We meet Ian Griffiths, the creative director of Max Mara, for a one-on-one interview at Singapore’s historical The Fullerton Bay Hotel — in The Landing Point dining area with a view of the Singapore River before us. The former punk rocker from the North of England is wearing a suit from Savile Row tailor Timothy Everest, but assures us that although he dresses in a classic way, he is not a conservative. This is a fitting location: The high ceilings, and modern, light-filled space has both a sense of history and of ease — two elements that play a considerable part in each collection that Griffiths has designed for the brand.
The affable 53-year-old Brit has seen Max Mara grow from strength to strength since 1987, when he joined the company, fresh out of fashion school. Today, he remains respectful of the brand’s heritage and its customers, having worked as an in-house designer for the brand for over 20 years before his current appointment. He is clear about the brand’s philosophy of real clothes for real women, which still holds true today, and describes it as his automatic instinct. He also knows that retaining existing Max Mara customers — some of whom have been wearing the brand throughout their decades-long careers — is of utmost importance. He mentions that his 83-year-old mother is his star and that, “it would be a tremendous betrayal to abandon the woman that we have been dressing all the way through her career.” Griffiths has clear ideas on how to attract the youth market and will not succumb to trends like doing streetwear for the sake of it. “I think that for me, the important thing about pursuing a younger market was not to throw all the cards up in the air and throw the baby out with the bathwater — to mix metaphors. I wanted to find a way of making a younger market, want to come to us rather than us to chase after the young market,” says Griffiths.
Ultimately, the name of Max Mara is one that holds weight for Griffiths and this sense of history comes with a certain value. He describes how certain looks, such as the long, bias-cut dresses in the Spring/Summer ’20 collection, may seem unexpected for the brand, but were actually nods to archival pieces from the ’80s by the brand’s former designer Anne-Marie Beretta. While Griffiths finds things he didn’t know were in the brand archives, he is never surprised by these discoveries, but instead uses these examples to make sense of the Max Mara canon. “Although there’s something about me that everyone says is kind of this secret, underground punk with a radical agenda, when it comes to Max Mara, I’ve always believed in gentle change and evolution. In a world where everything is happening so quickly, people ironically cling to Max Mara because they see it as something, which has lasting values, a real heritage and real meaning,” says Griffiths.
But while it is clear that some pillars of the brand must remain intact, there is always room for this gentle evolution. Griffiths famously sent model Halima Aden (donning a headscarf) down the runway at Milan Fashion Week in September 2017, and in the Spring/Summer ’20 show, a bevy of “It” models (including Joan Smalls, Gigi and Bella Hadid and Kaia Gerber) looked fresh and youthful in head-to-toe monochromes complete with kepi hats. The lady that Max Mara dresses is interested in change, but she may not be radical in an obvious sense. “The collections that we put together over the past 10 or 15 years have always sent out the message of a woman who wants to effect change in the world. She wants to influence things, [and for them] to be done slightly differently, and wants to challenge the status quo in her way,” says Griffiths.
With every collection, Griffiths starts with an inspiration, because to him, fashion is culture. In the past, everyone from David Bowie to Marilyn Monroe has inspired him. For the Spring/Summer ’20 collection, Griffiths tapped onto what he felt was a moment that was happening in popular culture — the ubiquity of the lady spy in thriller fiction. He makes reference to an article he had read in The Guardian by feminist writer Natasha Walter on why fiction needs more female spies and talks about her novel “A Quiet Life” as well as other instances where women have gotten more positive roles in thrillers, such as “The Night Manager” and “Killing Eve”. On the Bond Girl, Griffiths’s stance is clear. “There is such a paucity of good roles for women. The poor Bond Girl — what kind of deal does she get in a Bond film? [There’s] nothing much that women could aspire to there,” he says.
For this collection, Griffiths designed his own version of James Bond, reimagined with a female lead. “The way I approached it was to imagine the wardrobe for my version. So that was my imaginary film, and it started in Whitehall with a briefing at the ministry in in the grey London rain, and then lunch at a Mayfair restaurant, and then [a] trip by private jet to a tropical island... it could be Singapore,” says Griffiths, with a smile. When it comes to his seasonal inspirations, Griffiths goes in depth to the point of obsession — “Even I can’t bear it anymore,” he says.
This season, his lady spy’s wardrobe is imagined in a chic, white three-piece suit and a short, camel-coloured trenchcoat over an evening-appropriate, tiered skirt, and also in sharp, military-inspired grey suiting. The clothes, as they have been with every collection, walk the line between the masculine and feminine, but are always eminently wearable. To the question of whether a male designer can truly design for a woman, Griffith says that ultimately he is designing for his client and for their lifestyle. “There’s a whole trope about the male fashion designer who is actually a complete misogynist who just wants to subject women to clothes that torture them. And I’m obviously not one of those designers — if they exist. I think of myself as being a person designing for people.
“I just happen to be a man,” says Griffiths. To him, designing for the client is about knowing what they want and how they move. “In my professional capacity as a designer, I make it my business to understand what kind of things the woman I’m designing for is expecting to do. What her life is like getting in and out of a car, walking through the street, walking into the office, sitting down at the desk, going to a restaurant or a cocktail party, travelling on a plane... I understand her lifestyle. It’s a question of being an objective designer who thinks about a real woman,” he says.
At the end of the day, the brand has built its success on creating clothes for the life of women beyond the runway, with Griffiths pointing out that the house’s shows stay firmly within the confines of reality and are always ones that a spectator can identify with. “You, as a spectator looking at that show, either because you’re there or you see it in images, can identify with what you see. You aspire to it. And that gives you a certain power,” says Griffiths.
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