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Fashion's Princess Of Print And Her Computer-Generated Haute Couture

It may look like art, but it's just a beautiful dress: Mary Katrantzou is leading fashion's digital print boom, a new generation of designers creating clothes with the help of such tools as Photoshop.

Prints, prints, prints (Mary Katrantzou)
Prints, prints, prints (Mary Katrantzou)
Lorraine Haist


LONDON - The woman whose dizzyingly colorful clothes are the talk of fashionistas worldwide wears only one color: black.

But the minute Mary Katrantzou starts talking, you know why no one else but this 29-year-old Greek with the dancing brown eyes could be behind the label that bears her name. Katrantzou is as exuberant as her clothes: wearable sculptures in fabric that combine motifs as diverse as Fabergé eggs, Ming vases, swarms of fish and Post-its. She manages to pack twice as many sentences as most other people into the space of a minute, and laughs easily and often.

She has good reason. The company she launched in 2008 has been growing at a rate of 200% a year, in fact in 2011 it was 300% --selling clothes that cost from 1,000 euros for just a simple dress. Her third collection for the Topshop chain, in stores last February, was sold out in 10 minutes – faster than any other Topshop designer collection ever.

Around the world, 230 boutiques carry her label, and the list of famous Katrantzou aficionados keeps growing: Actress Keira Knightley, the editor-at-large of Vogue Japan Anna Dello Russo, and Beyoncé"s younger sister Solange Knowles are fans. Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, asked for private preview of the new fall and winter collection.

In her studio, a two-story loft in Islington, young people sit in silent concentration in front of computer screens or bent over wooden tables working with fabric. They are busy producing the fall and winter collection that will appear in stores soon.

Sophisticated patterns

It is Katrantzou's best collection so far, her most mature, and it makes the name the media baptized her with --"Queen of Prints'-- seem like lèse-majesté. Of all the London designers who started and fueled the digital print boom last season, Katrantzou is the one whose imagination has flowered the most lushly, although --with the exception of her present summer collection-- she is relatively reserved in her use of actual flowers in her prints.

She masters like no one else the difficult process of combining extremely complex and artistically sophisticated patterns with cut, and making the result look like a completely harmonious unit.

"We spend six months on a single dress," says Katrantzou, who prefers to speak of her team's efforts rather than just herself. "It takes three months to produce the 40 prints we develop each season." Not only does the cut have to suit the print, but the print has to mould the wearer's figure attractively. "A print dress is like a second skin, it can morph a woman's silhouette and make her look even more elegant than the proverbial little black number," she says.

Which is why Katrantzou's clothes usually have classical cuts that are developed, at the same time as the prints, with the help of computers. Clothes are then fashioned either on dummies or living models until the print and the cut harmonize perfectly. Katrantzou manages this fusion of pattern and form so cleverly that at the end of the intense production process the result is what every woman wants to wear: not art, but a beautiful dress.

"The female form is very important to me," Katrantzou says. She admires Azzedine Alaïa for his ability to flatter a woman's body with his clothes. In her first collection, she showed simple shifts on which the shape and shadows of oversize perfume bottles created the optical illusion that the wearer had a splendid figure ("and you're wearing perfume without actually wearing it, get it?"). Since then the cuts have become ever more complicated and architectonic: crinolines and godet skirts, peplums, babydolls made out of 40 meters of chiffon, every centimeter of which is covered with an elaborate print – a challenge even for highly experienced designers.

And yet Katrantzou, who was born in Athens to a textile designer father and interior designer mother, never studied fashion. In 2003 she went to study architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, then switched to Central Saint Martin's College in London where she earned a master's degree in textile design.

Designing with Photoshop

"When I started out, I didn't have a clue about fashion," she says. However by the time she completed her education she knew that she didn't want her fabrics on cushions --it had to be clothes. So she sat in the library "for nights on end" boning up on fashion basics. She also learned how to work with Photoshop: "I don't want my work to look too photographic, so I use the mouse the way an artist uses a brush."

Although Katrantzou doesn't see a lot of her Greek roots in her designs, she thinks she probably got her sense of balance and symmetry from her parents. "I grew up with classicism, it was reflected in my mother's decorating style." So her eye was trained early, and has now found expression in her fashion that also gives her the possibility of "finding new ways of perceiving things."

Things, for example, like a green plastic bath duck that combined with a hedge and lawn looks like the garden at Versailles, or spoons printed on a sash that make it look as if they're embroidered with silver thread.

On some of these trompe-l'oeil masterpieces, Katrantzou --the first London designer to do so-- works with the legendary Parisian embroiders Lesage whose other clients include Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Dior.

For a pencil skirt adorned with yellow pencils, the Paris workshop made 700 pencils from yellow telephone cord --but if the end result looks like brocade worked with gold and precious stones, it's thanks to Katrantzou's magic. "If somebody walks up to you and says ‘Your skirt has pencils on it!" then I haven't pulled off the effect I was looking for," she says.

Read the article in German.

Photo- Mary Katrantzou

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