Mary Katrantzou: The Queen of Digital Prints Embraces Monochrome

The doyenne of digital prints has earned a reputation for busy patterns and eye-popping color. But during her catwalk presentation at London Fashion Week on Feb. 17, Katrantzou took a step back and pressed mute

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Tim Whitby / Getty Images

Mary Katrantzou, the doyenne of digital prints, has earned a reputation for busy patterns and eye-popping color. Dresses from previous collections have featured tromp l’oeil images of perfume bottles and feathers blown up to a massive scale, and in shades from bright yellow to tangerine to electric blue.

But during her catwalk presentation at London Fashion Week on Feb. 17, Katrantzou took a step back and pressed mute. “I wanted to strip away the color in my collection to allow other parts of it to come through,” she said backstage after the show. “I was trying to explore something more romantic.”

The Greek-born, London-based designer drew inspiration from the shadowy vistas found in black-and-white photography—specifically turn-of-the-century photos by Edward Steichen, Clarence White and Alfred Stiegltiz. “It’s a very man-made way of seeing a landscape,” she says, “because you never really see a landscape in black and white.”

Models didn’t stomp down the runway wearing prints of singular vistas, but rather collages of them. The top of one gown depicts a cherry tree in full blossom adjacent to a lake, while its lower half shows a steel bridge. In another, flowing gray knitwear gives way to images of mountains and winding roads at the knee line.

And while velvety blacks and soft grays dominated many of the looks, Katrantzou didn’t forget color altogether. “I took the images of black-and-white landscapes and infused color in a very artificial way by over imposing smoke bombs,” she says. So a gray-and-white waterfall on the chest of one dress leads to a bridge resting in purple and blue waters; on another frock, a rainbow across the shoulder brings life to a leafless tree and the barren sky behind it.

Katrantzou, who graduated from London’s Central St. Martins in 2005, has built up an enviable profile since debuting at London Fashion Week five years ago. She has a sponsorship deal with Vodafone, her fans include Keira Knightley and Vogue Japan editor Anna Dello Russo, and she’s worked on several high-profile collections for Topshop. The nine-piece collection she unveiled for the chain last February became their fastest-selling collaboration of all time.

That momentum gave her the confidence to experiment for Fall/Winter 2013. She delved into more complex draping, worked with embossed leather, and focused on pattern rather than print. Less convincing was her work with abstract shapes. Sharp, angular cuts made some dresses look like origami gone wrong, and bizarre breastplates resembled oversized Geisha fans. The rounded, sculptural shoulders of Look 7 (above) turned a gamine model into an angry-looking linebacker.

The highlight of the show came with the final looks, where Katrantzou reinterpreted her prints by overlaying dresses with flowing organza. Everything goes slightly fuzzy, creating a series of optical illusions. Cherry blossoms suddenly look like clouds, figures of people are followed by their shadows, and, according to Katrantzou, “the diagonal line becomes a spiral, a winding road meandering around the landscape of a woman’s body.”

The show, which started 35 minutes late, left Katrantzou somewhat flustered. Even as journalists swooned around her backstage after the show she couldn’t stop apologizing. “Sorry for waiting,” she repeated through the sea of air kisses. “I’m really, really sorry.”

Given how much they gushed, no one really seemed to mind.