“The RCA reconnected me with the lessons in design that I had learned during my brief time at architecture school. That is, to design for the end user, rather than oneself... The RCA taught me to understand how my creativity could be channelled into something that could have a purpose.”
Ian Griffiths studied in Manchester at the time of the new wave music scene, which has been a lifelong influence. He studied architecture initially, then fashion, and was encouraged by his tutor, the legendary Ossie Clark, to apply to the Royal College of Art. He graduated with an MA in Fashion Design in 1987.
Of his design education, he says ‘Manchester taught me about raw energy and creativity, but the RCA taught me how to channel that energy into making something useful. It’s where I developed my commitment to good design.’ Ian jokes that his is the shortest CV in the business. One of his first projects at the RCA was a competition organised by Max Mara. As a result of that, he joined the company as a designer after graduating.
As Creative Director of Max Mara, he believes in fusing the brand’s luxurious appeal with a street-smart sense of cool. He says ‘Over the 30 plus years I’ve been with the brand, I’ve got to know the Max Mara woman as if she were my best friend. I want the best for her.’
You talk very fondly of your time as a student both in Manchester and at the RCA, and you often post throwback images of you with your time at the RCA with your Bowie-esque blonde hair. Tell us why these were some of your fondest moments.
Being part of the subculture, or rather, the counterculture of the late '70s and early '80s has shaped my view of the world. In those early days there was a sense that we were really doing it for ourselves; making our own art, music, style, creating our own world. Clubbing was a cultural activity, political too – I mean identity politics rather than party politics. We were dubbed ‘gender benders’; experimenting with one’s appearance – hair, make up, bizarre outfits that we made from old curtains or lining material – was a kind of manifesto. We didn’t care at all about what the ‘mainstream’ thought of us, and there was even a kind of ‘no future’ feeling that what we were doing would ever have any impact outside our circle.
That was when I was in Manchester. By the time I got to the RCA, I was slipping back into the system, but with the feeling that we would change it. In many ways we did, and still are. Looking back, it was a golden age; I was studying at the RCA, and I was allowing myself to enjoy the prestige of that, but at the same time I was hanging out at the Mudd Club, Taboo, Ascension. I still felt like I was living on the edge, but I was starting to feel that I could have a future too.
What would you say was the most valuable lesson you learnt at the RCA?
In terms of style, the Manchester days were all about raw energy, impact and fantasy. I wasn’t thinking much about real clothes. The RCA reconnected me with the lessons in design that I had learned during my brief time at architecture school. That is, to design for the end user, rather than oneself.
In other words, I learned how to be a real designer. It maybe sounds dull or unambitious to want to design real clothes for real people, but when you really engage with it, it’s the most rewarding and satisfying creative experience. The RCA taught me to understand how my creativity could be channelled into something that could have a purpose.
Having made your own clothes before studying fashion, do you still manage to find the time to make anything for yourself now?
Sadly, no, but a knowledge of how clothes are cut and constructed informs one’s ability to design them. I think the technical processes through in my head as I’m sketching a garment. I believe technical processes are intrinsic to design. A well-designed product is one that has been thought through on every level. Italy understands that very well.
Incidentally, my knowledge of how clothes are made was initially informed by watching my mother sew when I was a kid. Then when I started making my own in the clubkid days, I would teach myself by taking apart existing garments. Nothing beats working out a process for yourself. It gives you an understanding that you never lose. So, although I haven’t made anything for over 30 years, I think I probably still could.
This last year has seen many people living and shopping virtually. How has the pandemic affected how you work and also the retail aspect of the fashion industry?
A design team locked down in various parts of the world at various times, fabric suppliers, sampling and production suspended or only partly operating; the uncertainty of all that has been a huge challenge. But I’ve been amazed at the resourcefulness and creativity that the fashion industry has applied to getting things done. I’m proud that so far we have got through the pandemic without missing a deadline or skipping a launch.
In terms of people’s spending habits, well, clearly the pandemic has brought about a massive change in what people want. Whilst they were locked down, I imagined a lot of people were fantasising about what they would wear when they were finally allowed out again. I had a feeling that they would be looking for something special, not simply to replace a worn-out item with something similar.
