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Mary Katrantzou: female designers now have a voice

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"Just before I left Greece to study at the Rhode Island School of Design in early 2002, a friend threw a leaving party for me. Amid the tears and goodbyes, a man I knew told me: ‘It’s your time – go and be the next Tom Ford’. It struck me as strange that of all the designers, he chose a man. Why would he not tell me to be the next Stella McCartney or the next Donatella Versace?

The irony is that fashion is an industry that revolves around the female form, but it’s only recently that we have seen a shift to women actually influencing the direction of fashion. When I was growing up, I remember creating collages devoted to supermodels like Christy, Linda, Cindy, Naomi, Claudia and Kate. I knew they were dressed in Gianni Versace, in Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld, in Gucci by Tom Ford but I couldn’t name a female designer who featured on those pages.

When I moved to London in summer 2002 to study at Central Saint Martins, I was in a class of 72 people; I only remember seeing five boys. But that wasn’t exactly surprising – I was studying textile design, a subject which has historically been dominated by women working behind the designers with fabrics and embroideries, as sample machinists or pattern cutters.

While I worked with print, I thought about how it could be used to flatter the female figure and empower women not to shy away behind safe clothes. I began thinking about where I fitted into this equation: I hadn’t studied fashion, I had no technical knowledge, I was from a different country and, more importantly, I wasn’t a man. I was never going to make it as a fashion designer… which made my next decision even more odd.

I decided to apply to the notoriously competitive Central Saint Martins MA in fashion, for one simple reason: I wanted to be mentored by Professor Louise Wilson, the course director. When I got in, the talented designers I found myself surrounded by were of course mostly male. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel intimidated.

But Louise taught me to have the strength of my convictions and stand behind my work, and that message has enabled women to come to the fore in fashion.

Today we have fashion for women, by women… innovative and wearable

I decided to apply to the notoriously competitive Central Saint Martins MA in fashion, for one simple reason: I wanted to be mentored by Professor Louise Wilson, the course director. When I got in, the talented designers I found myself surrounded by were of course mostly male. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel intimidated.

But Louise taught me to have the strength of my convictions and stand behind my work, and that message has enabled women to come to the fore in fashion.

As female designers, we can see what women want to wear and how they want to wear it. It goes without saying that women want to wear flattering clothes – pulling in a waist can transform one woman’s shape while certain lengths can change others – but what I am talking about is more subjective. It’s not just about creative expression, it’s also about how the woman feels wearing your clothes. Women use fashion to portray an image of themselves; it can transform the way they carry themselves and how other people perceive them. Fashion should be empowering and that is what I wanted, and still want, to portray in my designs.

I am lucky to be part of a generation of female designers, especially in London, who can now stand alone with a significant voice. I’m also lucky that I have great women around to support me. When I graduated in 2008, the first three stores that bought my collection were Browns in London, Colette in Paris and Penelope in Brescia – I have so much respect for Mrs B (Joan Burstein), Sarah Andelman and Roberta Valentini, the women behind those stores. They believed in me from the start; it meant so much coming from women who are so respected in this industry.

If I was a child again now, I’d have scrapbooks full of models dressed by female designers, and if I was at my leaving party, that man who wanted to wish me well would now have a longer list of female designers to liken me to. For me, that is really exciting and makes me proud to be a part of such an important change."

Mary Katrantzou’s s/s 2014 collection is available at marykatrantzou.com. She will debut her a/w 2014 collection at London Fashion Week on 16 February.

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