Ian Griffiths On Freshness, Empowerment, And Designing For Radical Women For Over 30 Years

“I see how our clothes make a woman feel good about herself, and that makes me feel good. And I carry on.”

There’s high chance that you’ve slipped into one of Ian Griffiths’ designs and felt incredible — but there’s a higher chance that you’ve not heard his name before. “I’ve been described as the most influential designer you’ve never heard of,” he says — one of my favourite quotes of his, not just because it helps me get to my point but also because it swiftly delivers his disposition: no ego, rather an honestly earned confidence.

Ian Griffiths has been the creative director at Max Mara for over 30 years, and he holds this achievement from a place of real gratitude. Toward the end of last year, it afforded him to take the long flight to Australia for the first time. He launched his resort collections in both Sydney and Melbourne, but more importantly (to him) he learned from a roundtable of Australian designers and toured multiple art and design powerhouses. After his visit, we managed to score some time with him to reflect on his learnings, but to also discuss his aspirations for the brand going forward — into a currently in-store SS19 collection, which just can’t stop modernising timelessness, and his most recent FW19 collection, which delved deep into ideals of power and glamour and boldness.

So you’ve been at Max Mara for 31 years — how do you stay so inspired and motivated every day?
I think of the rise of the Max Mara woman as a continuous narrative of self empowerment, and I’ve been part of it for 31 years. I think of each season as a new chapter and to be perfectly honest, I can’t wait to get to the office each morning to write another chunk of the story. As Creative Director, I get credited as the author of this story but sometimes it feels like I’m uncovering it rather than inventing it. The story has a momentum of its own, and I’ve never suffered the design equivalent of writer’s block.

We have a unique archive at Max Mara, just about every product and process has been preserved — not only garments, tens of thousands of them, but sketches, fabric swatch books, photographs, magazines. The archive is a reminder of where we came from, it’s our heritage and it keeps me in line with our brand identity. But I don’t allow all that history to oppress me. Every season I look for a shot of fresh inspiration from outside the walls of the archive. I keep my cultural antennae busy. In the past few years we’ve had Marilyn reading Dostoevsky on Malibu beach, with a wrap coat, a backpack and reading glasses; we’ve had the pioneering but unsung women of the Bauhaus; we’ve had Dorothy Parker as a proto-punk, Siouxsie Sioux in a camel coat. Those are just a few of the few of the twists that I’ve thrown into the story. How could I ever get bored?

There is pressure these days, maybe because of social media, to be a jack of all trades. Everyone wants to be everything: stylist/photographer/creative director/model/surgeon. Have you ever been tempted by another trade?
I guess I’m an architect at heart. I began by studying architecture at university and a lot of that discipline has stayed with me; I’m an architect who works with clothes. But if there’s an architectural project, like a new flagship store for example, I would rather collaborate with an architect than be the architect. I think creative collaboration with a specialist is way better than trying to do everything yourself – that’s dilettantism. I’ve had the good fortune to collaborate with some of the best photographers, artists, architects, DJs and stylists — just look at the Whitney Bag that we developed with Renzo Piano Building Workshop or the Monopolis project that we did with Liu Wei in Shanghai. Other people’s creativity can stimulate your own.

What is it that you love about designing clothes for women?
If I was designing for a fantasy figure, I would loose interest eventually. But I’m not; the Max Mara woman is real and I’ve got a kind of composite picture of her in my head, drawn together from characteristics of different women I have met over the years. Obviously, putting shows together is rewarding, but I get the biggest buzz when I find myself sitting next to a woman wearing Max Mara in a restaurant, or walk past her in the street. Or when I watch a woman trying on one of our coats in a store; she stands in front of the mirror and ties the belt, and you can tell, she feels glamorous like an off-duty movie star. I see how our clothes make a woman feel good about herself, and that makes me feel good. And I carry on.

And what keeps you at Max Mara specifically?
I identify with the brand’s ethos 100%. I couldn’t transfer what I do to another brand; it’s a one-in-a-million match between me and Max Mara. It’s part of my story, and vice versa.

Max Mara has made a positive contribution to women’s lives. And I’ve had the good fortune to have been part of that. I’ve had the chance to do something useful with my career, and I’m thankful for that — why would I want to go anywhere else?

Can you talk me through some of the ways the company has evolved since you’ve been there?
When I joined, Max Mara was pivotal in defining the sartorial code that was known as ‘power dressing’ — I’m talking about the time of the film Working Girl. By dressing a certain way, women got access to the corridors of power, but in return for strict conformity. Thirty years later, they can be themselves. Dressing for work no longer means trying to blend in — smart women want to stand out and announce their individuality. They are cool, and that’s what the last few collections have been about.

I don’t think it was an accident that Max Mara decided to hire this ex-punk from the Manchester club scene. I think Mr Maramotti envisaged a time would come when the working woman would get radical, and that time has come. I think he realised that classic doesn’t have to be conservative, and that’s what I’m trying to prove with every new collection.

After lunch in Bondi, you mentioned that you’re surprised that Max Mara sells anything in Australia…  
I had lunch at Icebergs on my first day in Sydney. I was wearing a bespoke suit and a panama hat because that’s my look. Needless to say, I was the only person dressed that way. But I wasn’t made to feel uncomfortable or out of place. Australia seems very easy and accepting. And as I spent more time there, I saw more and more smartly dressed, pulled together people — in Sydney, and especially in Melbourne, where I held a lunch for the customers of our Collins Street store. Needless to say, none of them turned up wearing shorts and thongs like I saw on my first day in Bondi.

