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Mary Katrantzou Does Pretty Robots

The CSM MA grad who is already selling to Browns with her softened up tromp d'oeil dresses.

Taking inspiration from robots, constructivism and 60s minimalist Pierre Cardin, Mary Katrantzou’s thrilling designs playfully teeter between bodycon minimalism and baroque, hyperrealistic oppulence. Using trompe-l’oeil prints, she embellishes her acid-bright, block-coloured dresses with oversized jewellery prints, which, as she points out, would be so heavy as to be impossible to wear were they real. Only graduating from Central Saint Martins in February, her first commercial collection is selling exclusively from Browns Focus in the Spring.

DD: I hear you started off at Rhode Island School of Art.
MK: Yes, I did. I went there to do architecture there, or so I thought. And I was there for the first year, and it’s in a place called Providence which is fine for a year, but if you want to do fashion, and by then I had a feeling I did, then it’s probably not the place to be.

DD: So you switched to Central Saint Martins?
MK: Yes. I took a transfer there because I’d heard of all the people who had graduated from there and how influential they became. It’s a completely different system to America. There, you get overlooked all the time. Here, you’re pretty much on your own. It's like "The project is on ‘fish’, just go and do whatever you think of". And I definitely wanted to do the MA because I’ve always wanted to work with Louise Wilson.

DD: She’s a bit of a legend, isn’t she?
MK: And I’m a bit of a masochist. In the way that you really want someone to get at you and say what’s wrong rather than saying everything is fine. And whenever she says something is shit and it needs to go, it needs to go. In the beginning printers didn't see her a lot. You never knew if she’d be a fan or if she’d kick you off the course. So I had a slow start with her but towards the end, she was really helpful with what I was doing.
She pushed for me to do the jewellery, which has been great for me because I’d never planned to go into jewellery and I’d never done jewellery in my life. I was doing jewellery prints and she said ‘Why are you not doing real jewellery?’ So I did.

DD: The unique thing about the CSM MA is that you get to show on schedule at LFW. Didn’t you open the show?
MK: I did open the show, which was a bit of a nightmare. Some of my stuff had zips. They didn’t zip or unzip and they were just placed there, you know? So one of the models thought these zips were there to zip and unzip and she totally unzipped a dress, which went from knee length to mini just before the show. I was showing first so, thank god, we pinned the zips quickly together and it was fine.  

DD: Despite the truncated dress you got some really good press.
MK: I got a lot of bloggers, which was really cool. I wasn’t expecting it, I didn’t know if I was going to enter fashion or what I was going to do. I wanted to see how it all played out.

DD: So even as you were doing the show, you weren’t sure whether you wanted to be a designer yourself? I was going to ask you whether it had always been your dream to set up your own label…
MK: I’d always got the impression you weren’t allowed to do that. I mean, apart from Jonathan Saunders, I can’t think of a print designer showing on schedule at Fashion Week. So you’re taught to feel that it’s not going to happen. So I was thinking ’Yeah, I’m going to be freelancing, I’ll send my portfolio to labels in Paris I want to be working for’. But then the press started picking up. So I sent out applications just to see what would happen, to see if there was any future in this or not and some buyers were interested in the collection so I was approached by Browns Focus who wanted to buy. It was gradual, and at that point I decided I was really going to go for it.

DD: Do you feel a kinship with the current crop of designers coming from London: Christopher Kane, Gareth Pugh, Louise Goldin and co?
MK: Christopher Kane, Gareth Pugh, Louise Goldin are three of my favourites. I don’t feel part of it just yet, because it’s all happening now for me. But I do admire what’s happening in London, I think it’s a great place to start because there’s a great support system and there are people to support you as you go along. The sponsorship, the support, the magazines and the entire press in London is really creative.

DD: What are the signature elements of your design?
MK: I am going to continue doing print because my background is as a printer. For next season, it’s not going to be jewellery prints any more. I am going to continue with the trompe l’oeil idea to make it distinctive. It tends to have a photorealistic aesthetic and I think that will continue as a distinctive style. And also for the S/S 09 collection, because I hadn’t sold the MA collection, I wanted to do something that was linked to that so when it goes to shops, you can see how it’s something that people like.

DD: How do you achieve the photorealistic prints?
MK: I designed most of it with 3D shading from scratch, and for other stuff like buckles, I just scanned buckles in and I integrated them with the jewellery I designed.

DD: For the trompe l’oeil, were you looking at any other designers? Sonia Rykiel is the obvious…
MK: Sonia Rykiel, Karl Largerfeld, Jean-Paul Gaultier, a lot of designers in the 20s and 30s, but in a different way, so you’d see trompe l’oeil pearls or pockets. I think my trompe l’oeil is something you would not be able to wear if it was real, as it’s such a heavy piece of jewellery, so it has a reason for being trompe l’oeil! I’m trying to do a trompe l’oeil where you wouldn’t be able to wear it if it was real. Like, for next season, it has a lot to do with glass and things like that.

DD: How about the colour palette?
MK: The graduate collection was quite autumnal, but the Spring / Summer is very pop-inspired. Usually I use a lot of block colours and contrasting colours to give it a bold edge. I kind of changed at the end of last season, I was turning the S/S into a dark collection and, I thought, ‘My god, I need to make this lighter’, so I started throwing the fuchsias and yellows in and now it’s super bright.

DD: Of your graduating year, who can you recommend? I know about Simone Shailes…
MK: I was sharing a studio with Simone in Hackney. Now I have it all to myself because she’s gone. She’s got a job at Celine.

DD: With Phoebe Philo?
MK: Yeah. There are so many designers that are good at the moment. Mark Fast who does knitwear; Natascha Stolle, she’s doing the Fashion East Show. And Christopher Shannon who does a lot of sportswear which I think is really cool. I do think it’s a good time in London, even with the recession and the credit crunch and whatever. Even though it’s a hard time, people seem to be interested in seeing new talent. Maybe you don’t buy it but you still want to look at it.
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