Roksanda Ilincic is a master of surprise. Not in the frenetic, whizz-bang way that is increasingly demanded of designers these days, but more the sort that creeps up slowly before seducing you entirely and all of a sudden.
It’s upon this kind of wizardry that she’s built her burgeoning empire over the past 12 years; offering us an ever-more perfectly pitched edit of pieces that we never knew we always wanted. She is the woman who convinced us that actually, yes, we absolutely do want to temper chartreuse with burgundy, to wear our finery to breakfast, and to go a little rogue from time to time. If Roksanda has taught us anything, it’s to embrace our mercurial nature as women, to revel in the unexpected, to supersize our hemlines, our earrings, our elegance and our fearlessness, and to unapologetically add a dose of drama to the every day. Because, well, why not?
“I think your design philosophy often comes from your life philosophy,” the Serbian-born, London-based designer muses when Grazia meets her at Harper’s Bazaar Arabia’s House of Bazaar at Mall of the Emirates, shortly after telling us that some of that life is spent bombing around east London in a boy-racer Subaru Impreza that she’s nicknamed ‘The Beast’. A car her husband presented her with when she had her daughter, Efimia, no less. “Secure; to put the baby seat in,” she laughs. Currently covered in matt-black foil, she plans on colour-blocking it – à la Roksanda The Brand, naturally – by painting “one of the doors either orange or green.” See? We did tell you. Surprising to the very core, just like her designs.
“From the outside you might look at my pieces and think they’re timeless, but there’s always so much contrast going on in the colour-blocking or the fabrics, and also from the clash in what the clothes are saying. Now we see it everywhere, but when I started, I immediately wanted to mix day- and eveningwear, masculine and feminine, the casual with the really dressed up. Shops were coming to me and saying, ‘We’re confused – we don’t know where to place you… where do you belong?’ And I would say, ‘But that’s women! That’s how we are today!’”
It makes perfect sense now, of course, but to have had this kind of pioneering, courageous conviction from the very beginning is no mean feat – and it changed everything. In 2005, when she dared send out a debut of just 11 hyper-feminine, jewel-hued cocktail dresses at an otherwise-edgy London Fashion Week, it certainly wasn’t the norm, but it planted a seed, setting the tone for a new kind of contemporary elegance.
Quickly becoming known as the thinking woman’s go-to brand, Roksanda began dressing princesses, first ladies and starlets with substance, putting the word ‘demure’ back into the modern-fashion lexicon in the process. Who knew a cluster of proper, modest, knee-length frocks could ever be quite so renegade?
Well… the late, legendary Louise Wilson, actually. Also having taught McQueen, Galliano and a slew of other global power players in her time, it’s her professor at Central Saint Martins that Roksanda credits with giving her a judicious shove in the right direction, shifting her perception when she needed it the most.
“When I came to London I was rebelling quite a lot against certain norms that existed back home,” Roksanda explains, “I wanted to be something quite different to all the set rules and stereotypes in Serbia, and I remember Louise saying to me, ‘Listen, you can rebel against what you are, or you can embrace it and offer something every bit as unique. It doesn’t matter if you want to be rebellious through the avant-garde; you can be rebellious through classic things as well.’”
Turns out, there was a little bit of both in there. And by staying true to herself, Roksanda has emerged as one of the world’s most distinctive and successful fashion voices, with four collections a year now sold across 40-plus countries, not to mention a mantle groaning under awards. Indeed, a few days after we met, it was announced that she’d been nominated for British Designer of the Year: Womenswear at Britain’s Fashion Awards – arguably one of the most prestigious fashion gongs going. A testament to the power of authenticity, as we’re sure Louise would agree.
“Realness is very important,” Roksanda insists, hair artfully dishevelled as if to prove her point. “We’re constantly bombarded with all these beautiful images of perfection and what we’re starting to miss is reality; that feeling that something isn’t virtual, that you can actually reach out and touch and feel it. That’s why I think fashion shows are still so key. It’s about personal connections. It’s experience. That’s what really makes fashion what it is today.”
She’s right, of course; her preternatural knack for tapping into what we want next also having pinpointed the need to slow down and remind ourselves what it’s really all about. Perhaps it’s an antidote to the warp-speed juggernaut the industry has morphed into. After all, pressure is par for the course for designers these days.
“My bed is where I feel most inspired,” she sighs, wistfully. “It’s where I can think without any interruptions.” But it’s also her contemporaries – the generation of London designers she came up through the ranks with – who she credits as her support system; the likes of Jonathan Saunders, Nicholas Kirkwood, Christopher Kane. “Yes, we all do hang out, and we’re all friends,” she says, indulging our fashion dinner-party fantasies. “It’s so great to be surrounded by love and support rather than jealousy and competition. It’s a big change to what it was like before. Fashion is a tough business. You need to give so much of yourself, so it’s wonderful to get appreciation and love in return.”
This was perhaps said best on the catwalk this season, with Roksanda dedicating her AW17 show to her close friend and fellow designer Richard Nicoll, who passed away suddenly four months prior. Her opening look was painted Nicoll Blue – his signature shade, which Pantone created in his memory – an emotional tribute, and a signifier of the industry’s evolution towards the love and inclusivity that Roksanda speaks of.
“There are so many young designers emerging that you always have to be on your game, but it’s great to have them there,” she explains warmly. “All my generation are now established, but there’s this incredible rawness that comes from London that keeps you on your toes. You have to figure out how to communicate in a really profound way because hardly any of us have loads of money behind us. But fundamentally, the customer doesn’t care if you’re owned by [conglomorates] LVMH or Kering. They will come and buy the product that they feel most drawn to. The one that they relate to the most.” There’s that realness again. It’s impossible to argue with it.
Photos: Jason Lloyd-Evans and Getty Images