After months working from home, even a routine meeting at the office will seem like a special event. I predict that people will rediscover the joy of dressing up, and planning ahead what they are going to wear for a particular occasion. That’s my instinct as a designer, and I’ve followed it through in the collections that we’ve put together recently. Spring/summer 2021 is in stores now, so we’ll see if I was right.
You entered a competition when you were a student at the RCA. Tell us about your journey from RCA graduate to Creative Director of Max Mara?
The Max Mara project was given to us during my first term at the RCA, so it was just about the first time I was challenged to design real clothes. As I said earlier, I approached the project by applying the principles that I had learned at architecture school, but I really didn’t think I stood much of a chance.
The night before the deadline for our sketches, I was frantically colouring in my presentation when my black marker pen ran out. It was about two in the morning so I thought I might as well forget it and go to bed. But then my flatmate came home from a club (Jungle, I think). She wasn’t a designer, but I asked her if by any chance she had a black marker pen, and miraculously she had one in her bag! So I stayed up all night and finished my presentation.
That was 1985 (9 December to be precise) and those sketches are in the Max Mara archive now. How to describe everything that has happened in the intervening years? It’s been a seamless progression really, although I suppose it might seem a bit strange that this shock-haired rebellious clubkid would feel so very at home with a brand famous for its sleek classics. I think the answer to that is that classics don’t have to be conservative. Achille Maramotti founded the company to dress women on the rise, women who would overturn the status quo.
I’ve had over 30 years to think about this and I think I’ve got to know the Max Mara woman rather well. I’m pretty certain there’s a radical agenda underneath that camel coat, and I completely connect with it.
When you first joined Max Mara your first prototype was a coat which you gave to your mother, who gave it to your sister, who then gave it to your niece. Firstly, is the coat still around? And secondly, what responsibility is there for fashion houses to help with sustainability in an industry fraught with cheap labour and high street brands and social media influencing disposable fashion?
Yes, and it’s back in my Mum’s wardrobe, having been the object of a tug of love. It’s a bit threadbare here and there but still wearable. I like clothes that grow old gracefully. And I believe that clothes can have meaning to the wearer – meaning that becomes a kind of emotional relationship over time. So you just don’t want to get rid of items, even when they get shabby. Each collection that we present explores a new or undiscovered aspect of the Max Mara psyche but if you take it apart, its composed of pieces that will have a life after the current season.
That looks like a route towards sustainability for Max Mara but I’m not smug or holier than thou about it. It can’t possibly apply across the board. It’s not one I share, but there’s always going to be an appetite for fast fashion; we have to find a responsible approach to satisfying it.
You have said that you ‘didn’t go into fashion to be famous’. I would say in the last few years you do seem to be in many magazines. Have you become more comfortable with being the designer ‘face’ of Max Mara over time?
Yes, I feel completely comfortable with it. That’s because I identify so absolutely with the brand and its values. I’ve said in the past that I can’t tell where Max Mara ends and Ian Griffiths begins.
If I have become well known, it’s for my work, rather than my lifestyle or my private life. I’ve never agreed to a feature about my home, and I don’t expect to find paparazzi waiting for me on the doorstep in the morning!
Touching on something else which you said; ‘Fashion often makes people feel uncomfortable about themselves.’ As a designer what do you do for, to ensure they feel the opposite in the clothes you create?
Well, design comes into it. And imagination. It’s not hard to picture how a person would feel wearing a particular design. I love fashion, but it has a bad side, and one of its most vicious characteristics is to tantalise people with something they feel they absolutely must have. Yet when they put it on, they immediately start to worry that they are not the right shape, not the right age, not cool enough, not confident enough. Why buy something that makes you feel inadequate? We try not to design those things in the first place, but just in case something slips through the net, we do a great deal of trying on.
At a Milan Fashion Week you said ‘Max Mara is king of the coats, this season I wanted to develop as many coat shapes as possible.’ When you were in St Petersburg you also presented the State Hermitage Museum with two coats for their costume collection. Max Mara is synonymous with coats. It is the coat I think most women dream of owning. How did a necessary object become such a cult desirable fashion item?
