‘Anything good is difficult’

Mary Katrantzou was born in Athens in 1983. She studied architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, then transferred to Central Saint Martins College in London to study textile design, then a fashion MA. Since graduating in 2008, she has become one of the most exciting designers at London Fashion Week, with more than 150 international stockists.

Maureen Paley runs an eponymous gallery in Bethnal Green, representing artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans and Gillian Wearing. Born in New York, Paley came to the UK in 1977, where she was one of the first gallerists to present contemporary art in London’s East End.

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Creating a dress ...

MK: Before I met you everyone told me, “She only wears black.”

MP: I tend to be neutral and dress down so the art can express itself and possess all the colour.

MK: Because of that, it was the highest form of flattery to make a dress for you. It meant a lot that someone had gravitated to my work who doesn’t necessarily wear prints.

MP: I have a place outside London, in Hove, which is where my clothing experiments often happen. I find I can wear print and colour there!

MK: When I first started there was hardly any print – it was mostly about Céline and minimalism – and it’s interesting to see how that has transitioned. A lot more people wear print on the red carpet and in everyday life. I try to create an illusion through the silhouette that you wouldn’t necessarily get with a black dress.

MP: In terms of the dress’s structure, I wanted it to be something I’d feel comfortable in, not a statement that I’d only wear once.

MK: You showed me one of your dresses in a shift shape and I thought it would be perfect as the print [of a window frame] would remain uninterrupted.

MP: I was drawn to the idea of the dress as a blank canvas.

MK: Any consumer could have told us about the simplicity of the shift dress, but you are the one who instigated it, so last season we introduced it as part of our commercial range. We hadn’t done that shape since the first season because I felt that I had so much to prove with cut and craftsmanship. The first time we met, you came in saying, “You need to do printed coats ...”

From Mary Katrantzou's autumn/winter 2011 collection

MP: Women are often out at events and never take our coats off even though we are wearing these fantastic dresses underneath. Also, they cover up your arms!

MK: It wasn’t a deep conversation but simply what a consumer is saying. For me that is how you start to create a range.

MP: I think the likelihood of people seeing your prints if they are on a coat is quite fascinating, it’s a spectacle of the street.

MK: Some of the pieces on the catwalk are more about embracing an idea. It doesn’t necessarily mean that this is how I see a woman walking down the street on a daily basis. Some women want wearability, but others want to own something to look at and appreciate.

MP: Yes , it depends what world you are in, if you want one statement piece for the red carpet, or your world is theatrical.

MK: As a designer you want to push yourself and I don’t think I would do that if I only thought about what would sell.

MP: I think the way you work is similar to how couture works with ready-to-wear – people also want to see craftsmanship and more extreme presentation of an idea.

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MP: When we were talking about the shape that would work best for me, I looked back to collaborations between artists and designers, and Schiaparelli was somebody with incredible style. She took risks, collaborated with Dalí and the surrealists, and made clothes which stood for me as artworks in their own right, so when we decided you would make a dress for me, I felt I was really was possessing an artwork.

MK: A lot of artists at that time were jumping into the design world, Dalí did the telephone ...

MP: Yes, and Picasso was working on set design but also doing costumes, and when he met Meret Oppenheim she had been making bracelets using fur ... then came the fur cup and saucer ...

MK: It gives a different depth to your work when you collaborate with an interesting mind. I came across such a creative way of sharing content and images recently. It’s called www.weheartit.com and it’s a digital space whereby you can “heart” something, then access it from anywhere. It stimulates you and opens up your mind.

MP: Also your work is about bringing imagery to the world and I think that’s where we were connecting. It was fascinating that John Chamberlain, the sculptor, wrote you a letter after you used photographs of his sculptures and images of car-crash mangled and tangled bits of car in your s/s 2012 collection.

MK: It was touching to receive that letter, particularly as he has now passed away. It’s very interesting to come into conversation with other people in a different industry and follow their work. London creates those links between people.

MP: For example, the dancer Michael Clark working with Bodymap in the 1980s. You and I have come from other cultures to be in London and you get a very different viewpoint.

MK: Growing up in Greece, it wasn’t so prevalent to look at your contemporaries in other fields.

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Artistic integrity

MP: I don’t think it’s harder for either young artists or young designers to get established – anything that is good is difficult. What you see in people who’ve distinguished themselves is that they’ve stayed true to themselves and expressed ideas beyond the demands of the market ...

MK: You don’t start out having studied market research, knowing exactly what people need and want.

MP: You can introduce something that can seem out of step, that then changes the nature of what everyone else is starting to do.

MK: I’ve seen how what I consider is beautiful or ugly change with how informed my eye becomes. That’s why it’s important to have the strength of your conviction, to put something out there that maybe on a mass level people don’t consider as beautiful, but you can perceive it differently.

MP: Yes, I was recently re-reading Allure by Diana Vreeland, and in that she is looking at ideas of the jolie laide, that something can be both beautiful and ugly and I think that’s it’s really where our contemporary period has taken itself.

More conversations at www.ft.com/fashion

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