The Interview: Roksanda Ilincic talks designer burnout, A-list fans and embracing her dark side
Her name makes working women’s eyes light up, and hardly a day goes by without an A-list fan like Kate Middleton or Michelle Obama pictured wearing one of her colour-block dresses – but right now, Roksanda Ilincic is mesmerised by a ponytail.
This is no ordinary ponytail, as the Serbian-born, London-based designer is keen to emphasise.
For her autumn-winter collection, Roksanda and frequent collaborator Mark Hampton, a TONI&GUY stylist, opted for a sleek pony-tail, but each model’s look was altered slightly with the use of different coloured bands.
“Each particular colour was styled in a particular way that those bands had some story themselves, and the colours were done in a certain order,” she says.
“There are so many details going into it that an audience or customer wouldn’t necessarily notice or be aware of, but I think at the end of the day that’s the point, you just get the feel of something, something you can’t quite grasp.
“That connection with a person at a show is very important, because the emotions that they take out are what makes you relevant and what makes you desirable.”
Since opening her eponymous label in 2005, Roksanda has become known for her use of bold shapes and contrasting colours, but she is just as passionate about crafting the perfect hairstyle as she is on nailing the drapery on a sculptural gown.
“My forte is occasion dresses, something that is dressy anyway, and that contrast of creating hair that is very beautiful and very sleek but also very casual, that’s very important,” she says.
“My shows are always all about colours and shapes and textures, there is quite a lot going on, so I like to make a contrast with hair that is a little bit more easy and effortless. I always like my models to feel that they can go straight from the catwalk to some real event outside of the fashion show.”
While fans have come to expect a certain brightness from a Roksanda show, for autumn-winter she surprised her fans by showcasing her dark side in a notably more muted collection inspired by the moody fashion photography of Deborah Turbeville and the provocative psychosexual film The Night Porter, which starred Charlotte Rampling in her breakout role as a concentration camp survivor in a sadomasochistic relationship. Roksanda mentions the French actress as “my hero and a muse”.
Reflecting on that collection, she explains: “I like to surprise my followers and people who love my work. I like to always do something that’s not so predictable.
“An element of suspense is very important in fashion, because you don’t want to become somebody that everybody knows what the next collection is going to be about.”
To maintain that element of suspense, Roksanda decided to eschew her signature colour palette in favour of more subdued shades of burgundy, midnight blue and deep persimmon.
“I have used those bright and shocking pops of colour for quite a few seasons, and this was a sort of subtle change. The colours were still very saturated and the combination of colour was still very elegant and sophisticated, but I thought it was the right time to do that after so many explosive and bright collections.
“I think it’s good to challenge yourself, but also to challenge your customer, because it’s good to offer something that the customer doesn’t necessarily know or feel that they needed,” she adds.
In a collection filled with high collars, flattering cropped hems and lean silhouettes, Roksanda wanted to reflect the notion of a “beautiful but lost and mysterious woman, something that is hidden or not necessarily seen from the outside”.
“I like that touch of darkness and melancholy that was coming away,” she says.
Roksanda’s enthusiasm for her work is evident, and particularly refreshing in a year when the fashion world has been rocked by a series of startling departures, including the resignations of Raf Simons, Alber Elbaz and Alexander Wang as creative directors of Dior, Lanvin and Balenciaga.
Roksanda’s close friend Jonathan Saunders, who she met studying at Central Saint Martins, also shocked fashion lovers when he announced he would be shuttering his label last December. He has since landed a role as chief creative officer at Diane Von Furstenberg, but amidst such dramatic shifts, discussion of ‘designer burnout’ is rife.
“I think the speed of fashion is definitely challenging for designers, because as a designer you need time to come up with fresh ideas and reflect on what was good and what was bad about the previous ones, and you also need time to develop them,” Roksanda says.
“It’s important to adapt to it and to find some sort of solution. I think that’s what I’m doing, I’m finding the best way to do things in such a short span of time. At the end of the day, what’s most important is to still enjoy what you do, and I think that passion comes through the work. I’m happy to say I’m still enjoying what I’m doing very, very much, and I think that’s probably what matters the most.”
While Roksanda still loves her work, she admits she has felt pressure to keep up with the demanding schedule of spring-summer, autumn-winter, and resort, along with swimwear, accessories and her childrenswear line, Blossom.
“The speed is becoming really, really fast,” she says. “When I started, I only had two collections a year, and now I have a zillion collections a year. I’m a mother and I have a little daughter, and there are a lot of things you have to fit in a day, but you just have to find your own speed and to grow your business without burning out.”
