A Wooly Tale

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I’m in danger of becoming a bit of a hardened cynic if I get too immersed into the cogs of fashion week-ing. It’s something that I rectify by escaping every now and again into anonymous showrooms, into a park for a random jog and into McDonald’s where nobody cares whether you’ve got an invitation or not – you just need to fork over enough money for a coffee to have a seat. No, this isn’t a “Woe is me” plea. Just a stray thought as we reach the home stretches of fashion month as Paris beckons.

In Milan though, I got the opportunity to see a different side to fashion week, handed to me on a plate as I was asked to be a social media ambassador for the International Woolmark Prize global final. Emerging designers getting wads of money as well as international recognition from the inner sanctum of the industry? I’m down with that, hence why I like following the ins and outs of fashion prizes – ANDAM, Swiss Textiles and with the latest convo revolving around the much-talked about LVMH Prize. The International Woolmark Prize, promoting the use of Merino wool, comes with an illustrious history, as Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent came together as winners at the inaugural 1954 awards, in an auspicious sign of their later years as designer foes. Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Donna Karan have also scooped up prizes subsequently.

The regional finalists of this year’s edition have already won AUD50,000 and the grand prize awarded at this year’s final is AUD100,000 the chance to be stocked in stores like 10 Corso Como, colette, Harvey Nichols, Joyce and Saks Fifth Avenue, so the stakes were high. The finalists were Sibling from Europe, Christopher Esber from Australia, ffiXXed from Asia, Rahul Mishra from India and the Middle East and Altuzarra from USA – admittedly, they’re all at different levels and in my view, it’s a little unfair to compare say, Joseph Altuzarra, a fully emerged designer with Kering backing and support of the press, with Mishra, an emerging designer from India. But the jury bucked convention and something of a fairytale unfolded at this year’s competition when the “wildcard” finalist Rahul Mishra emerged as the winner. That was a delight to see, not because the other finalists were not worthy winners (the jury had a tough decision to make) but because the prize went to a designer, and region, that would arguably benefit the most from the money and the exposure.

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Every finalist took something away from the experience of the competition. Especially when facing a daunting jury that included the likes of Tim Blanks, Alexa Chung (who looked pretty awesome in Valentino), Angelica Cheung of Vogue China, Sarah Andelman from colette, Franca Sozzani and Carla Sozzani. Watching the finalists present their brand and their collection during the judging sessions, was terrifying only because I wouldn’t want to imagine myself in their shoes.

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It’s definitely worth reflecting on the participants who missed out on the prize as they were all incredibly accomplished and without getting too specific, it was fairly close all round in the scoring by the judges.  Cozette McCreery, Joe Bates and Sid Bryan of Sibling, are always up for a laugh and after the winner was announced, they were fairly philosophical about it.    Their collection, mostly taken from their A/W14-5 collection much like their menswear, was about lavishing love on old-fashioned craft.  They married that up with modern life as seen in pieces like the stand out pixelated portrait of McCreery, by none other than Lucian Freud (“Irishwoman on a Bed” does indeed depict the wonderful Cozette).  Or in the trailing godet-insert dresses constructed out of a machine-knit tube and then ripped and laddered, and patched-up and mended with hand crochet.  Machine meets handiwork has been an ongoing exploration in Sibling’s work and here you could really see the labour of love.

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Christopher Esber from Australia was another familiar face.  He’s been the rising star of Australian Fashion Week, following in the trail of the likes of Dion Lee.  Esber does intriguing textiles work that often skews conceptual.   For his Woolmark collection, he experimented with contrasts – between the soft and the hard – sporty mesh with chunk rib knit, shaggy shearling with sleek tailoring and then an unexpected use of puff print lines and grids that are bonded with fabric to create an interesting relief of draping.  The trompe l’oeil effect was a surreal and engaging.