I love that you took the time to get to know Australian style and culture during your trip — not just in fashion, but also art. What were the highlights?
Well, as I said earlier I’m always looking for ideas and influences. If they’re not immediately useful, they may be in the future sometime. Cultural curiosity is second nature to a designer so I was very keen to take in as much as possible on this trip. I have always been fascinated by the aesthetics of Australian Indigenous Art and I wanted to find out more — and the world authority on the subject Tim Klingender very kindly offered to take me on a gallery tour in Sydney. I was blown away by what he showed me, but particularly by the work of Nonggirnga Marawili. Her work just spoke to me in a very direct way.

In Melbourne I hooked up with Lou Weis, Creative Director of Broached Commissions, and he gave me a guided tour of ‘Design Storytellers’, the exhibition dedicated to their work at the NGV. I was saying earlier that I think of my work at Max Mara as telling a story, and the idea of narrative design is precisely the concept that Broached is founded on, so we really connected. There were a lot of references to Australian indigenous culture in that exhibition to, so it connected to what I had seen with Tim Klingender.

I have a passion for contemporary furniture so I was also delighted to meet Rachel Fry, Creative Director of Australia’s pioneering design showcase Criteria Collection. We visited the Rigg Design Prize exhibition together. This year the theme was interior design for domestic living as a form of communication — so there was that narrative design theme again. My personal favourite was Black Studio’s installation ‘Our natural needs in a digital world’ with its take on a kind of raw edged, almost rustic minimalism.

And I spent a great day with Joost Bakker, eco-warrior, architect, horticulturist, pop-up restaurateur, polymath and charming host. We had lunch at his self-built sustainable house in the Dandenong hills, walked in the forests and fern glades and visited local growers of organic products.

What types of things were you excited to discuss at the Australian Fashion Chamber roundtable? And what did you learn?
I spent a great morning with designers Bianca Spender, Ainsley Hansen (of Hansen and Gretel), Leila Hibri ,Natalija Bouropoulo, Mariam Seddiq and Yioryios Papayioryiou. I wasn’t there to lecture, I was there to learn. After all, they have all built and managed their own businesses, which I have never done. Australia’s fashion culture is relatively young, so this network of designers have the opportunity to do things differently. They have the energy and enthusiasm to address the complex issues of sustainability and ethics and reshape our industry.

Let’s talk fashion and activism. What are your thoughts, your approach? 
Achille Maramotti founded Max Mara on the basis of a simple but brilliant vision: providing well designed, well made clothes for women who wanted their independence. Max Mara dressed that growing class of women as they broke into the workplace and started to push against that glass ceiling. In that sense, although it was never declared, Max Mara was born with a progressive agenda, but is that feminism or pro-feminism? I’m inclined to think the latter and when it comes to other ethical issues I would describe our approach as pro-activist as opposed to activist. We want to anticipate the issues that will concern the kind of woman who wears Max Mara, but we have never been in the business of campaigning or lobbying. I don’t think fashion can initiate change, but it can — and does — pick up on ideas and accelerate them massively. So it can be a great force for good.

Halima Aden walking in a Max Mara hijab was a headline-making moment in 2017. How’d this come about?
This is a great example of what I was saying about activism. Halima was the first hijab wearing model that I am aware of, and when I met I wanted to cast her to reflect reality. If you took a walk down Bond Street in London or Avenue Montaigne in Paris you wouldn’t be surprised to see a woman wearing a Max Mara coat and a hijab; why should the runway be any different? I believe that brands looking to sell in different parts of the world should portray women from those areas in their communication. It’s a simple question of respect.

Did that lead to Halima fronting the new Max Mara capsule collection for the Middle East, or was it a wider plan? 
The plan is to take every opportunity we can to demonstrate our commitment to diversity — or ‘normalcy’, as it might be better described. If Halima had come along five years earlier, I would have cast her then. Halima has taught me a lot about so-called modest dressing. Firstly that it’s not an esoteric dress code set in stone; you can be creative. And secondly, that there are many many non-Muslim women in the Max Mara world who prefer to cover up too. I don’t really like the term ‘modest’ — it kind of implies those women want to blend into the background. They don’t.

Max Mara was one of the first houses designing with the working woman in mind — very progressive for the 50s. How has the vision of this woman changed through the years? What type of woman is she now — what does she listen to, watch, read and drink?
She’s cool, in control, ambitious and she demands to be taken on her own terms. She has a complicated life and has to balance work, family, social life and travel — and she wants to look pulled together in every situation, because that makes her feel good, so she can project the best of herself. That’s why she comes to Max Mara. She’s a specific type of woman, but she doesn’t belong to a specific culture or social demographic, which is why I can’t generalise about her reading habits or what she drinks. Is it enough to say that whatever she reads is well written, and whatever she drinks is the best quality available?

How do you keep it fresh without getting too weird for your current customers? Who or what are you looking at for inspiration?
When we decided to reach out to a younger customer, we swore that we wouldn’t abandon the women who have been wearing Max Mara for thirty years. That would have been a massive betrayal of the brand’s commitment to accompanying women on their journey to the top. I thought a lot about those women; they are at the top of their worlds now, and they want to celebrate their success by dressing in a way that announces who they are. They are cool, and they want to show it. So those ideas that might draw a younger woman into the Max Mara world appeal to them too. Max Mara comes from a position of respect for the women who are going to wear it, so weird doesn’t come into the equation.

Images: @maxmara

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