THE GREEK EXPECTATIONS: Mary Katrantzou for Bvlgari
Text by Kee | Photos courtesy of Bvlgari and Hugo Comte
Mary Katrantzou for Bvlgari's 'Serpenti Through the Eyes of…' series

Before Mary Katrantzou debuted in the fashion glossies just over a decade ago, prints and patterns on garments were on the verge of looking bland. The Greek-born designer quickly stopped the rot by cultivating a new world view on the subject matter based on a prolific use of digital prints, trompe l'oeil, a wicked sense of colour play, and a storyline. Fast forward to 2021, she has accumulated more career highlights than some designers twice her age and experience: cameoing in pop culture with those Beyoncé and Michelle Obama fashion plugs, turning lingerie-clad Angels into lingerie-clad butterflies, and putting her spin on everything but the kitchen sink (give her a chance and she just might cover that area too). Now, her new project with Bvlgari digs deeper than just fancy handbags and accessories. It tackles the theme of metamorphosis and offers the fashion set symbols of hope and renewal.

Mary Katrantzou is a rare breed of a designer we can’t afford to lose to hype. Not now. Not ever. Her authenticity is endearing, especially in an industry often baiting us with guilty pleasure-level gimmicks. Don’t expect her to turn to sloppy repetitive logos, an obsession on tie-dye as a cheap colouring trick, or easy imitation staples and patterns. The 38-year-old London-based designer is adamant about telling stories and truths from now on. And it’s not that she hasn’t delivered on those fronts from the get-go. Her clothes continue to mystify the mind and celebrate a woman’s physique. She has explored themes ranging from surrealism to old black-and-white photography to Greek goddesses (hit the internet for her past works if you haven’t already). It is regarding the latter subject matter on Greece that she tapped for her couture debut in late 2019 that led her to a chance encounter with Bvlgari. The storied jeweller agreed to accessorise her models with its jaw-dropping bling for the runway show held at the Temple of Poseidon in Athens. Though their shared Greek bloodline (Bvlgari’s founder was a Greek silversmith) solidified their unexpected bond, it was further encouraged by Katrantzou’s keen interest in jewellery design, obsessive use of colours, and peculiarity about craftsmanship. Take her graduation collection in 2009 as an example. Utilising trompe l'oeil prints, she fashioned images of elaborate oversized jewellery on jersey-bonded dresses. The following year, she collaborated with a blow glass artist on glass-based jewellery to match her garment prints. Truth be told, Bvlgari has not collaborated with a through and through clothing designer who gets it, whose love for jewellery and accessorising comes from an honest place. For their sophomore collaboration, which falls under the umbrella of Bvlgari’s Serpenti Through the Eyes of… series, Katrantzou joins a growing list of big-time designers who have participated in previous years, namely Nicholas Kirkwood, Alexander Wang, and Yoon Ahn of Ambush. And thanks to the pandemic, Katrantzou was also afforded more time on this project, developing the bags and accessories in a way that showcases her chops as a designer and her growing talent as a raconteur. Three main pieces are central to the storyline based on the idea of metamorphosis: an oversized snakehead minaudiére with its tongue as a clasp, a pillowy flap bag with an interchangeable handle, and a high art and couture-quality rectangular bag featuring a snake morphing into a kaleidoscope of butterflies. But read on, we’ll let Katrantzou complete her side of the story.

Natalia Vodianova is the face of the Bvlgari x Mary Katrantzou campaign, lensed by Hugo Compte

MANIFESTO: This collaboration feels right and on paper it reads like two brands with the right creative chemistry. When was the first contact between you and Bvlgari?

MARY KATRANTZOU: It actually started from a coffee with Mireia Montoya (Bvlgari’s accessories business unit director). At that time, I was working on my first couture show (in 2019) at the Temple of Poseidon in Greece. And as soon as I shared the news with her, she connected me with Mauro Di Roberto (Bvlgari’s high jewellery managing director) to collaborate for that show. So, that was the first actual collaboration with Bvlgari, which was also my love letter to Greece. I was so happy that Bvlgari wanted to support the show. It also helped to highlight the origins of (Bvlgari founder) Sotirio Bulgari.

Later on, I was invited to Rome to explore a collaboration in the world of accessories. The idea is what you see now, which is Serpenti Through the Eyes of… Mary Katrantzou. The entirety of this collaboration took place over the pandemic. I thought about what the Serpenti meant to me. It is a symbol of transformation, rebirth healing…

This minaudière was inspired by a vintage Serpenti watch from the 1960s

M: Were these themes part of the original brief or did those meanings latch on as a result of the pandemic?

