork transform and accentuate the imagery of Katrantzou’s Fantasia-inspired collection. It combines in a visual that effectively translates the great level of technical ability and manual work required to create a digital print. When it comes to digital art, it is easy to forget that there is still someone drawing, painting, creating, and striving to push their medium and ideas to its limits. With film, we seem to be more aware of the artistry and skill involved, say, in the animation of Fantasia.
As Katrantzou explains: “The level of detail and innovation in these works elevated the pieces and influenced the attitude towards prints, recalibrating people’s notion of imagery in the context of luxury fashion. Stores such as Browns, Colette and Joyce immediately understood me, and their support also assisted in shifting the public’s perceptions to make print appreciated as a tangible means of self-expression.”
At Browns, Petersson sees that “there is definitely a customer type that is obsessed with print and with digital art in particular – Mary Katrantzou has cultivated such a devout fan base. People come back season after season to get her newest iteration and to build up their archives.”
Katrantzou tells me that, although she gains inspiration from travelling, for her, “London is where I am reflective and creative and has become my home.” Her vision and innovation have received many accolades, but her most significant supporter is probably the British Fashion Council, which has championed her work through the BFC NEWGEN sponsorship programme and the BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund. “London is my base and has been an ideal incubator to grow my business. It is a hub for fashion innovation and I couldn’t imagine my headquarters being anywhere else.” It is here Katrantzou found her creative voice, and transitioned into a global fashion brand.
This Autumn/Winter, Katrantzou’s collection hums with a multitude of references to the past, present and future with a seemingly magpie-esque eye. There is an overall darker palette, with green-blues and burgundy, oversized furs in bright-yet-pale hues of pink and yellow, and Disney’s artwork reappears, following last year’s display of Charles James’s Snow White dress (c1938) in the Barbican’s The Vulgar exhibition, and Riccardo Tisci’s Bambi sweatshirt for Givenchy, the most sought-after item of its season.
At first sight, creating a womenswear collection based around Disney’s Fantasia appears to be a stark departure from Katrantzou’s interest in Modernist architecture, interior design and decorative arts,as well as her focus on flattering a woman’s form, especially when you consider the demographic of buyers for luxury womenswear. Then you remember her love of the surreal, of trompe l’œil, the hyperreal, and pushing the boundaries of our perception. The kaleidoscope shifts through Fantasia’s imagery; from a sparkling dance across nature in Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, through to the colourful Greco-Roman centaurs of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Katrantzou also “pulled inspiration from the wardrobes of heroes, heroines, charming princes and damsels in distress to combine the masculine and feminine”.
From the surreal to the cinematic, Katrantzou’s focus is “always to look for imagery that can transcend boundaries and allow us to create standout pieces to empower women to fulfil every role in their multidisciplinary lives”. As Petersson puts it, “This collection was an interesting evolution that still felt quintessentially Mary.”
So which part of the collection brings Katrantzou the most joy? “My centaur girls printed and embellished on floor-length tulle dresses worn over cigarette trousers. A sublime dichotomy of fantasy hardened with a touch of the masculine to empower a woman to stand out from a crowd with confidence.”