All things considered
Newcomer to London's fashion scene Mary Katrantzou doesn't even have her website properly up yet. But since her runway debut two years ago, the Athens-born designer has wowed audiences with her graphic prints. At 28 years old, she is headed for stardom and packing a punch.
'I like to create beautiful things that come from art and design but can be worn by a woman,' she says. 'The idea is to put something on a female figure that she wouldn't be able to wear if it was real. This initial concept gave birth to my perfume-bottle-inspired dresses and hyperreal prints.'
She turns up for her interview elegantly clad in her signature all black, with barely any make-up. You wouldn't guess this understated, quietly confident person is behind the striking and intricate Ming dynasty porcelain prints or the elaborate beauty of sculpted peplum-skirt Faberge-egg dresses.
Bold surrealist prints have defined her aesthetic and landed Katrantzou the British Fashion Council's NewGen sponsorship six seasons in a row.
'It's a lot to take in because we are growing so fast,' she says. 'It can get overwhelming, but it's exciting - direct feedback and a positive response just push you further.'
Katrantzou's mother was an interior designer and her father was trained in textile design. She pursued architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design in the United States because she thought it was a way for her to get a job back home in Greece.
That changed after she met her boyfriend in Greece one summer.
'He thought the US was too far,' she recalls. 'He said: 'You're the younger one, so you should come to London, where I'll be studying medicine.''
Katrantzou had always dreamed of attending Central Saint Martins, so she started with just one term, thinking if it didn't work out, she could go back to Rhode Island. She took courses in textile design and worked with designers Sophia Kokosalaki and Bill Blass. 'In the end, I never went back,' she says. She completed her bachelor's and master's degrees.
Her eye for design and construction has resulted in artful creations. She is a rare breed who has command of both details and the grand narrative.
'The way I see things, the symmetry, construction and balance of my work can be traced back to my start in architecture,' she says. 'And building architecturally on the body is something I really like. Every season you have to push your boundaries.
As an example, she pulls out a high-sheen dress from the rack. 'We used Mylar - the material that is used on windows to tint them - and we bonded that on tulle. I wanted it to have a really high-gloss finish.'
Katrantzou's fashion is filtered through industrial design, in obvious and more conceptual ways. Her deep well of inspiration has given us the blown-glass collection with its exquisite swirls, and the 18th-century portraiture collection.
Not long after her debut, she was picked up by stockists Browns and Joyce.
A defining moment was her first solo runway show - the spring-summer 2011 Interiors collection, which put Katrantzou's name on the lips of every London style seeker. Collaged prints of interiors found in old Architectural Digest magazines were engineered and sculpted around the female body, with 3-D illusory shading.
Instead of putting the woman in the room, Katrantzou essentially 'put the room on the woman' - to dazzling effect.
'It was the first time that I used the collection theme to define the pattern so the skirts became lampshade skirts, chiffon on the sides mimicked curtains and the lines of the dress mimicked window frames. Everything was built simultaneously,' she says.
The next show marked Katrantzou as someone with lasting power. For autumn-winter this year, she translated precious and revered objects of art, Qing dynasty vases and Faberge eggs, into sculptural forms with aplomb.
That was when international industry players started hailing Katrantzou as the hottest ticket on the London young designer circuit. Magazines used her catwalk pictures as opening spreads for London Fashion Week.
'Something just clicked,' she admits.
Commercially, she needn't worry, either. This season's collection, in stores now, has made her one of the biggest sellers in the London Show Rooms group, which includes Todd Lynn, Christopher Kane, Peter Pilotto and other designers. Her dresses get prominent placement in stores, an indication of Katrantzou's rising fame.
Her upcoming spring collection draws surprising parallels between the repetitive visuals of sculptor John Chamberlain's industrial work (crushed car parts and massive blocks of steel) and organic, natural patterns.
She has an eclectic skill for interpreting simple concepts in a way never been seen before - it is much like viewing the world through her personal kaleidoscope.
One does have to marvel at how Katrantzou can keep pushing the boat out with such striking results. One also wonders how she'll withstand the constant pressure of being at the top.
'For spring 2012, it was important for me to show I could work with things other than the trompe l'oeil print and use patterns that I would have never done before, but in a quite austere way. It is more about super-saturated techno colourations and pattern on pattern this time,' Katrantzou says.
'Perhaps it's a different take than what you would see at New York Fashion Week or in Paris, where prints are perhaps more decorative. I think, in general, that British designers have a distinctive style and that London Fashion Week shows stand out.'
Katrantzou is pleased that people are taking London's fashion scene more seriously.
'Now a lot of designers are doing collections that are mature,' she says. 'They are still directional, but the make is very technical, with a lot of craftsmanship and skill. Commercially, we're all more viable now.'
Buyers and press are less inclined to view London designers as a risky bet, partly, Katrantzou argues, because the designs stand out in stores. She also praises the British Fashion Council - no surprise since she has benefitted from its mentorship programme for several years. But the gratitude is mutual. Since sending an electrifying jolt through the fashion community, Katrantzou has helped draw more attention to the city.
Her work takes a certain poise to wear. These prints are not fluffy or girlish; they are all about control. But her designs also flatter and accentuate the female form. The shapes of hourglass perfume bottles, vases and lampshades give a softness and balance to rather severe, bold graphic prints.
'I never used to think it made a difference to be a woman [designer], but now I think it does make you more sensitive to the female figure,' Katrantzou says. 'Female designers have a way of architecturally building a second skin for a woman.'
Mary Katrantzou's designs are exclusively available at Joyce in Hong Kong.
Top of the frocks
The Greek-born, London-based designer has joined forces with high street chain Topshop in recent seasons. Previously, the fashion week favourite created a range of scarves and simple shift dresses in her signature striking prints for the retail giant.
The spring 2012 Mary Katrantzou for Topshop capsule collection features 14 pieces, available from February. The collaboration marks 10 years of the British Fashion Council's NewGen sponsorship programme for young designers, which Topshop has supported since its inception.
A sneak peek of Katrantzou's latest Topshop line appeared on Twitter two weeks ago - a sculpted dress translated from her autumn-winter 2011 collection that featured prints from Qing dynasty vases and precious Faberg? egg dresses. Already the blogosphere is abuzz over this look - her most high fashion construction yet for Topshop - which will sell for a fraction of the price of her own label.