MK: I think these are the processes that we all go through in life – never more so then now – so it’s incredibly relevant. I wanted to take this symbol of Bvlgari that we all know and transform the way we view it, not just from a visual angle but how people connect to a symbol with such universal appeal.

They gave me carte blanche to design this. I looked at a lot of the Bvlgari books and what they have done with the Serpenti, especially in accessories. Everyone knows the Forever bag with the snakehead clasp. So, I thought why limit this snake to just a clasp and why not take the snakehead from these incredible ‘60s watches and design them in the shape and silhouette of a minaudière. Working on the functionality of the minaudière was important – getting the bag to open by compressing the snake’s tongue. That was the starting point for this collection. It was just about figuring out how it would function, its weight, enamel work, and the scale of the hexagons.

And then, I thought why only highlight the snakehead when I can include the entire body of the Serpenti? So, I designed a top-handle bag that is a very feminine bag, and worked on the curves and the stitching to mimic a snake. The top-handle is almost like a piece of jewellery, which can be removed and swapped to a chain strap so that it can be used as a crossbody bag.

The third stage was to create a unique artwork that showcases the entire narrative of Serpenti which spirals around and transitions into a collection of butterflies before it transitions again into a flower. I wanted to bring a couture-like precision and engineering to the bags, turning them into precious jewels. We were lucky enough to work with Atelier Montex in Paris to develop the embroidery and many details are put into the bag that tell a different narrative. The Metamorphosis artwork (of butterflies) itself went through its own metamorphosis because it is very technically advanced as it had to be centred around the clasp.

The intricate Metamorphosis embroidery seen here is courtesy of Atelier Montex in Paris

M: What was your biggest takeaway from this creative process?

MK: I think it is a very different experience when you delve into a brand with such important history. A creative marriage between two brands is very different when you are trying to respect another brand with nearly 140 years of design. What was most fulfilling was looking at the evolution of the Serpenti across all divisions – from watches to jewellery to accessories – and then seeing how we created a dialogue between all divisions and be fearless about it. It was done with a lot of respect but the inspiration was so strong that we have enough material to do 10 more collaborations and not just one. We had to edit it down to these three. It was very inspiring and I remember having a call with the Bvlgari accessories team and we had over 150 SKUs to show.

M: Does this overflow of ideas happen when you design clothing?

MK: I think we were a bit spoilt with Bvlgari because whatever we put on paper, they were able to execute it perfectly. As soon as we designed it, it was over to them to create the prototypes. We could keep coming up with ideas as long as Bvlgari wanted to test them. There was a freedom to design in this case because we didn’t have a time constraint. And because we were designing this during the pandemic, we had more time than we would usually do.

This puffy flapbag features a detachable top-handle that can be swapped with a chain

M: What do you hope this collection says about your metamorphosis as a designer?

MK: This collection is very different from what I do in fashion. We try and combine not only form and function but craftsmanship. This is new to me because this is entirely based on accessories. The most important part of a designer is to tell stories. To decode a recognisable symbol like the Serpenti is the most exciting part.

M: You have certainly overachieved as a designer in the last decade. What do you have left on your list to achieve and what’s next?

MK: If we’re talking about transformation – in this case, creative transformation – even before the pandemic, I felt that I was able to use my platform for more important purposes. My first couture show in Greece supported children's charity Elpida. I was very fortunate that when we started with this collaboration with Bvlgari, I confided in Mireia that I would love to launch this collaboration in a different way. You know, not with a party. So, we managed to get Natalia Vodianova to be part of this project and star in the campaign as well. (Part of the proceeds of the sale of the bags will go to Vodianova’s Naked Heart Foundation.) I am so grateful for Natalia to be part of this project and so grateful to be aligned with Bvlgari on this. In terms of my own evolution, that show in Greece showed me a different path, one with a higher purpose and meaning. It didn’t only fulfil me in terms of knowing that I’m giving something back to the less fortunate but the collection also communicates something more than just the beauty of the design. I’m honoured that Bvlgari shares these values with me as the entire value system of fashion is changing at the moment.

Mary Katrantzou's first couture show in 2019, supported by Bvlgari's high jewellery

M: Were you aware of the previous collaborations in the Serpenti Through the Eyes of… series before embarking on yours? The pillowy flap bags do have a similar foundation as the Bvlgari collab with Yoon’s that was launched a year before yours.

MK: Yes, I am aware of the previous designs before I started on mine. The only one I wasn’t aware of was Yoon’s as we started the project around the same time. Bvlgari did inform me that there must be something in the air because though we didn’t see each other’s designs we were both doing something very feminine, curvy, and puffy. But they told me not to worry as they look very different. That said, I knew what I wanted to do from the beginning and wasn’t bothered about what was done before or what will be done in the future.

M: We stumbled upon your TED Talk which was delivered around eight years ago. Have you reviewed it recently?

