The Lenny Interview: Mary Katrantzou

The iconic designer on the importance of learning to trust your instincts.

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I grew up fashion-obsessed. Not in a wearing-the-latest-designers or a shopping-till-I-dropped way (I wasn't rich and preferred to spend my little allowance on records). But in the deconstructing-my-mom's-magazines, keeping-dossiers-of-my-favorite-designers-and-models, collecting-editorials-and-ad-campaigns sorta way. As I grew up and the Internet became a thing, this obsession easily translated into the cyberworld, especially when (RIP), a website that posted fashion shows a day or so after they were on the runways, launched in the early 2000s. 

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I remember the first time I saw Mary Katrantzou's work. I was doing my online rounds sometime in 2009, looking at all the fashion shows from London, when I clicked on her name. She had just graduated from Central Saint Martins, the famed design school in London whose alums include Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, and was showing her first official collection. To say that it was love at first sight is an understatement.  I can clearly see myself, my eyes widening as I clicked through the slideshow, my mouth maybe slightly open. Her dresses were bold and fantastic without crossing over to that realm of clothes that are beautiful but impossible to wear in real life. I particularly recall the simple shift dresses with close-up prints of perfume bottles that turned the models into futuristic vixens. These women looked dynamic and powerful, always in motion. 

From that first show I became an absolute Katrantzou obsessive. The next season, she took her prints and pushed them beyond two dimensions with pleats and ruffles that emerged from shirts and skirts that made it seem like your mind was maybe playing tricks on you. There was her "interiors" collection, which seamlessly blended images of, well, the interiors of homes with the garments themselves, the drapes around a window suddenly coming to life in a cascade of fringe that danced as the models walked down the runway. Every season, she managed to remind us that she wasn't simply "good with prints." Katrantzou's collections showed her stunningly creative mind: floral baroque dresses that shipped in huge boxes and stood on their own like sculptures, sweeping gowns inspired by stamps. She could take any idea and make it into a singular creation. 

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You can imagine how thrilled I was to be able to finally sit down and talk with Mary, after years of adoration. She was everything I expected — kind, bright, and funny — and I was surprised to learn that fashion was not always her path. We talked about being nerds, why sometimes ignorance truly is bliss, and why right now is the best time for women in fashion. 

Laia Garcia: You grew up in Greece. Was there a fashion scene there?

Mary Katrantzou: Not really, but I never thought [about] fashion. I painted, and I was strong sculpturally, and I loved art. I actually did an IB [International Baccalaureate] course, and when I did that is when I realized that I wanted to do something creative, but fashion was never big in Greece. There was no Fashion Week back then. Now they do have it, but back then they didn't, and I never really thought of it as a career path, especially because I thought I would just move back to Greece and live my life there.

I kind of knew [I would study] design, and I applied for architecture initially. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design to do architecture, thinking that it was a good mix between something that is a creative discipline and at the same time is practical enough to have a career when I came back to Greece. RISD was such a great school, and when I was accepted I thought, It's so far away from home! I was in that moment where I wanted to be far away from Greece, living on my own. After a year and a half there, I met my boyfriend, and he was doing a special course in London, and I thought, Oh, they have this exchange program between RISD and Central Saint Martins. [I should do that.] So I initially came to London for three months, and I did a course in textile design, because I was strong with color and my mom is an interior architect, so I thought interior design could be interesting. 

After those three months, I loved London. I applied to enter their BA program in textile design. I decided to go to Saint Martins just because I had never done fashion, and I felt like, Why not? So I applied to do my MA there. Being in London, living in London, you hear so much about all the incredible designers that have finished their MA there, about Louise Wilson, who became my course director, [who] was so infamous in her methods [laughs]. I didn't believe in myself back then. I didn't know if I had something that would be interesting within the context of working for a different fashion house or even do my own. I thought, If I go there, it's so cutthroat, it's the closest [thing] that I'll have to working in the industry, and I'll know if I have something remarkable in my work. 

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LG: You wanted to test yourself.

MK: Yeah, test myself, see if that's what I wanted to do. I remember on the first day, you had to bring all your work, you'd meet all your classmates and see everyone's work, and I literally felt like I was at the bottom of the pack. Everyone there had wanted to be a fashion designer since the age of 15, they're obsessed with fashion, and I had no fashion knowledge before I went there. For three months, I literally Googled every single period and designer, and I was so nerdy that I used to do like, trees, of, "OK, that designer used to work there before, and that's the silhouette he was known for." [Laughs.] I had NO knowledge whatsoever, like, at all. 

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It was a very interesting two years where I became so focused and so prolific and determined in my work that I found not only my niche and what my style would be but also where I fit in the general landscape. It was great. Louise was incredible in pushing all of us. She became a huge mentor to me personally. She was very tough, but she had such a critical eye that she could channel your creativity and what you're best in, and I think that's what you need at that moment. You need to focus on what your, not DNA, but what your strength is at that time and also your work ethic, because everyone is working incredibly hard. 

