Thursday, 23 June 2011

Mary Katrantzou & Pablo Bronstein at the ICA

Mary Katrantzou's London Regency inspired dance costumes.

Mary Katrantzou in conversation with Professor Louise Wilson MA Fashion Design, CSM.

The ICA is currently exhibiting work by young fashion designer Mary Katrantzou in collaboration with surrealist artist Pablo Bronstein. Last week, I attended a lunch-time talk between Katrantzou and Professor Louise Wilson, head of MA Fashion Design at Central Saint Martins (the course from which Katrantzou graduated in 2008.) The designer was quizzed by her ex-tutor about the past, present and future direction of her work. I have been aware of the Greek fashion designer’s quirky garments for a few years and have held her creations in high regard. The main reason for this, being her aversion of succumbing to the common trend of minimalism showcased by the majority of young designers.

Katranzou was first and foremost a textile design student focusing on printed textiles for fashion. This grounding in surface design is evident and perhaps even dominant throughout all of her womenswear collections. She admits to being obsessive about the notion of detail, proportion and subverting it.

The designer grew up in Greece, which harboured her appreciation of classicism and the decorative arts. She claims to be directly influenced by the world of interiors and especially indulgent, opulent decorations such as Faberge eggs and Ming vases. Diana Freeland’s flat is described as one of her main influences. Through her prints, Katrantzou builds a fantasy of fake overindulgence evoking an imaginary era. As far as she is concerned, less certainly isn’t more and her busy, eye catching imagery is such a welcome contrast from the widely favoured minimal approach to fashion design.
Like the majority of textile designers, Katrantzou possesses an inherent love for colour and texture, which sets her apart from her contemporaries, such as the practical, simple design of Celine. Katrantzou has in fact carved herself a niche and indeed since her first show in 2008, the popularity of print on the catwalk has gone from strength to strength. This point of newness has given fashion designers the ability to make an easy statement as print can help define you. In addition the limitations of print design are endless with boundless freedoms to explore new territory and room for further development.

Katrantzou professes other points of interest to be contemporary references re mixed and re used such as music. However, she derives the majority of her imagery from the world of interiors and inanimate objects, which she envisages belong within elitist homes.

Although admittedly, the visual appeal of her garments hold extensive importance, Katrantzou has also sought to explore a deeper, social meaning. She plays with juxtaposing the idea of a setting by encasing people in a scene rather than the more natural opposite. By changing the role of a woman in a dress she hopes to open questions and debate.

Her s/s 11 collection is one I can conjure in my memory vividly. Much of the jewellery worn took direct influence from Pablo’s work. In addition, her idea of putting the room onto the woman is further explored by extending this concept from print into silhouette, e.g. through the wearing of lampshade skirts. Katrantzou successfully takes an art and design concept and subverts it into the world of fashion, which is quite a brave achievement.

She reveals how her process of working is far more complex than what first meets the eye. The hyper-real imagery of her prints is created from scratch. She initially builds her own set through various magazine clippings, e.g. an Victorian chair, the flower arrangement from a hotel lobby etc. Each object is then changed. For example she will change the upholstery or legs of the chair. This set is then created as a digital collage, which is then adapted in proportion and scale so that its composition is engineered around the female figure. A good example of this consideration of the female figure is her range of perfume bottle printed dresses, which elude to and enhance an hourglass shape.

A sense of performance with overwhelming colour is important in Katrantzou throughout the designing process, despite saying that she had recently learnt that the human retina can only digest 36 different colours at one time.
Professor Wilson questioned the designer on her views regarding whether fashion shows were still relevant. I suppose with the rise of digital media and soaring costs and expenses this question must be at the forefront of many a designers mind. Katrantzou unsurprised dismisses their irrelevance. She believes that fashion shows hold an incredible ability to move you emotionally and that there is an incredible sense of power in seeing clothing choreographed. She claims it necessary for her garments to have life and energy inhabiting them.

As well as garments, Katrantzou’s expertise also stretch to the field of jewellery and she has produced a number of monolithic pieces. Her mother owns a furniture making factory in Greece and so she was able to work one on one with a specialist wood carver. She said she was faced with a challenge in convincing them to use their extensive expertise and knowledge in a new and different way and it took great strength to convince them to do something they had previously claimed they couldn’t. I was particularly inspired by this idea of using traditional skill and expertise in a new, original way.

Katrantzou said that she was particularly inspired by Bronstein’s subject matter, architecture and his work as an interdisciplinary artist. Looking around the exhibition there are so many similarities between their styles and both favour to concentrate on grand, elegant buildings. It therefore seems only natural that the two should collaborate.

When questioned about her future in the industry, Katratzou definitely hopes for more collaborations. She is also keen on using her print in different contexts as at the moment she has limited her work to fashion. A natural transition would be to venture into the world of interiors. Her ambitions to move away from fashion are interesting. She strongly believes that fashion is marginalized within the arts as it is such a commercial industry. The paintings of artists hold longevity whereas the world of fashion requires a continuous need for production of new and exciting collections each different and more impressive than the previous. As a fashion designer you must constantly challenge yourself and the necessity of time doesn’t always allow for room to breath or develop creativity. This endless feeling of pressure makes designing for fashion a difficult process to sustain. Many designers consequentially chose to shy away from this pressure and focus their energies into a more commercial route. This negative perspective of the fashion industry resonated with a documentary I watched recently on the life of Alexander Mc Queen. The extreme pressure placed upon him led to a life of grief and a constant grapple to be better and to reach an unattainable level of success. Despite wowing audiences with his highly theatrical, groundbreaking shows and boundary pushing garments he was always pressured to push his work further and make his shows more impressive and original than the last. The documentary was very moving and actually quite upsetting. It revealed the truth behind the glamour, the ugly side of fashion. It also made me question whether, as a textile designer this really the industry I want to enter?

Dancers perform in Mary Katrantzou's specially designed costumes at the ICA.

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