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Can I get a whoop whoop for ffiXXed, a design duo headed up by Kain Picken and Fiona Lau.  Originally from Australia, the couple found themselves setting up their business in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, shuttling back and forth between the two hubs.  Their unisex label often coincides with art and design projects but they never lose sight of wearability.  Their Woolmark collection latched on to the theme of “homebodies” – being couch potatoes really on the most tactile of rugs and carpets.  They warped and glitched rug prints to create their jacquard knits that draped liked blankets and were accessorized by mohair sandals and cushion clutches.  On my next visit to Hong Kong, ffiXXed are definitely on my hitlist for visting.

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Joseph Altuzarra needs no introductions.  He is the darling of New York fashion week but he is savvy enough to know that being flavor of the season does not a business make.  Every collection he puts out seems assured and confident of his woman – and she really is a “woman” – refined, confident and with plenty of disposable income to splash out on Altuzarra’s intimidatingly chic-to-the-next-lev clothes.  His Woolmark collection went a touch softer, looking to Grace Kelly’s wardrobe in Rear Window or Marilyn Monroe’s penchant for cashmere sweaters.  Using needle punching, these fuzzy textures were felted on streamlined structured tops, jackets and skirts in a subtle way.  It was undoubtedly finessed.  Many in the industry had him down as a shoo-in for the prize.

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Then came Rahul Mishra from India.  Rahul Mishra doesn’t even have a website (just a Facebook page).  He was the one name that I wasn’t familiar with – in fact I can barely count to five when listing out designers based in India, which is surely something that needs to be rectified.  Having studied at the Instituto Marangoni in Milan, he only recently began his label and has been working hard to promote Indian handlooms, empowering and employing Indian Craft Community through his sustainable design.  Mishra had a fine story to tell and a mission statement to share.  It piqued the judges’ curiosity as everyone collectively felt like they were discovering something new.  He genuinely investigated new techniques to enable him to use wool to embroider garments – spinning his own yarn, thining it out and then mixing different colours together to create an ombre effect on wool jersey and wool silk mix fabrics.  None of it felt like wool because of the intricacy.  The motifs on the dresses – the lotus morphing into complex structures and cityscapes came from the very idea that wool is completely natural, and like a lotus remains unpolluted, and goes on to reach fashion capitals on its journey.  Mishra takes his job as a responsible fashion designer incredibly seriously and that shows in his work.  “I always think of the three Es when I start to create a collection: environment, employment and empowerment, and if you can think about all these things then your product will be perfect.”  How can you resist a statement like that?  His ideal for sustainable luxury is something that spoke to everyone in that judging room as we are in the process of shifting values in the luxury sector.  Mishra talked about fashion being all about product in the last century and that this century, it needs to be about participation.  And so he engages with villages all over India (“through the power of 3G” he says) to pass work to them at an above average wage.  “I work with people who may not have great privilege but who have a great skill and so it also savours crafts and skills which could otherwise be lost.”

It’s a backstory that isn’t superfluous.  It matters and that story showed in the clothes.  Regardless on their own, the collection was made up of beautiful pieces in their own right.  That’s what really got the judges oohing and aahing.  And that’s why Mishra was the unanimous outright winner.  Now these pieces will go into those aforementioned stores in August this year and Indian fashion can claim a pretty historical landmark.  Mishra’s win chimes in with the increasingly globalised state of fashion.  He sobbed a fair bit when it was announced he had won the prize at the finale show.  It brought tears to my eyes too – and for the right reasons.

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Turning a Corner

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Dear blog, I miss you.  I miss the hours of photo editing and moments where I actually get to physically ponder what I’m going to write in WordPress (I lift my head up towards the ceiling, tap my chin a few times and bite my lips several times – that always seems to prompt the next sentence).  If you’re wondering where I’ve gone, it’s all here, here, here and a bit to do with this (there’s a cryptic sentence).

Longtime blog readers will know that it takes a little longer to process “the fashions” that are going on.  Especially whilst I’m in Milan, when the same names dominate headlines and there’s a dirge of copy repetition when it comes to news stories online.  So I turn to TheCorner.com and its partnership with Vogue Italia to find young talents and present them both within the publication and online on the e-commerce site.  It’s always an interesting selection that has increasingly not gone for the obvious “young” names but instead casts the net further afield.

