Mary Katrantzou is a fearless designer. In recent seasons she's proved totally willing to defy expectations, challenge herself (both aesthetically and technically) and tirelessly push her brand forward, refusing to just accept the 'Print Queen' tag bestowed upon her. She's not willing to base her whole brand on the back of a trend. Print, arguably, was a fad - a moment of colourful fever - but Katrantzou is going nowhere. She's got one of the smartest, most ambitious business plans of all the London pack, and more than ever, she feels like the UK designer that's building a global brand the quickest and the most confidently. She has become the eveningwear leader, overtaking other designers with equal knack for sequins and chiffon rapidly, one show and one Instagram at a time (her social media presence is remarkable).
But the growth has not been without its struggles - such was her success with graphic digital print that the process of challenging her customer and expanding the way her brand is viewed has taken time. So it's telling then that conflict was a key theme for A/W 15. Katrantzou sought to include different, contradictory ethos, on one hand nodding to grand Victorian fashions which prioritised the demonstration of wealth and status through excess, decoration and fuss, and on the other to the tireless pursuit of clean, minimal chic that modern fashion leaders promote (see everyone from Phoebe Philo, arguably the trend's instigator, down to Victoria Beckham, who cast aside her bodycon frocks a while back in favour of flats and layers). As inspiration, she choose opposites, drawing on the clash between the Horror Vacui art movement and the subsequent modernist reaction. It spoke of a wider struggle within fashion, one that relates to taste. How does one get a logo-obsessed, monied shopper, the kind who actually has the wealth to support a growing London label, to extend their shopping habits beyond showy, obvious looks and into refined, technically-advanced 'fashion-forward' clothing. In other words, how do you make today's luxury shopper accept the future?
Many designers speak of the sadness and difficulty of compromising their creative desires to suit the requirements of buyers. They talk of having to scale back their vision and play to the obvious and the safe. Katrantzou seems to have accepted that difficulty, and not only made peace with it but run with it as a theme for her collection. This read like a marriage - or perhaps a clash - of what she wants to make and what her shopper wants to buy. So some pieces came strict and subdued, free from print and embellishment; a lesson only in construction and form. Others played on expected notions of luxury. They came frilled, covered with flouncing ruffles, kicked out at the knee and covered with couture-level crystal and sequin embroidery. Some looks directly clashed streamlined, futuristic elements with retro froth and frou, so techy knits were styled with ruffled skirts in heritage fabrics like paisley. Others - in perhaps the most intelligent and potent idea in the collection - toyed with attitudes towards women, jarring expected views of female sensuality with modern notions of womanhood. So some looks idolised the female form in the way historical costume and high fashion of previous eras did - see the hour glass cuts and fish tail skirts - while others fought against it, cut straight to deliberately ignore the waist.
All those discords and contradictions suggest that this collection felt awkward, confused - stuck between opposing ideals that fashion as a whole can't reconcile. That was the magic, it used questions and confusion to create excitement. They say the best fashion is unexpected and surprising, jarring even - it makes you want things you never would have presumed you'd like. That's a skill only the best designers have. Katrantzou proved she's got it.