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  • The Experts

Roksanda Ilinčić

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Notoriously private and reserved, Serbian designer Roksanda Ilinčić more often than not lets her clothes do the talking. In a rare interview, we sat down with her in the store she designed with architect David Adjaye to talk about how she became the thinking woman’s designer.

When you read the list of women Roksanda dresses in her eponymous label, it’s like a who’s who of intelligent female trailblazers. It includes Hollywood royalty (Cate Blanchett, Emily Blunt and Keira Knightley) as well as actual royalty (the Duchess of Cambridge) via inspirational former First Lady Michelle Obama. Her use of off-beat colour blocking, sculptural shapes and distinctive yet elegant cuts has won her loyalty, as well as a roster of awards, from British Designer of the Year at the Elle Style Awards to Harper’s Bazaar’s Business Woman of the Year and The British Fashion Council’s Red Carpet Award. Her designs have featured in exhibitions at the Victoria & Albert and Design Museums, and last year was awarded the honour of ‘Knight of the St Sava Order of Diplomatic Pacifism’ by the Serbian Minister for Foreign Affairs, an accolade that means she is in fact a Dame.

But curled up on her sofa, cocooned within the soft claret carpet and putty pink felt walls festooned with her dresses, we sip tea and talk instead about her passion for colour, her work as champion and collaborator of female artists, and ask why her architectural background remains a signature style.

It seems you’ve followed your path so confidently. How have you evolved your signature style?

There’s a constant evolution. When I started, I only had 12 dresses, it was all cocktail and evening. Then I branched out more into day dresses, pieces that Michelle Obama, the Duchess of Cambridge and other incredible women were seen wearing, and now I have a wonderful selection of tailoring, suits, coats, knitwear… It’s just a question of people fully realising what I have. One of my big goals is to provide women with a wardrobe for seven days a week, every day and every hour, from dropping the kids at school to when she’s going to events. It’s about a way of living.

When shopping to create the perfect capsule wardrobe, what would your top pieces be? How have you built your forever wardrobe?

I value the timeless element of fashion, I don’t believe in seasons. I don’t make them as such, and I often wear things from years ago. It’s important to build on a few pieces you love, to know your body shape, know what suits you, your style and personality, then build upon that. For me, during the day I love to wear trousers, so I have several pairs in a certain shape, so if I’m in a rush I can put them on and always feel myself. I love to have a versatile dress with volume and a flared shape that I can just wear with high heels and make-up and I’m ready to go from work to an evening out. A classic double-faced cashmere coat, like a nightgown, you feel wrapped in. And I always keep several of my red-carpet occasion dresses. It doesn’t matter which year they come from, but they are always in my wardrobe.

Fashion was something I couldn’t run away from

What would your advice be to someone who isn’t naturally so confident with colour?

I would normally say to start with the small things. Often that can just be a lipstick, a red lip. But then, of course, why not take it further? Usually my designs are very neutral on the front, but when you turn to the back they have some colour, or it’s just on the cuff or on the collar detail.

You studied architecture and design in Belgrade before moving to London to study womenswear at Central St Martins. Was that transition always on the cards?

Honestly, it was always on the cards. It wasn’t planned, but fashion was something I couldn’t run away from. I was obsessed even as a child, and I remember my mom saying, ‘What are you going to be? Because the only thing that endlessly inspires you is fashion.’ And, of course, that is not a profession, because back home the idea of having your own label was almost impossible.

How do you feel the two fields overlap? Your clothes are often referred to as architectural in style. Would you agree with this? 

I studied architecture as a second choice to fashion, but what I discovered was this incredible wealth of inspiration. And although my first love is fashion, architecture still excites me. It’s not just about the shape, form and sculpture, it’s also there to shelter and protect us, to make this refuge from the everyday world. I’m trying to capture that in my clothing. That’s when you put one of my pieces on, and say, ‘OK, I’m protected and now I can go into battle.’

You are a champion of female artists. Who are the creatives inspiring you at the moment?

Quite a few, to be honest. There is a power and also a vulnerability and sensitivity that doesn’t always exist in a man’s work. I love my shows to be inspired by a different artist – I did a special project focused on Jessica Stockholder, one of my long-time favourites. Helen Frankenthaler, Caroline Denervaud and the Serbian artist Ljubica Cuca Sokić have all been hugely influential. It’s hard to mention one… But what is important to say is that I have this platform where I can support and collaborate with, or maybe shed a little more light on, female makers and artists who are not so well known.

