Mary Katrantzou on Getting to Know Customers, Taking a Break From Digital Prints, and London Vs. Paris-------
Mary Katrantzou touched down in New York on Monday. She’s in town to celebrate the fifth anniversary of her London-based label and the U.S. launch of her e-commerce business, which is going gangbusters. MAC Cosmetics, a longtime supporter, is hosting tonight’s dinner at Indochine, and more than a few bold-faced names are expected to attend. In advance of the festivities, Katrantzou sat down with Style.com to discuss online profiles, why she’s turned her back on digital print (at least for the time being), and the day when she just might move her must-see show to Paris.
So, we’re celebrating your e-commerce site tonight?
Yes, we started shipping to the U.S. and Australia as of about three weeks ago. Thank God for the U.S.! We launched in Europe at the end of November. It was going a bit slow, and we thought, OK, it’s a new website, we can’t expect everyone to shop. But then we opened to the U.S. and everyone’s buying, and their average buy is very large. They don’t buy one piece, they buy five pieces.
With wholesale accounts, you never get a profile for who’s buying. Now, all the people who are buying are e-mailing us directly, saying, “This was too big” or “I wanted this 10 centimeters longer” or “I have this occasion, what do you recommend?” It’s a great tool for educating your customers and for understanding where your brand is headed. Department stores won’t buy pieces from the runway when they’re over a certain amount. They’ll put a cap on what they can sell. Online in the U.S., it’s the most expensive pieces that are selling, whereas in our wholesale accounts, it’s the separates and the mid-prices that sell. We’ve started these profiles now of who each customer is and what she does.
Are your shoppers filling them out for you online?
No, we just Google them [laughs]. Our e-commerce manager sends me a list of all the women who’ve bought. It’s really nice to see how many of our customers are founders of their own businesses and entrepreneurs and writers and this and that.
Were you concerned about how your current online accounts—the Net-a-Porters of the world—would feel about your own e-commerce launch?
[Net-a-Porter founder] Natalie Massenet is extremely supportive. Even before we launched, you’d read interviews where she said she thinks designers should have their own e-shops. So you’re like, “OK, if they think so, who are we to argue?” In the end, our site raises awareness. There’s a live feed of all of our social media. There’s a news and events page, which is where we put little fun things, like the first wedding dress we’re doing this week in the Dominican Republic. The e-shop was done in a very considered way: You can see a lot of details; the tools to filter are really good. People are so accustomed now to buying online you have to compete with the kind of service and easy access that all of our partners have. Most of the work went into, how can we get them to buy and check out in five seconds? How can we make it super-easy? We’re working on that one.
Your Fall collection got such a great reaction. But why no prints?
It was a turn of the page, a conscious one. I felt that a lot of people were waiting for me to show a different side of my work. That’s always been a big struggle, because commercially the collection is doing really well and going from strength to strength. I have a lot of shops now, and it’s not like in the beginning where I felt I could just play, just create.
I felt that if I wanted to work on a collection that was different, I had to completely remove the print. The strength and boldness of digital print almost completely annihilates everything else. Also, you see so much of what you do filtered through to the high street. For other designers it doesn’t matter so much, but when it’s a print, which communicates so loudly, when someone is wearing my typewriter dress at a party and somebody’s wearing the same thing from Primark for $20, then it’s going to devalue what my customer is wearing. It felt important to me to work on a product that’s not so easily copied by the high street, something that’s quite unique.
I’m happy that the reaction has been so positive. Before the show I was saying to my partner, “This is the worst collection I’ve ever done, this is an embarrassment, I can’t show it to anyone.” And he was like, “Even if it is, be brave for your team, Mary, you need to be brave.”
How did you land on symbolism as a starting point?
It started by looking at uniforms. I came into the studio and said, “Guys, we’re not going to have print, it’s going to be pared-down and there’s going to be nothing decorative. I feel it’s time to challenge ourselves with something new.” And everyone just stared. So it was all about artisans: the butchers, the bakers, people who work with their hands like that, and construction workers, pinstripe bankers, Scouts. When we started doing the research, we realized it was more about the symbols that surround those professions than the uniforms themselves.
Style.com loved the metal butcher’s aprons.
Those are real butcher’s aprons. We bought the actual aprons, and then we unlinked—link by link—all the pieces. The pattern cutter had to morph them around the body; it’s extremely, painstakingly laborious work. Just to open one of the links you need serious strength. At one point we were thinking of getting a welder to unlink the links. My team said, “Mary, why don’t we just get chain mail?” And I said, “No, it needs to be a real butcher’s apron.” It has a certain rawness and weight. When we were doing the casting, the pattern cutter said, “I need the model for three days.” We told him it doesn’t work like that. But four hours before the show he was literally perfecting the dresses on the models backstage. The metal doesn’t glide like chain mail does. We’ve actually sold six of them; they’re about 6,000 to 8,000 GBP, and they have to be done in-house.
What were the most popular pieces from the show?
Everyone is loving the lace. The mill that was working on it barely agreed to do it because it’s basically creating a fabric out of lace. It’s very delicate and very costly. But we just went for it. When the prices came through, we realized that even if we put the lowest margin on it, they were never going to be affordable; they were always going to be a level beyond anything else. That doesn’t happen with print. Even if it’s super-constructed, the base is print, so you know where you stand price-wise. This was us really going into the dark. But now the mill is really excited. They called us: “So what are we doing for next season?”
Speaking of next season, will print make a comeback or…?
