Greek-Born fashion designer Mary Katrantzou first exploded onto the fashion scene when her debut collection for her Master of Arts degree from Central Saint Martin’s opened the institution’s graduating class show at London Fashion Week. Katrantzou established her signature quickly: graphic tromp l’œeil prints that were almost hyperreal, precision-printed onto exaggerated silhouettes. Moving away from the usual and expected florals, Katrantzou had a different take on prints altogether, putting everything from perfume bottles to architectural photos onto her clothes, and in the process playing a key role in the development of digital printing techniques onto fabrics.
With a fresh, maximalist approach and attention-grabbing aesthetic, it didn’t take long for the young designer to be dubbed “the queen of prints” by the fashion press. But with a mother who was an interior designer and a father who trained in textile engineering, her skill in marrying both arts in her designs seems almost a given on hindsight. Numerous fashion awards and grants later, Katrantzou held her first retrospective at the Dallas Contemporary Museum, where a show named “Mary, Queen of Prints” debuted in January 2018, celebrating Katrantzou's career and assembling ten years’ worth of work in one place. Justine Ludwig, the Dallas Contemporary’s director of exhibitions and senior curator said at the time, “I wanted to show Mary as a visionary, someone who strives to push the boundaries of what is expected and even what can be achieved.”
Fast forward to 2021 and Katrantzou has just partnered with Italian luxury house Bulgari on a new collection based on its Serpenti motif. In an exclusive interview with T Singapore, Katrantzou shares about the research and work that went into this collection. “Having collaborated with Bulgari high jewellery for my first couture show at the Temple of Poseidon in Sounio, we both felt a strong synergy and a mutual appreciation, so it felt natural to continue working together,” Katranztou says, describing the time she first felt a connection with the Italian luxury house. “Discovering that their founder, Sotirios Boulgaris was a Greek silversmith before moving to Rome made the story of our collaboration even more personal to me.”
Katrantzou was born in Athens but has been based in London for much of her career. “After the show I went to Rome and had the opportunity to study their historical archive and then met with Mireia, the managing director of accessories in Florence to discuss ourselves a collaboration and how we could be part of the evolution of Serpenti as a Bulgari icon,” she says
Courtesy of Bulgari
The process of making the Serpenti Handle bag started with sketches of the designs; the heads of the Serpenti used in the handles are crafted in Florence before welded on the body and tails
Recalling her impressions of the brand, Katrantzou points back to her mother. “My mother always used to wear Bulgari jewellery when I was growing up. She allowed me to play dress up with her pieces, so I was very familiar with their aesthetic at a very young age,” she says.
Bulgari has chosen the Serpenti, a symbol of the brand that has appeared on everything from watches to jewellery to bags, to be reinterpreted by various designers over the years to give a fresh, new take on a house icon. Last year, Ambush designer Yoon Ahn was chosen and reinterpreted it into a series of bags and accessories. This year, Katrantzou was keen to do the same, especially because she had an almost scholarly interest in the motif. “Looking at their archive, I think we share a similar aesthetic in many ways. Since ancient times, the Serpenti holds powerful symbolism in Roman mythology and I was very excited that I could interpret it through my eyes,” she says.
Attracted to the rich history of the brand, Katrantzou knew that the challenge lay in coming up with an interpretation that was true to her own aesthetic as well as that of the brand, “Bulgari has such an incredible archive and history that the creative challenge was to decode their symbolism and offer a new perspective. My intention was to highlight it as a symbol of femininity, transformation and rebirth. Everyone experiences their own journey of growth and we all go through some type of metamorphosis in life, which is why the Serpenti has a lot of meaning to me,” she says.
Courtesy of Bulgari
The Serpenti Metamorphosis Top Handle bag.
The result is a modern and masterful collection based on the idea of transformation. “Metamorphosis fascinates me and this journey of evolution became the centre point of the designs. I wanted to connect the snake’s transformative nature in each of the designs,” she says.
The capsule introduces three styles — the Serpenti Metamorphosis bag, the Serpenti Metamorphosis Handle bag and the Serpenti Metamorphosis minaudière. The last was the result of inspiration provided by Bulgari’s 1960s Harlequin Serpenti watch, and Katrantzou found that she wanted to design a minaudière in the shape of the Serpenti head, a Bulgari first, developing the iconic design into a bag of its own. “We also designed a new style, transforming the Serpenti symbol into a removable handle for the bag, allowing the wearer to transform it into a crossbody style. The Serpenti Forever bag became a blank canvas for the unique artwork we designed that tells the story of metamorphosis and is exquisitely hand embellished,” she says.