While such dramatic changes might seem frightening to a smaller designer in the industry, Roksanda reads them as symptoms of an exhilarating new era of fashion.
“But I definitely think that the changes and everything that’s been happening in the last year in the fashion world is very welcome. I think it’s a very interesting time and a very exciting time,” she says enthusiastically.
On top of the increasingly frantic pace of the fashion world, changes in the market have had an impact on her designs.
“Now we’re talking also about the global customer, and there are more needs of different cultures and climates to meet. It’s really exciting to be able to sell literally all over the world, but it comes at a price, because collections have to be bigger and you have to cater to different climates throughout the whole year,” she says, noting that the time of year no longer dictates what goes into her collections.
“When I design for autumn-winter or spring-summer, the name ‘autumn-winter’ or ‘spring-summer’ is not relevant anymore, I always have to make sure there is plenty for both summer and winter all the time.”
She has also enjoyed how her customer – the Roksanda woman - has evolved over the past 10 years.
“I think that life has become faster, and women want to feel more comfortable. But in principle, I think it’s the same woman. It’s a woman who likes to dress not to please others but to please herself. She’s somebody who is very inquisitive and interested in many different things, she’s very independent and very modern. Somebody who likes and enjoys fashion for her own sake,” she says.
Roksanda also takes into account the diversity of women, and makes sure her collections offer something for women of many body shapes.
“When I started, people used to say I was only designing for tall and skinny women, but I felt that was a little bit unfair, because I always felt like I was trying to create something that will make women very comfortable, very self-confident and empowered, no matter what age or shape or size they are.
“Over the 10 years, I’ve witnessed women of many different shapes and sizes coming up to me and saying ‘thank you for creating this for my shape, I have a big bust or voluptuous hips’, whatever it may be, and I was always very proud of that,” she says.
Women have played an important role throughout Roksanda’s career, and she fondly describes herself as “a girl’s girl” who wants to help women feel confident and comfortable. She traces it back to her relationship with her mother, who gave her her first glimpse of fashion with the vintage Yves Saint Laurent pieces in her wardrobe.
“My mum was a huge inspiration. That’s probably the reason I’m so passionate about fashion, because she introduced me to it from an early age through her own passion.
“I’m a person who loves women, I’m a girl’s girl, and I always felt that sisterhood very strongly, even when I was growing up. I always felt that there is something very special as a bond.
“I was always very aware of how I can help out women in doing this, and therefore I’m always very aware of my friends and my colleagues and great women in the public eye who have been wearing me. There’s nothing nicer than seeing one of your dresses on a woman you respect,” she says.
For Roksanda, that happens frequently, and she mentions one particular moment as a stand-out: when she opened the centurion issue of Vogue to find her muse Charlotte Rampling wearing one of her dresses.
“I thought, what a perfect time! I didn’t know, I just opened the issue and there she was, it was such a huge compliment,” she recalls.
Another landmark moment arrived in 2014, when she opened her flagship store on Mayfair’s iconic Mount Street – a moment she names as a distinct highlight in her already-impressive career.
“I always wanted to be in that incredible street and surrounded by such great neighbours. To be able to make that wish come true was so rewarding and like a celebration of all the work that I have done,” she says.
Now that she has survived 10 years in the industry, Roksanda is looking to expand her global reach even further.
“I was so concentrated on getting to this first milestone of 10 years, but now it’s time to move on and start and open a new chapter. This has been such an incredible journey so far, so I would like the next 10 years to be as exciting and as prosperous as those ones. I just want for my name and my brand to grow with more stores and more Roksanda throughout the world.”
For now, she’s kept busy with her new handbag line, along with collaborations on jewellery, footwear and a haircare range with TONI&GUY, for which she designed the colourful packaging.
While working with a brand, she was careful to maintain her own vision without being restricted by the brand’s guidelines.
“I think it’s important to find a common ground and things that are relevant for both brands, and that’s what we did,” she explains.
“Colour is obviously very important to me, it’s a really strong DNA of the brand, and at the same time that was something TONI&GUY could relate to as well, so that was the starting point for designing the packaging and making it really stand out with the colours.
“I think your initial approach is very important, and if you find a common ground it’s not so restrictive, it’s not so hard to collaborate with somebody who obviously has their own DNA.”
The Roksanda TONI&GUY collaboration range is exclusively available in Boots now