Mary Katrantzou: "Now is a great time to be a woman"

The designer tells Grazia how she's future-proofing the fashion world for the next generation
Mary Katrantzou: "Now is a great time to be a woman"

Mary Katrantzou is holding court around a table buckling with ceviche in Coya, Dubai. Flanked by her desert hosts, Ghizlan Guenez and Dima Ayad, the Founder and PR and Marketing Director of luxury modest wear e-tailer, The Modist, she’s telling the kind of stories and making the kind of observations that have everyone around her in the throes of a runaway-girl crush. Peppering everything with a deep, throaty laugh, it’s like watching your best mate on top form at a dinner party, spouting raucous tales from uni dorm rooms, revealing dispatches from work, life and love, and unpacking the impossible glamour of Fancy Nancy; a brilliantly monikered, jet-set bombshell from Dallas who we all immediately start following on Instagram.

Mary’s childhood reverie included paint-by-numbers inspired prints

Nancy, and the rest of Dallas it seems, has excellent taste, as the city is playing host to Mary’s mini retrospective, Mary, Queen of Prints, at the Dallas Contemporary Museum. Opened last week, the 180-piece curation celebrates her completing a decade in the business. And what a decade it’s been. “Timing was everything,” she explains of the prolific era she came up in, under late and legendary Central St Martins professor, Louise Wilson. “There were a lot of designers coming out of London with a focus that was more about the surface than the silhouette. Erdem with his florals, Christopher Kane’s witty approach… so many department stores were buying us as a collective, which gives you a gateway into stores that maybe you wouldn’t have had if you were standing alone. It really refocused the spotlight back on London after the gap that came when Stella McCartney and McQueen left for other cities.”

She’s certainly made her mark since then, with over 250 global stockists, countless awards and even more fans, each devoted to her special brand of feelgood, rainbow glamour. To box it off as that alone, however, would be far too reductive. Her pieces may be bursting with colour, or kitschy nostalgia, or the delicious kind of detail that renders you mesmerised (see the Lego skirts and gumball platforms of SS18), but make no mistake – the emotional intelligence behind her collections is striking. And, for that matter, the confidence that underpins them, too. Ironically, something that she’s always been very vocal about not having at the start.

“I said in the press release that this collection wasn’t about my childhood, but I was kidding myself because all those games are from the ’80s!”

“I went into that MA with zero confidence. And I mean zero,” she explains in a melodic Greek lilt. “I thought I was the bottom of the pack and that everyone was better than me. I felt like, ‘I’m not a man, I’ve never studied fashion, I’m not British… how do I fit into the system?’ So I worked so hard. I dissected every single era in fashion so I could stand behind my work. I learned that if you don’t bone up and know your context and where you fit in, then you’ll fit in nowhere. Louise made it very clear that if you have no history, then you have no future.”

SS18 brought together Lego, inflatables and school-trip cagoules

So naivety worked in her favour, then? “Yeah, retrospectively, I think it was a good thing, because there are so many pitfalls you encounter along the way that if you knew about them before you started, you’d feel so much more hesitant. When you don’t know, you use each step as a learning curve. There were times that were so important to my evolution where I made decisions that were quite bold because of the fearlessness that came with my age. If I knew too much, I would have done that girl thing of where we just process it over and over.” She pauses, “Sometimes too much thinking takes away the spontaneity that, in fashion, should still exist.”

Women are in an incredible position right now because there are so many strong female voices

You can’t mention girls and confidence in the same sentence – let alone when interviewing a female designer – without talking about the feminist reckoning currently sweeping the globe; catwalks very much included. “It’s a huge conversation, and not just about fashion,” she says of the movement. “I think it’s about maturing and realising our strength as women. All the mentors I’ve had are women. Women who are so accomplished that they want to help the next generation so much and are incredibly generous with their time and insights. Those [types of] women coming together, sharing ideas and talking about the future of fashion… that’s a conversation that will allow the next generation to be able to say, ‘Now is a great time to be a woman.’”

“The crafts you did as a child were incredible building blocks for your personality and the way you think,” Mary told Grazia

So should we assume that the Mary Katrantzou empire is built on an all-female workforce, then? “Ha, well I don’t set out just to hire women,” she laughs. “We’re pretty equal, but it’s not about women trumping men. It’s about having that dialogue. When we’re having fittings, I find that girls take a bit more time to think because they want to be sure. It’s strange because, as women, I think we’re so instinctive, but actually it’s the boys reacting faster and the girls being more analytical. I think men are bolder, so I try to encourage the girls to be as vocal. We’re in an incredible position right now because we’re standing up for a lot of things. There’s a lot of strong female voices out there promoting the fact that a woman having an opinion doesn’t mean that she’s difficult. We have more leadership roles, more women of different cultural backgrounds, shapes, sizes and occupations who have all become great role models. You see far more diverse women now who you can aspire to be, and the philosophy of being able to look up to them for their achievements has been a slow journey but it’s finally here. Fashion is just one of the conversation-starters.”

She’s right, of course. From the tremendously literal ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ T-shirts Dior proliferated the streets with, to the far more nuanced reclaiming of modest wear as as much of a feminist issue as a fashion one, the industry is starting to find its feet after this new awakening, Mary included, although it seems she was always one step ahead, anyway. Dima tells me the designer was one of The Modist’s very first supporters – testament to her genuine embracing of all women. “Our angle is about modesty but via the female gaze,” Dima explains. “All our lives we’ve been told to look sexy to appeal to men. This is more about women respecting women.” Mary adds, “How you define modesty is so personal. Much of it is an attitude rather than a way of dressing.” The female-friendly synergy between them is palpable. “I think if you look at the body of work of every female Creative Director, there’s a commonality in terms of making clothes that women can wear. There’s that universality when you have a woman at the steering wheel, because she’s actually trying the clothes. I’m not designing a dress so it can hang on a wall. I’m making it so a woman can enjoy her life in it.”

Mary’s signature demi-couture details

So was there one woman above the rest who first set this philosophy into motion? “Louise did for me, on a personal level, something that not even my mum has done,” Mary says, tears filling her eyes. “It’s ridiculous, I always cry!” she laughs, wiping them away. “I still have times when I miss her and think, ‘What would Louise say?’ She was so ruthless, but I was tough, and the more she saw you could take it, the more she’d be on your case to better you. It was almost like you’d been institutionalised your whole life and then you came out and she was your parole officer, teaching you the way. She just cared so much. She’d stand behind all of us and say, ‘How dare they!’ and pick up the phone and shout, ‘You can’t treat a designer like that!’ I would never have launched my brand if it wasn’t for her, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t have had the confidence. She’d never compliment you, but when she saw something good in my work, I remember I’d come out of her office and cry! She would say, ‘Mary, this is something new that the world hasn’t seen before. It’s incredible.’”

Fun, fun, fun: a nostalgia-filled SS18 collection

Proof indeed of the power of women supporting women. “Louise knew what you needed and would really challenge you,” Mary tells us as the interview draws to a close. “She taught me to focus and stay in my lane. Yesterday, I was talking to Ghizlan and I was saying ‘you can’t be everything to everyone at the same time.’ Louise always used to tell me, ‘Mary, there are always people who are going to be better than you. The only thing you can do is stay true to yourself and work really hard.’”

Photos: Jason Lloyd-Evans, Getty Images and supplied