MK: Oh no! (Laughs) I’ve not seen it recently but I do remember what I said in that talk – it had to do with self-doubt. Any designer at the start of their career has self-doubt. It limits your creativity because you’re scared. 12 years since I launched my brand, it’s been different for me. I utilise that doubt as a catalyst for breaking new grounds. Sometimes you just have to act more instinctively; you have to trust your own design.

M: So, you don’t have such insecurities now?

MK: No, not at all. But I think it is an age thing. After you turn 30, you start a new chapter. I’m still uncertain about some things but it is part of your maturity as a designer to accept it and work with that doubt. When you talk about authenticity in design, you can’t play it safe or it won’t be original.

Beyoncé wearing Mary Katrantzou's custom design at the Global Citizen Festival

M: But when Beyoncé wears your clothes, that might be the only seal of approval you need, no?

MK: When she wore my clothes, I didn’t even know it happened until I heard the screams of excitement in my studio. I have had a few special moments with her. She gives a different energy and life to your creations, especially when we dressed her for the concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Mandela. What we designed had all the African countries sewn onto the back of her outfit; it was very symbolic. It wasn’t something that one could easily read in the design but the narrative was extremely important. It made me really proud because she chose many African designers to work with for that concert but she opened the show with a design from a Greek girl.

M: Have you ever been star struck by someone you helped dress?

MK: I never really get star struck in that sense. But there are some women I have dressed who possess something incredibly special, especially when I get to work with them personally on a piece. For example, I worked with Cate Blanchett on a dress she wore to Cannes. She invited me to her home to discuss about the design. You just feel that she is full of grace. Similarly for Natalia, I was so happy I got to work with her for this Bvlgari campaign because she also has this grace and generosity of spirit. I’m in awe of women who have achieved so much and are the face of strength. Natalia is more than just a model or a muse; she is a philanthropist, an entrepreneur, a mother… I’m awe struck by such women and it makes me want to be a better woman.

Cate Blanchett in custom Mary Katrantzou at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018

M: Is there a common denominator in the women who wear Mary Katrantzou?

MK: Before this collaboration started, Bvlgari showed me a presentation on the women they cater to or design for. It was almost looking into a mirror because these are the same women I design for. I feel women who wear my designs are fearless, who appreciate design, colour, and have a larger-than-life personality and spirit. I had never thought about all these words to describe who I design for until I saw the presentation. I’m dressing women from all parts of the world, who are of different cultures, ages, sizes…

M: You’re often seen in head-to-toe black outfits yet your creations don’t shy away from colour. Is there a particular reason why you choose to wear black on the regular?

MK: My background as an architect makes me look at a woman’s body as a very special foundation, if you can call it that. You become an architect of that clothing that she would wear. So when you talk about colours, patterns and prints it is always in relationship to a woman’s body and it is never a separate entity. It is always flattering and empowering a woman to make her feel more confident. So wearing black, it becomes a palette cleanser for me. I work with so many colours and patterns that this has become a uniform to separate me from that. If we ever holiday together, you will see I do wear colours. (Laughs)

M: How did you derive your signature style?

MK: I don’t think it came consciously, to be honest. I am always morphing as a designer. Even the way people view your work defines you as a designer and helps you to discover who you are. My collections have always been about the narrative and that’s the reason each collection is thematic. It’s not so much about the prints or patterns but how to create symmetry, balance, and harmony which I think is the definition of beauty.

Mary Katrantzou's seminal spring-summer 2011 collection

M: The spring-summer 2011 collection was probably a seminal moment for your brand with surrealism and your lampshade dresses being huge talking points within the fashion community. Being able to reflection on that moment a decade on, how important was it for you?

MK: I think that was a defining collection for me. When I was going to show that collection, I was so scared that I didn’t want to show it. I remember telling my boyfriend that I don’t want to show this and that I wanted to go home. When you’re putting something out there that hasn’t happened before, there is a fear. Is it too much? What am I communicating? That was one of the collections that made me become fearless in my ideas. Even if the idea seems crazy, it is the execution that will make it desirable.

M: Do you think you would ever return to those progressive methods in fabricating your clothes considering how beloved they were?

MK: The world is changing. A few decades ago, people were saying that couture is dead. To me, couture is the future of fashion but not in the traditional sense. It needs to take a little bit of inspiration from the world of high jewellery and how it operates. There is a timelessness presented and the pace is healthier which in turn allows for greater designs and true luxury. I want to be able to work in a more responsible and sustainable way, to design something that will be kept and worn by a woman forever. This is what inspires me now.  

The Bvlgari x Mary Katrantzou collection is available for pre-order now and will be in stores from mid-April 2021.


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