A coat is like nothing else in your wardrobe. It’s a structure that quite literally houses you whilst you’re in the street. It offers protection, comfort and, of course, prestige. You maybe only own one coat, or you may be lucky enough to own several, but even so, you wear each one often and you build up that emotional relationship with it, more than with any other clothing item.
I always describe the design of a coat as architecture and I think that the coats that are real cult items have an appeal that goes beyond seasonal fashion. Like Max Mara’s iconic 101801, which has been in constant production since 1981 or our new icon, the Teddy Bear Coat, which has been a favourite for several years now.
You have a huge love for literature, architecture and art. Does this come into play when you’re thinking about collections?
Yes, and I would add music onto the list. If you look back at the collections I have presented over the past few years, I have always been very specific about my references; arte povera, Bauhaus, Blade Runner, Baudelaire, Beethoven, Lina Bo Bardi, Bowie, Berlin, Blondie, Hannah Hoch, Pat Barker, Dorothy Parker, Eileen Gray, Liu Wei, Lee Miller, Debussy, Dostoevsky, Nino Rota, Robert Smithson, Pisanello, Renzo Piano, Tolstoy, Siouxsie Sioux are just some of them.
I spend a lot of time researching in the famous Max Mara archive. It’s a constant source of inspiration but I don’t want to disappear into a self-referential spiral. So, every season I look for an influence from somewhere else. In that sense, every collection is a journey of discovery, and I’m always learning; its one of the things I love most about my job. I get totally immersed in the narrative of each collection, to the point where I’m living and breathing it.
I also think a lot about the narrative between collections; I visualise each as a chapter in the Max Mara story, so there’s a kind of continuity. To give you an idea how important that narrative is to me, I always write the press release myself.
Max Mara as a brand is elegant and classic. If she were a woman in today’s world who would she be?
It’s not a question of who she would be, rather, who she is. That’s why we are still relevant after 70 years. But she’s not just a single woman, she’s a panorama of women. She’s Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris, Angela Bassett, Lady Ga Ga, JLO, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Rita Ora, Issa Rae, Ciara, Olivia Coleman, Meryl Streep. But most of all, she’s that woman you walk past in the street or sit next to on the tube. That smart, together, ambitious woman that you meet all over the world. Every time I come across one, I get the urge to say ‘I designed your coat’. But I never do.
We live in an often transient, fast fashion, fast paced, box ticking life. You have been with Max Mara for over 30 years. What has made you stay with the same company for so long?
See above! I can’t describe the satisfaction that I get from designing a product that makes people feel good. As I’ve said, I identify completely with this brand and its values. I don’t really know whether I’m a good designer or not; all I can say is that I’m a good designer for Max Mara. It’s a life’s work. Hence my frequent use of the hashtag #ilovemyjob.
You just mentioned your frequent use of the hashtag #ilovemyjob. Tell us what you love about it?
I think I’ve probably given you quite a good idea about that already. We’ve talked about design from a fairly rational point of view. When I was talking about design being an objective process, I maybe made it out to be cold and analytical; I haven’t mentioned the magic of fashion. It’s hard to define what fashion actually is, but for me it can lend an irresistible appeal to an otherwise straightforward or even ordinary object.
Working in fashion is about intuiting, locating or creating that appeal, in order to produce something that resonates with people’s ideals, desires, anxieties. I get a real buzz from finding that resonance. I love how it’s constantly shifting. I never tire of looking for it.
You were one of the Curators for RCA2020. What impressed you about our recent graduates? Do you see much change to, say, your graduation class in terms of outlook and ideas?
I saw a great deal of creativity and original thinking applied to a world that’s a great deal more complex than the one I graduated into in 1987. I was pleased to see that non-binary design has come into its own. Sustainability too, came across as a huge concern, and I found that very hopeful. In general, I was astounded by the resourcefulness and creativity that graduates applied to getting around the restrictions imposed by Covid-19.
What advice would you give recent fashion graduates, especially those who have graduated into a creative yet Covid-19 affected industry?
Be relevant, realistic and imaginative. I think that fashion is a fundamental human instinct. However adverse the conditions, there will always be opportunities for you, if you can read the zeitgeist.