It chimed in with the shock fairy tale story that Rahul Mishra, a fairly unknown designer from India, beat out big names like Joseph Altuzarra and Sibling to scoop the International Woolmark Prize in Milan over the weekend.  Could the LVMH prize, whose thirty finalists have recently been announced, also throw out a surprise or two, with a range of designers from the established like Simone Rocha and Meadham Kirchhoff to young graduates like Miuniku from India and Minju Kim from Korea.

I like the global aspect of fashion being reflected in the fashion capitals, and especially in Milan, where the hegemony of Italian fashion is so strong.  At the very least, you find yourself a few surprises.  The fact that seven out of ten names were completely unknown to me means I got to do some homework.  Learning.  Curiosity.  These are the things that keep interest levels up.

Unknown number one Achtland’s stitched appliqued leather motif caught my eye as soon as I entered the space.  The duo from Berlin, Oliver Luhr and Thomas Bentz founded their label on 2011 and named it after the mythical Queen Achtland.     It’s been a while since a Germany young fashion talent has been bandied about and so their work was a pleasant surprise to see, despite the shades of Dries van Noten in their current S/S 14 collection that’s available to buy.  Bevza reps up Ukraine with an unsurprisingly stark and minimal aesthetic – all clean lines and interesting plays on opacity.  I know I keep saying Kiev is on my destination hit list but now armed with a list of names, I definitely feel a lot more confident about getting the lay of the land when I do make it there  Another unknown quantity is Wadha Al Hajri’s label from Qatar, which began in 2010, inspired by the simplicity of Islamic and Bedouin prints.  Her work feels nuanced and in person, are beautiful pieces.  Designed by Phyllis Taylor, Sika from London makes dresses out of Ghanian printed fabrics.  It read a little too much like straightforward Africana to me but there’s definitely something charming about her work.

Achtland:

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Sika:

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Tome is probably the “biggest” name out of the lot and after a successful show in New York, where Ryan Lobo and  deft hand at fabric combinations and understanding of wardrobe essentials could really be seen, their inclusion in the line-up makes thorough sense.   In fact their standout piece from the S/S 14 collection, the plasticky purple trench has already sold out online.  I love that their pieces catch your eye without shouting too much.  It’s down to their fabric choices and ability to create a subtle bit of drama.

tomeBackstage photographs by Sonny Vandevelde

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Jewellery wise, there’s Valentina Sciumé from Milan, who only started her label of hats and jewellery last year.  Architectural and eye-catching shapes seem to be her  thing and I rather liked the solid ear cuff that she had created for her new collection.  Ryan Storer is one of the few names I’m familiar with only because of his Swarovski ear cuffs, which definitely make my chubby ear lobes look a whole lot better.  He’s still churning out that signature style but his new collection features a sweeping curve of silver and rose-gold anchored by a singular pearl.  Once again, Storer finds a striking way to adorn an ear.  Representing sunglasses, there’s British brand Finlay & Co and their wooden sunnies, beautifully crafted out of hardwoods like rosewood, walnut and ebony.  Their new collection features layers of maplewood, contrasted with coloured staining on the inside of the frames.

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On the shoe front, you have contrasts between the practical and the decorative and with something in-between.  Milan-based Farewell Footwear, who have only been going for two seasons were inspired by the Spanish espadrille but wanted to do it in their way.  For A/W 14-5, the rope sole becomes rubberised.  Their shoes are for everyday daily life and speak to a specific lifestyle.  The flatform lover in me was happy.  On the other end of the scale, you had the Sydney-based, Italian-in-origin Giannico designed by Nicolo Beretta, who plays with surreal elements like giant balls on shoes and has a penchant for Helmut Newton-esque imagery.

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Finally, Lily Kamper is another familiar name, because I remember her work from way back when she was still at the Royal College of Art creating mixed media cityscapes.  That sense of architecture and odd combinations of materials have carried through to her present jewellery line.  The work has definitely been refined with dip-dyed perspex and kitchen surfaces used to create standalone pendants or larger collage pieces on neckpieces.  Guess my prediction about her work transitioning from admirable object to functional design kind of came true!