I don’t want to say too much, but I knew that whatever we did this season it had to be something I could see myself doing for the next two, three seasons, or more. Whatever I was going to do, I felt it was something that should excite me to develop. To convince your customer to come along, you have to stay true to that for a certain period of time. Thankfully, they were super-excited from the beginning and our sales did really well.
I don’t want print to be the focus at the moment. There’s so much I’ve said through print, there are times when you need to be more quiet with it. When I started, digital print was such an unknown entity, you felt you could do anything. So many designers took it and ran with it, we need some time to sit and contemplate what’s next. The focus for Resort is to build on what we did for Fall.
You launched bags for Fall. How did that go?
We started with old camera bags. I thought it was a nice idea because so much of my work references photographic prints, so it’s a kind of turn-on-its-head, of looking at the apparatus instead. It’s a vague reference, but it was something to get us started. They’re really well made; they’re very simple. When you’re wearing our pieces, you don’t want the bag to be that complicated. Resort has a couple more pieces, and for Spring we’re building a couple of stories. I didn’t know what to expect, but so far they’ve sold really well, and the factory is really excited, so I guess it was a good order. No one knows we do bags yet, so we’ll see how it goes when they get to stores.
Time flies: Your brand is already five years old. What are your ambitions going forward?
Your drive and ambition shift based on how the company is growing. You always have plans, but then you look back and you think, Wow, I wasn’t really ambitious at all. At times we were growing at 200 percent and 300 percent, and I wasn’t hiring anyone because I thought, OK, maybe we’ll reach our ceiling really soon and then I won’t be able to employ anyone. I was very conservative. At some point you realize if you don’t put things into play, if you don’t start early organizing things, you lose the momentum.
I want “the Mary…” to be a brand. People are becoming more aware of my work. You realize it when you travel. I was in Kazakhstan, and I never thought people in Kazakhstan would buy my work. I’m going to the Dominican Republic, and they’re doing this store event and the store told me that they’ve sold out of tickets for the meet-and-greet and everyone wants to preorder. You don’t realize that because you live in a bubble in London.
The next step for me is that the range [of products] communicates the expanse we have in terms of sales. We’re sold now in fifty-six countries across about three hundred wholesale accounts. It’s a big presence, and I feel we haven’t had the chance to build the infrastructure and the range to really substantiate that because everything has gone so fast. Another thing would be to have our own shop. In the next two, three years, we’d want to take that step.
You have a very dressed-up signature. What will a Mary Katrantzou casual Saturday outfit look like?
I think it should be unique to its season. The brand that we are is not thematic necessarily, but each season gives you something new to buy into. There are a lot of women who buy my pieces, who collect them and feel the need to buy them every season. In order to do that, one thing I want to continue is to make sure each season is different to the one before.
Your London peers, the designers who came of age when you did, are all male. Advantage or disadvantage?
I meet all these women. It’s not that I ever have a muse in mind, but you do think, Would they wear this? How would they wear it? How would they feel wearing this? It’s not a case of understanding their bodies because you’re a woman, it’s more a case of understanding their lives and knowing why they buy what they buy.
But when I started I felt it was a huge disadvantage. I thought, I’m not British, I’m not a guy, I haven’t studied fashion. I thought, What am I doing here? You felt you had to fight more for certain things. As you grow your business, that really shifts. You don’t feel like you’re playing [at being a designer] anymore. You have these women in mind that you’re dressing. You know what they do, you know the occasions they want to wear it for. You get inspired by them. And because you never have time to have your girlfriend friends, these women become that and they’re in all different parts of the world. And that’s enough to stay creatively inspired.
Are there women designers who are coming up that you like?
I think Simone Rocha is really great, not because she’s a girl, just because I think she’s great. She has something new to say, but it’s done in a really finessed way. Other people younger than Simone? I don’t know. We’re lucky; there’s a generation of designers now in London who are really strong. I was part of the Newgen panel this year, which was an amazing honor because just five years ago I was presenting my work there. It was a bit of a déjà vu, but on the other side of the table. You see how difficult it is to start today. A lot of people don’t have the financial support to take that step. I feel that things have slightly shifted. With a lot of designers doing well in London, it’s more difficult to filter through and pick somebody who can stand their own ground.
I think it’s really difficult for people to start designing now. They either think it’s going to be super-easy or they don’t want to start the struggle. I talked to Louise Wilson [of Central Saint Martins], and the only thing she says is that students are really struggling—they can’t repay their loans, they don’t want to go through the struggle of starting their own brand. Sometimes you have to go into it a little bit naively. Had you known what you’d face, you probably wouldn’t have made the choice to get into fashion.
I hate to think about where fashion would be if you and your peers hadn’t made the choice.
In whatever city you’re basing your business, you have to join a discussion. In London, you have to join a discussion that’s going on between London designers. A lot of the department stores were buying into us as “the London designers.” On one hand, you were really frustrated because you wanted to carve your own path, on the other, it was really great to be part of this community of designers that women were buying. They were buying London designers. If you ever moved away from London and went to Paris to show, your design language would need to be in sync with what’s going on there.
So what about Paris? Would you consider showing there?
At the moment London is a nice platform to show from because you feel what you’re saying is relevant to that city. Down the line, in terms of an ambition, it is to show in Paris when you want to compete with the big fashion houses, when you feel you can compete and you have something to say. At the moment, no, but eventually at sometime in the future I feel that it’s just another challenge I’ll want to take.