I want to provide women with a wardrobe for seven days a week – every day, every hour

Earlier, you touched very briefly on motherhood and how you try to create equilibrium between the two worlds…

It’s really hard, and it’s something that doesn’t happen overnight. At first I was a mess, but I found my balance. I need my work. It’s selfish because I need to be fulfilled in the workplace as much as at home in order to be a full and amazing mother. My daughter is very happy, and that is the realisation that at least at this stage in my life I am doing things right, but I know this might change.

You now also make beautiful handbags with giant hoops and knotted handles, and your jewellery echoes these silhouettes too. What is the brief when you’re designing these pieces? 

As a designer you have to believe in your product. It shouldn’t be done as a result of merchandising or guessing what will sell, it needs to be done with love, passion and emotion. You can only do that if you create something you believe in.

Do you have a favourite place to shop?

I’m spoilt for choice with my own collection, but I’m an obsessive vintage clothes collector, anything from the 1940s onwards, and I love shopping in LA. I like buying designers, such as YSL, that I normally don’t have the option to buy. My favourite store is The Way We Wore.

Who do you think the Roksanda woman is?

Something that unites the Roksanda woman is a strong sense of self, the desire to enjoy fashion, and to dress to please herself and nobody else. She’s excited to learn more, is open minded and positive, and that’s something I’m very proud to say.

What were your fashion influences when you were growing up in Belgrade?

As a kid you’re like a sponge, taking everything in. It goes somewhere in your subconscious. So when I think about colour, for example, it all comes from back home. It’s a city that has long summers and gorgeous springs, loads of brightness everywhere, so it feels very familiar to me, it’s not something I’m afraid of.

That’s so interesting, because the outfit that really stood out in your spring/summer show was the bubblegum pink jumpsuit. It got everyone so excited.

You’re so right, it really did. It didn’t surprise me, because life has become so fast, and the way we dress has changed, we are all lusting after those boiler suits.

It’s your use of colour that really sets you apart, those off tones and the combinations that are so appealing. Where does that come from?

Well, the tones came later. I think it’s something you build as a designer. I started my label almost 15 years ago, and at the time I remember colour wasn’t very popular, it definitely wasn’t in fashion. And now, years later, look at us all – nobody is afraid, we all love it.

Why do you think people are embracing colour more?

I think there are many reasons, but fundamentally it’s the way we shop. We started to shop online. On screen, all those bright pieces look more exciting than black. They sell better, because with black you need to see it in real life, see all of the discreet details. Colour just speaks for itself.

So what’s your favourite shade?

I don’t have one. I’m interested in the combinations. I grew up looking at dresses by Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix, Schiaparelli…

What set these designers apart for you?

They were using quite unusual colour mixes, and when I started my label I wanted to invent my own, to come up with something people look away from, like green and pink, or pink and yellow, or dark burgundy with lapis blue. I think that element of surprise and experimentation, of not being afraid to try something new and say something new, it really excites and pushes me.

You are constantly inspired by those around you. Where and what should we visit, read or watch? 

I recently went to Marina Abramović’s incredible retrospective in Belgrade. Normally when I’ve been to her art performances, it’s all about her being present. I was lucky enough to be there the night it opened, and it was such a striking body of work. I discovered her from a completely different angle. I love it when you think you can’t be surprised any more, you think you know it all, then you are taken by surprise after all.

You talk about everything moving to online, so what’s the point in having a retail store in today’s tech age?

It gives you the possibility to fully showcase who you are, how you’re evolving and what your road is. From the moment you walk into my store, from the scent to the lighting to the music, everything is part of the experience and how I perceive my clothing to be, who the customer is and what would make them feel comfortable. Department stores often only buy a small edit, this way my customer can have access to my whole world.

We are currently sitting in your store on Mount Street, which you designed in 2014 with architect David Adjaye. What are your favourite parts, and have you appropriated any of the design into your own home, or vice versa?

I know David because we did my first house together, then we did the store. And now I’m living somewhere else! The same elements are definitely there, because there’s this incredible relationship we’ve built over the years. One detail that I have in my house are those pink, thick felt curtains in the dressing room. I’ve had them everywhere – in my first house, in the store, and in my house now.

You’ve had your label for almost 15 years, how has the industry changed?

It’s changed dramatically, in positive and negative ways. Social media and the way customers shop happen in very different ways now than when I started. It’s created much more work for designers. We have to be just as active on social channels as we are in everything else, so it’s almost like doubling, tripling our work.  So the time, that balance I’m trying to achieve between my work and family life, is even harder. The positive is that in the blink of an eye you are reaching the whole world, the whole planet.

What advice would you give to a young designer?

Often I say don’t follow any. What’s important is to believe in your vision. Your vision in the beginning doesn’t have to be polished, or perfect, it just has to be unique and personal.

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