Each piece in this collection has been created with couture-level attention to detail. “The craftsmanship behind each piece in this collection is truly astounding. My intention was to bring couture techniques of embroidery and precision engineered artworks into the world of accessories. Each Serpenti Metamorphosis bag took us over six months to develop and many rounds of prototyping to perfect each technique and finishing,” she says.
Courtesy of Bulgari
The Serpenti Top Handle bag features the Serpenti itself as a handle, and can be replaced by a chain for added versatility.
In the spirit of metamorphosis, Katrantzou also designed the handle of the Handle bags to closely resemble an actual snake, simply because she was so inspired by its sinuous, sculptural form. “I was inspired by the Serpenti highjewellery pieces and the incredible movement that has been achieved with all the Serpenti designs through the decades. I wanted to recreate Serpenti in its entirety in the form of a handle that would feel like a piece of jewellery on the bag. The Serpenti handle curves and dives into the bag and can be replaced by a chain to give the bag dual functionality. The technicality of the bag is incredibly advanced but we felt it was also important to give women the option to dress it up or dress it down depending on the occasion,” she says.
When it came to design, the collaboration means that while Katrantzou infused her spirit and aesthetic into the collection, inspiration was a two-way street. “There is a common appreciation of harmony and balance, a focus on timeless elegance whilst being daring at the same time and of course an affinity to bold colour. It was so important to me for this collaboration to feel like a true creative marriage and my visit to their archive in Rome was such a great point of inspiration,” she says. The Serpenti watches and bracelets that the brand first produced in the 1960s became the starting point for her creations — the Serpenti handle of the Top Handle bag, as well as the minaudière, which was inspired by a 1968 Serpenti watch. “We stayed true to the watch design from the silhouette of the head, down to the opening mechanism of the snake’s tongue,” she says.
As for her prints, they were not excluded from this collection, and pop up in interesting ways. “Print allows me to define work as an image-maker. I always aim to create a narrative and expand one’s imagination. The metamorphosis print which shows the Serpenti spiralling around its head and transforming into a collective of butterflies defined the base for the embellishment on the Forever bag and in turn on the silk scarves we created,” says Katrantzou, who explained that the Serpenti symbol is shown through its stages of transformation — first into a butterfly, and then from a butterfly into a flower. “The fantastical metamorphosis of the Serpenti into a butterfly is one of the truest examples of metamorphosis, given the symbolic nature of the Serpenti and the four-stage life cycle of the butterfly,” she says.
Courtesy of Bulgari
On this Metamrphosis collection Katrantzou says, "My intention was to bring couture techniques of embroidery and precision engineered artworks into the world of accessories."
The collection also includes a fragrance that she worked on with perfumer Alberto Morillas under the Omnia line. Omnia by Mary Katrantzou is a vibrant, floral eau de parfum which is built around gardenia, her favourite flower, and blended with luminous notes of mandarin and the freshness of fig leaves. “Growing up, we had gardenia trees in my home in Greece, Alberto Morillas realised my dream of capturing the scent of this living flower. For this collaboration, I imagined the Omnia bottle as a sculptural vase holding a bouquet of colourful flowers, creating this universe of optimism and sincerity,” says Katrantzou.
When asked for her favourite piece in the collection, Katrantzou points to the enamelled miniaudière. “[It] is the most special piece to me, because never before has the Serpenti head lent its form to become a minaudière and the workmanship allows you to appreciate the design on a completely different scale, giving it new meaning. When you hold it, it feels like a future heirloom, a true forever piece,” she says. It is perhaps this idea of designing for posterity that lends this particular collection a sense of history that usual brand collaborations do not achieve. With a rise in appreciation for vintage watches, bags and jewellery and a growing sense of value placed on couture techniques and intricate handwork, one can see its appeal for a modern audience.
For Katrantzou, being able to expand her experience and knowledge in the realm of accessories was valuable, and it is a skill she is keen to build on. “It opened my eyes to the world of accessories. [It was] a new avenue that I was excited to explore,” she says. And working with a brand symbol proved to be an unexpected creative challenge which Katrantzou gladly took on. “This collection challenged me creatively because the narrative itself had such powerful symbolism. I think the future of fashion is built on the idea of collaboration and the synergy between creative minds.”
Courtesy of Bulgari
The Bulgari Omnia x Mary Katrantzou fragrance created by Alberto Morillas.
Subscribe to our newsletter