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Topshop's Virtual Reality

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Live streaming shows is nothing new.  We almost expect it now.  I get angry commenters on Instagram demanding why there isn’t a stream of a show.   How do you go one step better and move things forward so that the consumer gets even closer to the show action?  You’d be wondering whether there are enough of these rabid fashion fans out there that even want to immerse themselves into fahsion week.  But the Topshop Unique show consistently ranks in the top five most-talked-about (in terms of social media coverage according to Editd) shows of London Fashion Week, and that conversation is largely to do with the high level of brand recognition that Topshop universally has.   It is a show that warrants new fandangled technology and every season it seems Topshop has been trialling different platforms and partners to create a new buzz.  One season, it was Google and their HD cameras strapped on to Cara Delevigne for viewers to customise outfits as they were going down the runway.  Last season it was Chirp sending out backstage images and tidbits to consumers – perhaps not as successful namely because the platform was too new.  This time round, Topshop Unique partnered up with the London-based 3D agency Inition to experience the show through their own virtual front-row seat and people could experience this at the Oxford Circus store.  Far out!  Jamiroquai was on to something back in the day.  Eager to get a gist of what this virtual reality thing was all about, I put a call out via Twitter for four blog readers to go and suss it out whilst I sat down and saw the real reality of the show.

First though, let’s give a round of applause to Topshop, British Fashion Council and Tate for finding what I think is Topshop’s most successful fashion week venue yet.  You can’t get bigger than the cavernous and iconic Turbine Hall, but its size didn’t dwarf the designers that showed in that space.  In fact, it elevated many of them as the sound boomed around the room and the lights and the rectangular long windows of the building combined to create an almost otherworldly glow on the models.  What was special about the Turbine Hall, wasn’t just the scale but the fact that anybody walking along the walkway that overlooks the Turbine Hall could watch the shows going on down below.  I love the idea of people just stumbling upon a fashion show (anybody who made it on that walkway care to comment on the experience?).  I wonder if it hampered or enhanced the experience of normal gallery visitors.  As an extra thoughtful bit of partnership between the Tate and Topshop, we got tickets to the Richard Hamilton exhibition thrown into the goody bag – way better than random lippies and nail varnishes in my book.

And secondly, before we come to the virtual reality/insanity part, let’s talk collection.  Tough school uniform vibes have been running riot at many shows this season.  It felt even more appropriate though for Topshop Unique to send out a gang of Craft slash St Trinian’s girls.  They wore oversized blazers and jackets belted up over layers of sweaters and skirts that contrast masculine and heavy duty wools, shearling and faux fraggle furs with delicate and filmy lace and sheer tulle.  As the show gradiated from petrol blue to slate grey to tan to pale yellow, the school uniform references gave way to bad ass mufty outfits with tattoo embroidered tulle tops, patchwork fur coats and python trenches kicked some oomph into what was a largely muted collection.  As with most Topshop Unique shows though, once they break down and filter down on to the shop floor, the collection takes on a “There’s something for everyone” approach.  I’ll be keeping my eye out for the butter yellow leather shirt and the layered lace and sheer skirts.

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A few miles away, whilst I was at the show, Topshop was recreating the show atmosphere so that selected participants could experience a 360 degree virtual world through specially designed headsets.  The footage they watched was a mixture of the live feed from the runway, what was going on backstage, the VIP arrivals and other animated features.  It was supposed to be “rich and hyper-real” as Topshop carries on its remit to give the customer an entertaining experience.  Thanks to Elizabeth Pascka, Rebecca Martin, Holly Chapman and Amanda Bailey, who either had a go at the headsets or watched the footage on screens in-store at Topshop Oxford Circus, they gave their honest reviews of the whole affair.  The general consensus is a positive one as  Topshop are praised for opening up their shows for those who don’t get invited to the show but also risk losing the tactile touch of the clothes themselves as Holly and Amanda pointed out.  It begged the question of whether Topshop were trying too hard to contain itself within an untouchable virtual realm for the sake of a buzzy tech-based headline, and thus lose sight of what the customer is really after – the clothes.  There’s one solution to that of course – a few selected pieces from the show are currently available to be bought immediately.   If only, more of the looks were available.  That experience of instant gratification should be a physical one as opposed to a transient digital one.    

