Words by harriet quick Photography by tom sloan
Can you believe it? Today I’m going to be showing my 1,000th dress on the catwalk,” says Roksanda Ilincic. With a business now in its eleventh year, 1,000 dresses is an impressive milestone. What shape that dress will take is under wraps, but one can be sure it will hit all those notes – volume, whimsy, elegance, femininity and unexpected colour – that Roksanda has made her own.
Her HQ, too, in a canalside development in Haggerston, east London, is peppered with Roksanda-isms: colour-blocked hues on the walls; asymmetric shelving; a giant, Perspex gyroscope sculpture (previously used for a show set) by long-term collaborater Gary Card; and a meeting room furnished with 20th-century-modern wood chairs and an oval glass table. A vintage Portmeirion coffee service featuring a tall black pot emblazoned with a firebird is her current trophy find, as “the bird reminds me of a childhood fairy tale”.
The AW16 show, which is being staged at her favoured spot, the capacious hall of Seymour Leisure Centre in Marylebone, with sets by Card, sees the debut of new strands to the brand: Ilincic’s first foray into bags, as well as designs in paper-thin leather, for which she has been busy working with factories and producers in France and Italy to create an outstandingly lightweight skin, only 0.5mm thick.
“I had four hours’ sleep last night,” she says. “This morning, looking in the mirror, I am telling myself, ‘More make-up! More make-up!’ But it is always like that at this time of year.” With her milky, unlined skin, jolt of bright lipstick and tawny, shiny hair, however, the designer naturally bears no trace of sleep deprivation.
Of that light leather, she says, “I am known for a contradictory use of fabrics, working heavy and light weights and different textures into the same garment. With leather, I wanted to bridge the usual vision of heavy, sheltering outerwear and design beautiful draped pieces, and also work with intarsia patterns.
As for the rest of the AW16 collection, “there will be capes, skirts, dresses, sculpted tops – everything,” says Ilincic, gesturing towards the graphic, patterned pieces on her mood board. The sketches hint at a subtle 30s spirit-cum-70s Bowie, with Pierrot smocks, tailored leggy flares, culottes, hip-length capes and an abundance of nifty little piped blazers, as well as a Jean Cocteau-inspired ink print.
Regarding the bags, Ilincic is not going into the arena in a small way. Rather, she is launching an entire range, from overnighters to day bags to slender clutches. The colour-blocked designs will be free of obvious logos and clanging hardware. “I always wanted to create bags to go with the ready-to-wear, but not an ‘It’ bag,” says the designer, whose own collection includes rare Hermès pieces. “There is a strength in being slightly unrecognisable,” she adds.
Ilincic skilfully zigs when others zag. Her first collections (she has shown at LFW since 2005) extolled shape, colour and eveningwear at a time when monotones, edgy tailoring and sportswear dominated fashion.Over the past decade, that insistence on colour and elegance has been honed season by season, gathering fans along the way. Her sense of colour is remarkable and intuitive. Where else do you see blush pink offset by ochre, or citrine aside lilac, or fluorescents with monotones – all combined with such confidence? She attributes her eye to her native Serbia, where the sunlight saturates the land, sea and cityscapes with strong colour, compared with seeing everything through the greyed cast of London.
Her fabric room is thus like a kind of Pantone library. There are bolts of silks, chiffons and fine wools in a myriad of hues. The pink section is glorious and covers every shade from cherry to powder to fuchsia.
“As a designer, you have this duty to push the boundaries of what people find attractive. Some do this with form, but because I want my clothes to be comfortable, beautiful and easy to wear, it is colour that I have never compromised on,” explains Ilincic, adding, “When I started, colour was not such a big thing: it took time to persuade people to try it. Now, thanks partly to the digital revolution, it is a vital part of everyone’s wardrobe. I am really proud to be championing this. It’s important to have fun with fashion, to experiment and do something new.”
Ilincic’s business is now fully rounded, and her HQ seems a fertile ground for growth, with the studio, sales and production teams spread over two generous floors. In 2014, she signed a minority backing deal with Eiesha Bharti Pasricha and opened her David Adjaye-designed flagship store on Mount Street in Mayfair. The investment has also allowed her to recruit fashion heavyweight Carmela Acampora as CEO, expand her team to more than 50, and develop new lines. The childrenswear range, Blossom, is full of skirts and party dresses in signature colours and prints. Her daughter, Efimia (now five), and her schoolfriends model it in the Pre-collection lookbook.
Ilincic herself is today modelling a pointy silk-collared, fit-and-flare patchwork crêpe dress. This is a designer, like Jeanne Lanvin, who dresses the full female picture – but never ever in jeans. “There is always something more exciting to wear,” she says.
The label’s tenth year, in 2015, made Ilincic reflect on her work to date. “Fashion happens at such a speed you don’t have time to think about past achievements. With the tenth anniversary and my collection for it, 10 Years, 10 Dresses, I was able to look back at my own history and observe it as an outsider. I looked at the patterns, the shapes, but above all the DNA. It was great to remind myself of the tulle, the silk satin, the roses, and how much I loved those things.
“I have gone to a whimsical place in the new collection,” she continues. “It is nice that one decade is rounded and I can now start free and fresh.” Shorter lengths, like the leather and bags, is another fresh seed she is planting for AW16.
The Pre-collection, on display in her showroom, is a primer to this season. Highlights include wave-edged crêpe culottes and boxy jackets; scalloped, colour-blocked knitwear; and flounced, pin-tuck-front silk-satin dresses that have an air of Alice in Wonderland about them.
As a one-time student of architecture in Belgrade, the modernist masters such as Oscar Niemeyer, Tadao Ando and Le Corbusier made a strong impression on Ilincic. “The use of affordable materials like concrete and plywood to create something beautiful fascinated me. I always like to juxtapose what is modern, sharp and masculine against more classical and feminine elements,” she says.
Indeed, the fusion of herringbone-shaped marble, concrete, rose-gold fittings and plush velvet give her Mount Street store an exciting vibrancy. You want to spend time here to explore the space and, ultimately, try on the clothes, the striking jewellery and the Tabitha Simmons-designed shoes.
Owning a store has also allowed the designer to better understand her customer and the process of seduction that is vital to the fashion-buying process. “The store has had a great impact on me as a designer,” says Ilincic. “Now I immediately know what customers like and don’t like. There is a request for a much broader range, from catwalk designs to easy and everyday pieces. It has also introduced me to customers, who I can meet on a monthly basis. I know them well and some have become my friends – it is a nice, intimate relationship,” she adds.
With the fashion industry in deep debate about the cycles, timings and ways of showcasing multiple collections, Ilincic remains sanguine. “It takes time to create exquisite
things; you can’t rush it. The current schedule is harsh on development, but the names of collections – Pre, Resort, Main – are irrelevant in-store. The customer cares about the now and being able to wear that garment now. What’s that piece that I can’t resist? It’s all about that,” she says.
Roksanda is showing today at 10am in W1
Harriet Quick is Editor at Large at lanecrawford.com and a consultant