Maria Grachvogel is one of the UK’s pre-eminent luxury fashion designers, offering ready-to-wear, couture and archive pieces to a discerning customer. An advocate of the slow fashion movement, she talks to The Industry about her considered, thoughtful approach to design, her constant innovation in design and production, and going back to her roots in her new London atelier.
Can we take you back to the beginning and when you started your brand, what was the vision then?
I have always remained true to my vision which is to create clothing that empowers as this is what informs my creative process. My approach to design combines art, creativity and function. Each piece I create should not only be beautiful, made to last both in style and durability and should also be effortless and comfortable to wear.
I had a desire to create clothing from a very young age. I was, essentially, my first client, and I learned that through cut you can completely change the way you look. I believe that what we wear expresses who we are and influences how we feel. At the core of any one of my garments is a technical understanding of how a garment has the potential to sculpt a woman’s body.
How has that evolved over time and how has your customer evolved?
My vision and process are the same except that my knowledge is richer, I have spent the last 20-25 years honing and evolving my skill. At my age, I have now had more exposure and experience of fitting different body shapes – I, myself have inhabited and embraced different shapes in the ageing process including pre and post childbirth. I don’t use a fit model because my ethos is to create garments that both suit and properly fit a spectrum of real and differing body shapes, sizes and heights.
I would say that I have a certain satisfaction in evolving design to really perfect something. I think I have an underlying quest for the perfect cut and fit, one that can stand the test of time but always remains interesting and timeless. I think in that sense I have evolved my own style as I have always championed individuality.
You are now an advocate of “slow fashion”, which chimes with a lot of the messages we are now hearing about taking a more sustainable approach to fashion now, you seem to have been ahead of your time on this.
I have always been an advocate of a slow and considered approach. I think that fashion has become faster and faster and that corners are being cut which is sacrificing the explorative creative design process. It takes considerable time and intelligence and skill to craft something beautifully, from concept to finished product. To properly consider the possibilities and fully develop ideas.
The number of collections per year at two was manageable but now the expectation is four plus. The volume of demands for designer brands and their investors has changed the fashion business over time.
For me, as my own person and my own brand, and in control of my own destiny if you like, I felt that this hampers the natural flow of creativity and I chose to take a path that supports my creative process.
Speed has had a negative impact of creating too much product on the market at any one time which is feeding a culture of greed and transience. My ethos is for less, but more considered, thoughtful design. A combination of over production and e-commerce has meant that clothing is becoming too widely available, cheap in price and fabric. You can buy a dress for less than dinner. The economy of scale has been disrupted.
Please tell us how you approach collections; you have your seasonal collections but you also do couture and you allow people to order from the archive, how does that all work together?
I see each collection as an evolution, in thinking and ideas. I am constantly innovating and exploring ideas whether it be a new way to cut and sculpt the body, a new design concept or technique. The collection evolves in a slow and thoughtful way and often future classics are borne.
My archive is important because it demonstrates that great design is timeless and this is driven by the demand from my established clients. Maintaining an accessible archive is a natural extension of this thinking and the point on sustainability.
Do trends play any role in what you do and do they play any role in what your customers ask of you?
I am more about setting the style, my signature Maria Grachvogel style which is immune to all trends. My style is borne out of my inherent instinct and feeling.
Is it more satisfying for you as a designer to create new collections or to revisit the archive?
As a creator, I have a responsibility to my brand to constantly push new boundaries and create new concepts, which is a necessary challenge in what I do and I enjoy learning so love to embrace new technology.
I have been consistently developing new techniques in my work, from innovative cutting, to creating hand devore, embroidered fabrics and other textiles in my collections. I pioneered digital artwork print in 2004 where the artwork is hand painted by me to follow the line of the garment and sculpt the individual’s body shape. Prints are not interchangeable between garments and are sold in limited editions. I am making changes in my own business to work with new suppliers who are more ecofriendly as we all have a personal responsibility to the environment.
Can customers influence a design; for instance can they request different colours or prints, and if so how do you handle that?
Our couture service allows customers to choose a colour or a fabric.
My Artwork prints are all painted specific to the garment. Customers come to me for a signature style that I have been offering for the last 25 years.
Do you think this approach to slow fashion can be applied on a more mass market scale in future?
I think that the fashion business has a lot to answer for and a responsibility to slow down the process and to dismember this machine that has manifested itself on our environment. We all need to stop buying discounted clothing which is masking the real issue of over production. People need to return to a more austere approach, buy less. Social media has a responsibility in that it is also a sales tool, promoting glamour and luxury and an altered sense of reality.
What about the future plans for your business, you have an Atelier in London and Singapore, but do you have ambitions for other channels?
We have a new atelier in South Molton Street, which is me returning to my roots. I am very fortunate to have developed a very loyal following of clients over the last couple of decades and this continues to grow as more women discover the benefit of my approach. I will continue to have an e-commerce platform which I am making strides to develop further in terms of the client experience of trying on the garments and how they work in motion and I see this as a way to broaden my distribution direct to the customer.
In another regard, you have been something of a trailblazer, and that is taking a more direct-to-consumer approach (complemented by some independent stockists), what made you go down that road?
I have always maintained a very close connection with my clients which is something I love and something that inspires me to continue to create. I like to hear feedback, what makes them return, what works for them. The biggest luxuries in life are time, experiences and the ability to be able to buy something that is unique and in limited edition.
You’ve shown on the catwalk in the past and you’re not doing that at the moment, do you think you might return to that one day?
Fashion Week has changed from an industry event to something that is much more consumer driven now, partly through the exposure through social media. This has disrupted the industry in many ways and contributes to the fast fashion approach.
As a designer, I see my role to create – not only new pieces, but also new solutions, so I am working towards a whole new approach.
What other methods are you employing to promote the brand?
Our brand is usually ‘discovered’ and then we become a secret. I like that approach, so we host intimate events internationally which continually build our following.
Do you have any advice for a designer looking to set up their own label today?
Follow your heart, always stay true to your beliefs and design DNA and choose your team carefully as you grow.
Maria Grachvogel is just one of a number of big names speaking at The Industry’s Fashion Futures Forum in partnership with Avery Dennison to be staged at White City House, West London on Tuesday 27 November, 2018. Other speakers include designer Oliver Spencer, the founders of Ninety Percent and Brothers We Stand, senior figures from Label/Mix, Agent Provocateur, Marks & Spencer, Wrangler and many more. Just a handful of tickets remain. To find out more and book your seat, click here.