Elizabeth Pascka of Lizzie’s World:
“My arrival at Topshop’s Flagship store on London’s Oxford Street was greeted by a buzz of fashionistas, press and bewildered on-lookers amazed by the Topshop Unique show.  I was excited like a kid in a candy shop to activate the show; being constrained to only seeing the fashion show and hearing the actual hubbub surrounding me made my brain unconsciously feel like I was at the show.

The show was similar to the film Inception with the vivid surroundings of the show, even having my virtual “neighbour” sitting next to me, who had been taking pictures on her iPhone.  I felt slightly envious on occasions, as I too wanted to take pictures but realistically could not.  There were often animated pink rose petals which fell from the ceiling as a reminder that even though it seemed like l was at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, it was in fact virtual.

The experience afforded by Topshop gave me an insight into the ever evolving world of fashion; I loved the virtual show, being part of something exclusive and innovative. It was a positive encounter with technology and fashion; I look forward to observing future pioneering works in fashion.”

Rebecca Martin, writer at British Mode Magazine:
“As Sir Philip Green took his seat between Anna Wintour and eternally loyal Topshop ambassador Kate Moss, the electric atmosphere within the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall was also being felt several miles away at Topshop’s flagship Oxford Circus store. In a determined stride towards the future of fashion,Topshop enlisted London based 3D design agency Inition to create a 360 degree virtual reality; a bold move which brought the crowds of Oxford Street to a standstill at 3pm on Sunday 16th February.

State of the art headsets transported observers directly to the front row, their anticipations for the impending show shared by the likes of Kendall Jenner, Poppy Delevingne and Lottie Moss. As the show began, it became impossible to avoid becoming completely immersed.  Live streaming to the store created a unique opportunity to share in the first impressions of a collection to covet, and virtual eyes followed as shades of blue combined with dove grey, in a master class of layering.  As the shows attendees applauded a finale set to Beyoncé’s ‘Run the World’, so too did those who had shared in the show in the virtual sense.

The Topshop Unique show is one of the most eagerly anticipated on the London Fashion Week schedule, bringing with it expectations of an incomparable atmosphere.  Through the use of virtual reality streaming, the atmosphere permeated far beyond the walls of the Tate Modern, resonating with all of those who watched outside the store.  With the added bonus of backstage access, and a multi-faceted media approach, Topshop Unique may well have instigated a huge progression in the future of live shows, and the way they are shared by those perhaps not quite fortunate enough to have received an invite.”

Holly Chapman:
“Both aspiring F-row goers and the simply curious were drawn into the crowd at the window of the Topshop oxford street store to experience their virtual reality catwalk.  Once you put the futuristic headset on you could not get any closer the Unique show; sat in the front row you can even see your neighbours snap up each look on their phones as the models come past you one by one.  I found myself raising my phone to join in, and then remembered I was actually sat in the Flagship’s window.  For the atmosphere of really being in the Tate it was great, but you do miss out on the detail in the clothing you would see in a normal live stream, however with the headsets you lose the restriction of only seeing where the camera
is pointing.  Topshop model Georgia Taylor said ‘I think it’s really exciting to be part of something that I hope will steer the future of fashion for everyone.  Technology like fashion is developing and changing and I’m excited to see what could happen in just the next few years’.  They should be praised for taking this step in allowing young people to experience the fashion industry in this way, making it no longer just for fashion’s most superior.”