How involved are you with the Collezione Maramotti and the Max Mara Art Prize for Women?
Having a connection to the art world at such an elevated level encourages a culture that’s open to new ways of thinking and seeing. When Max Mara Art Prize winner Laure Prouvost went on to win the Turner Prize, it felt as though we had won it ourselves.
On occasions I have been directly inspired by work made by Art Prize winners, like Corin Sworn’s ‘Silent Sticks’, which was a multi-media performance and installation inspired by the commedia dell’arte. We were involved in making the costumes for the performance and when, last year, I had the idea of basing the current Summer 2021 on the Italian Renaissance, the bold graphism of those costumes was the key to unlocking the theme in a modern way.
The current winner is RCA graduate Emma Talbot, whose work embraces classical mythology. Feminist rewrites of classical myths, like Madeline Miller’s ‘Circe’ were the starting point for our Summer 2019 collection, so I look forward to seeing what Emma will produce – maybe it’s a theme we can return to.
Working alongside the Collezione Maramotti is another great stimulus. The building that houses the collection used to be our headquarters. As Max Mara’s founder, Achille Maramotti, was assembling his collection, he would place works in the corridors and shared spaces of the building. So my early years at Max Mara were spent with the Fontanas, Burris, Kounelis, Twomblies, Kiefers and Anselmos. Some of those works feel like part of my life.
You have collaborated with various creatives. Tell us about some of these projects?
Collaborations expose you to different ways of thinking. They are oxygen! One of my longest running has been with the legendary New York musician/DJ Johnny Dynell. He's worked with everyone: Warhol, Basquiat, DeAK, Malcolm McLaren – the list goes on and on. We come from the same alternative club scene, but different sides of the ocean, and we share a great deal of the same cultural references. His job, in theory, is to mix the soundtracks for our runway shows, but in reality he's alongside me right through the creative process. We work out the narrative in terms of music, and it's one of the most satisfying aspects of my job.
I loved our collaboration with Renzo Piano Building Workshop. To mark Max Mara's sponsorship of the reopening of the Whitney in its downtown location we asked Renzo Piano to work with us on a bag that would echo the distinctive and extraordinary design of the museum.
In 2016 we collaborated with Liu Wei to imagine the ultimate mega-city, which we called Monopolis. We presented the Monopolis collection on a gigantic runway featuring Liu Wei's sculptural rendition of the utopian/dystopian city at the historic Palace of Sino-Soviet Friendship in Shanghai.
Other recent collaborations: Judy Chicago, William Wegman, Martine Barrat. Each of them is priceless.
Congratulations on the autumn/winter 2021 collection and Max Mara’s 70th anniversary. Vogue described it as having ‘universal appeal’ and being ‘genderless’. You mentioned non-binary fashion earlier, can you talk more about it in relation to Max Mara?
We are seeing more and more non-binary fashion. And men are wearing Max Mara. So should Max Mara become ‘genderless’ then? To answer that, you have to look at the brand’s story. It was founded to support women on the rise, and eventually it became associated with the idea of women’s empowerment.
On its way up, Max Mara borrowed from the masculine wardrobe, as women have borrowed from men for centuries, the reverse being very unusual presumably for reasons of gender politics. The camel coat is a case in point. Originally a token of masculine authority, Max Mara appropriated it in the 1950s and over the years it became a mainstay of the Max Mara canon. You could say that Max Mara came to own the camel coat. Now, we see men wearing Max Mara camel coats.
Having grown up with an agenda of female empowerment, do we now direct ourselves back to men? Isn’t that a betrayal of the women we set out to support? Or would we commit ourselves to the idea of empowerment generally, rather than women’s empowerment.
I need to ask about the pocket squares: how many do you have and do you have a favourite?
As you know I post my pocket-square-and-jacket combination several days a week under the hashtag #combooftheday. It’s evolved into a kind of diary, where I talk a little about the mood and whatever is coming up that day. I don’t like to repeat the same square too many times, so I’m constantly on the lookout for new or vintage ones, people sometimes generously send them as gifts, or I have them made. I have hundreds, and rising. My favourite is a fragment of navy and ecru foulard print. It’s a Max Mara design from the 1980s and I found it in the bin.