Designer Roksanda Ilincic stands out in a crowd - and not just because of her chic clothes. The 1.82-metre-tall Serbian designer could easily pass as a model with her long limbs, picture-perfect features and Rapunzel hair. That she looks equally stylish in her prim 1970s-style orange dress - her own design, naturally - is an added bonus for a woman who counts celebrities such as Ginnifer Goodwin, the Duchess of Cambridge, Tilda Swinton and Gwyneth Paltrow as fans.
"When I started, my clothes were all about what I wanted to wear. Now it's evolved to appeal to all ages, and a variety of shapes and sizes," she says. "You have women ranging from Michelle Obama and Lady Gaga to Courtney Love wearing our designs. What links them is not the way they dress but that they are strong women with their own minds."
Ilincic was in town recently to showcase her work at the British Council's London Showrooms Hong Kong, with other British designers such as Peter Pilotto, Jonathan Saunders and Nicholas Kirkwood.
While the offerings at the event included everything from hourglass beaded dresses to everyday sequins, her designs were a highlight thanks to their simple architectural lines, bright colours, playful touches and old-fashioned elegance. As a clothes horse and mother herself, Ilincic designs her clothes so that they are easy to wear and comfortable.
"Fashion doesn't stand on its own. You cannot create something that's just for a museum - it's about living in it. It's important to understand the time and culture you live in and combine that in your work, together with emotion and personal beliefs. It's different when you design from your own experience," she says.
Ilincic was born in Belgrade in what was then Yugoslavia. Her father was a businessman while her mother, a pharmacist, was passionate about fashion and would often take her on trips to the seamstress as a young girl. In the early 1990s, during the Bosnian war, she studied architecture and applied arts at two universities.
During this time, she also started reading magazines like The Face and i-D, which inspired her to apply for a master's degree at Central Saint Martin's in London before she had even completed her bachelor's degree. When she was accepted, she left immediately for the British capital.
Her two years at the institution were challenging, thanks to her professor, the opinionated Louise Wilson, who has been credited for nurturing design greats Alexander McQueen and Phoebe Philo.
"I had no idea what my style was, because I was young and there were so many things I loved. In Belgrade, it was all about classic things, and naturally I rebelled against this. Louise is great, because she makes you go through a process of hell while discovering yourself and making your mark. It's very stressful, but it is very worthwhile."
By the time Ilincic debuted her small collection of 13 brightly coloured cocktail dresses at London Fashion Week in 2005, she seemed to have found her niche. Inspired by classic couturiers like Yves Saint Laurent (she has an extensive personal collection of vintage pieces), Coco Chanel, Madame Grès and Vionnet, her designs referenced classic couture from the 1950s.
"It was very brave in London at that time, because it's not a society that dresses up. But I thought it was good to make my own rules and define my own universe. To me it was about this special attention to detail, about making dresses that elevated women to new levels of elegance," she says.
Things changed during the recession in 2008, when women demanded clothes that they could easily take from work to cocktails. When Ilincic welcomed her first daughter last year, she added even more daywear to her offerings.
"I understand that modern women have very busy lives; the boundaries are so blurred, even between couture, ready-to-wear and high street. Now you need a dress that carries itself in any environment. So as our customers grew, I followed their demands. They wanted more day dresses, so I moved with the times," she says.
This new approach is expressed in her spring-summer 2013 collection, which is inspired by the work of modernist painter Josef Albers and French artist Niki de Saint Phalle.
The silhouette is long and lean with colour block sheaths, retro-style maxi dresses with tiered skirts and details such as voluminous sleeves, bow ties at the neck and contrasting collars and cuffs. Separates include elegant crochet knits, jersey tops, high waisted skirts and flared trousers. Everything comes in her signature bold colour palette with bright shades of electric blue, yellow, red, orange and white.
"It's a combination of opposites - femininity and masculinity - but done in a modern way. Before, I loved designing dresses that made a statement from all angles - they made a big entrance but even bigger departure. This time, the dresses have curvy panels and cut-outs at the front while the backs are black," she says.
Clearly, her new vision is working. The brand now churns out four collections a year along with swimwear, which is stocked at high-end retailers such as I.T in Hong Kong and Joyce in China. This year she launched Blossom, a children's line inspired by her daughter, Efimia. She hopes to open her first free-standing store in London next year, while launching an accessories line (for now, her shows feature shoes made by mass retailer Aldo).
"When I started, I was inspired by things I loved. Now, after so many seasons, I like to reference things I don't like, or don't have a clue about," says Ilincic. "When shops want to reorder particular garments, I offer to bring them back for certain periods, and that's it.
"Even if the market is hungry for them, I try to move on to something else. Fashion is quick, and there's always a hunger for something new. But at the same time, you need to take the lead and tell customers where you want to go."