Amanda Bailey of Pins and Needles:
“Who needs a ticket to LFW these days when the technology means that you can experience it all from the comfort of your own home… Or Oxford Street!  I arrived early so I could get a feel for the event and I was impressed and intrigued by the scene before me as I was expecting a relatively simple set up, but the reality was very conceptual and took the word “virtual” to a whole other level.  Just after 3pm four girls filed into the window, took their places on the “fake FROW” and placed the headset/goggles on and the screens powered into action displaying what was being streamed into the goggles.  It was a mixture of backstage photos and live feed from the catwalk show, but sadly you couldn’t really see the show and the clothing very well.  I loved the concept, and the very forward thinking idea of it all, but something simpler or a clearer stream would have made the experience more enjoyable for me, and made me feel more like I was at the show.”

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ts_amandabailey2 Photos by Amanda Bailey

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ts_hollychapman2 Photos by Holly Chapman

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ts_rebeccamartin2 Photos by Rebecca Martin

Sparkling Signs

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I felt like I had to tape my mouth up every time Mary Katrantzou came to mind in the prior days and moments before her A/W 14-5 show on Sunday.  The big story that emerged of course was that Katrantzou and thrown a massive curveball this season and there wasn’t a single digital print this season (save for a pattern printed onto metal chainmail of a butcher’s apron).  But I already knew this as just before New York Fashion Week, I had visited Katrantzou in her studio, with the help of Swarovski to see what she was up to, with regards to all things crystals.  Turns out embellishment, greatly aided by Swarovski, was highly integral to the collection this season.  The critics have been calling for change and had been urging Katrantzou to step away from the computer.

So Katrantzou took that advice, and it went hand in hand with her own desire to expand her repertoire and play with fabrics like custom-made technical laces developed in Switzerland, lush patterned jacquards and elongated silhouettes that gave away just a hint of her Greek origins (although she didn’t intend for it to look Greek).  Photoshop be damned.  Well, for one season anyway.

Katrantzou painted pictures, not with the click of a mouse but by collaging different elements together, which were often encrusted with crystals, beads and goldwork embroidery, to depict what were her “sign of the times”.  The matter-of-factly workman and toilet signs are mixed together with vaguely recognisable badges of honour, coats of arms and other forms of heraldry symbolism.  She explored different workwear uniforms that you wouldn’t think could necessarily be moulded into directional evening wear but then again, this is the woman who placed yellow pencils on a cocktail dress.  A chainmail butcher’s apron printed with a faded leopard print is printed and draped into a toga-esque mini dress.  The cookie cutters of a baker (also playing on the phrase “cookie cutter style”) hang off metal mesh, speckled with Swarovski pearls and crystals, created by jeweller Scott Wilson.  Most impressive of all though were the technical laces, chock full of symbols and signs, rendered in a uniform-inspired colour palette – navy, bottle green and burgandy.  Those colours were key in calming down the totem creatures – or as Mary called them, her “robots” – that were embroidered on top in different stages.  These robots don’t have names yet but they’ll take a life of its own when Katrantzou produces another digital-based campaign.  Erstwhile, jacquard trouser suits, dresses with worked in pleats and a simple oversized peacoat offset all the embroidery work and sparkle jangle going on in these badge/symbol/sign formations.

Perhaps it was the 3-D and tactile components (see furry sweatshirts and nubbly laces) which unleashed a new lease of life into Katrantzou’s work.  As good as her digital prints were, they were an image – perhaps an intangible one when digitally printed onto a smooth satin surface.  Her past silhouettes also skewed sculptural and often, stiff.  This time they moved, flowed and breathed, thanks to the use of pleats.  I have the photos to prove it, as I snapped the models rushing to change into their second looks backstage.

Despite the no-print shocker, we could all see the giant step forward.  Like her previous digital print collections, the message and imagery were shouted loud and clear.  There wasn’t any ambiguity and that’s what Katrantzou excels at – telling a story with a literal and direct medium – be that print, embellishment or otherwise.  No doubt, the prints will still exist within Katrantzou’s sales showroom.  Negative reviews have never stopped Katrantzou’s runaway success train and the shops still cry for her unique print agenda.  Katrantzou now has a wider set of skillsets to draw from and she now feels confident enough to do so.    We, the spectators and customers are in for a treat, as we enter a different Katrantzou era.

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