LG: Your graduate show got reviewed on Was that something in the back of your mind as you thought about starting your own label?

MK: Yes., Saint Martins is the only school that shows as part of London Fashion Week. Sarah Mower [a fashion critic] was reviewing the shows for back then, and in her review of the show she only mentioned two collections, a knitwear designer and me. I didn't even know the importance of that kind of shout-out back then, and I remember going into Louise's office and she was like, "Have you thanked Sarah Mower?" And I was like, "No?" And she's like, "You have to thank her! She mentioned you in!" So I sent her this email to thank her and to tell her that I was thinking of setting up on my own. This was 2008, it was the middle of the recession, and she kind of discouraged and warned me about the situation and how difficult it would be to start a business at that given moment. 

Had I given it enough thought, maybe I would've gotten caught up in a different path that wouldn't bring me to where I was, but I felt like there was no room to think about it, I just needed to do it and see how it went. So I applied for New Gen [established by the British Fashion Council, New Gen offers sponsorship and mentoring to young designers in London] and got sponsorship for a season, and that made it very real. The entire collection was nine dresses with prints of trompe l'oeil jewelry. It was very simple, very '60s-like. It was kind of like Jeff Koons meets Jackie O. It started there, but we got amazing shops [to carry the label], so then we had to handle production. I only had a team of two interns, I didn't speak any English, I still didn't know how to pattern cut. It was very "Let's make do with what we have."

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LG: Do they teach you about the production side at Saint Martins?

MK: No, not at all. 

LG: So it was just trial and error?

MK: Trial and error, people you know who can help you. Also, in London, it's quite easy because the factories' sampling units are small, so they'll take you on as a young designer. But, you know, I started with no money, so it just means that you take the order, you produce a bit, you pay them a bit, they have to accommodate a lot, but I enjoyed it! I think when you don't have the knowledge, you don't want to make mistakes, it's your business, you want to get it right, so you throw yourself at it. I was cautious, but at the same time I think I was brave in certain decisions that would allow for growth. 

LG: Is that the kind of attitude you've had throughout your life?

MK: I don't know, I've changed! [Laughs.] When I was younger, I was a lot more conservative and not so much adventurous in what I was doing. When I started my own business, I was a mix of both, quite like the meticulous student that wanted to learn what a P&L was, make sure that what money comes in stays in and doesn't go out, that there's a balance. At the same time, with certain decisions I was really open and quite instinctive in ways that people warned me against, and I just stayed true to what I thought at that moment. Sometimes that resulted in the right thing and sometimes not, but every time I got it right, it gave me confidence that I should trust my instincts.

LG: I remember when I saw your first collection, it was a total jolt of electricity. I was like, "Holy shit, this is incredible!"

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MK: Yes, it was different, and I didn't realize it. I went into starting my own business very naïvely, and I think for me that was a good thing because I wouldn't have wanted — knowing myself now  — to go into it with the fear of making mistakes. I think you're in a much more confident position to be true to yourself if you don't know what could go wrong. 

I was doing collections that felt right to me, that went against everything that was happening. [At the time] it was so much about minimalism; no print, no color. Everything was very "red carpet." It was taboo to do digital printing because it was so sterile, and people were using it in not such a creative way back then, but you don't understand that if you haven't followed the industry closely. You know what you're good in, you know you had a good review, and you're staying true to that. As people wrote about my work — and as I discovered my work — I started mapping out a path that I didn't know was mine.

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I remember when I did the collection on "interiors" that had the lamp-shade skirts, Sarah Mower came to the studio beforehand to see the collection, and she was very silent. Before she left, I was like, "Did you like it, how do you feel?" And she was just like, "I'm just taking it all in, Mary." She wrote me a long email saying, "You might want to have some more commercial pieces there, it's quite different." I think as politely as she could put it, she was just a bit shocked that I was putting lamp shades as skirts. I was very concerned, but it was too late to change anything, so I went to the venue very scared, but I think it just fell on the right side of the spectrum. There was a newness to it that excited people, but it also had a great commercial response, and that's when I became more aware of where I was going, and I had much more faith in my creative decisions. I think you need those moments of — how do you say that …

LG: Self-realization?

MK: Self-realization, but also understanding where you are at that moment in time and where you want to go and connecting the dots.

LG: I have heard women in the fashion industry say that because fashion is primarily consumed by women, and it's categorized as a "women's interest," that it's inherently feminist. Do you agree? 

MK: Well, I don't think that it's inherently feminist at all. But I do think it's really exciting that powerful women are making exciting changes in fashion right now. I think it's a great time to be a woman in fashion. When I started, I remember thinking, I have so many things working against me, and I thought one of them was being a woman. Now I feel completely different. I think, no, I know all the people who've helped me come to this point have been women; all the role models I've had have been women who are very generous with their time. They're women who have achieved great things, so that generosity means even more to me. I think now is a moment where women stick together. You know that quote, "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women"? I love that quote! I feel very lucky and privileged, actually, to be a woman designer working in this moment in time.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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