Since taking over as creative director of Max Mara about 10 years ago, Ian Griffiths has injected a classic cool and quiet sophistication to the Italian label’s collections and concepts.
The British ex-punk recently sat down with BAZAAR to discuss fictional spy heroines, real-life superwomen and the subversive power of simplicity.
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You’ve previously stated that Max Mara is classic but not conservative. How do you delineate the two?
For me, it’s what’s inside. You look at me with my Savile Row suits, and then you look at a picture of me in 1979; inside, I’m still that radical punk rocker—it’s just that the clothes I wear now are suited to the life I’m leading, to the image I want to project. Just because a person wears classic clothes doesn’t mean they’re conservative. I think the Max Mara woman really wants to take on a man’s world. And how do you do that? You wear clothes in which you’re taken seriously and feel powerful. A big moment in Max Mara’s recent history was when [US congresswoman] Nancy Pelosi took on the White House wearing her Max Mara coat. It was a very classic coat, but it made a real statement and it was a powerful moment.
The spring/summer 2020 collection was inspired by this idea of a spy or a modern Bond girl. Why did that resonate with you for this moment?
I have a cultural antenna; I’m always looking at what people are watching and reading. There’s this big thing happening in spy thriller fiction and this writer, Natasha Walter, commented that when the world feels a little dark and dangerous, spy fiction turns that around and makes it glamorous, exciting, escapist. But she also said that there aren’t very many positive role models for women. Think of the Bond girl; she looks great for the whole film, but she doesn’t get much to do. Then along came Killing Eve, written by Phoebe Waller‑Bridge, whom I really admire, with all these powerful women. And Phoebe was hired to rewrite the script for the next James Bond film. What I wanted to do was anticipate the film that I would make if I were Phoebe and given complete free rein—how would I dress the characters?
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Do you always start your creative process like this, with a character?
It’s usually triggered by what people are reading, talking about or watching. Then I develop a whole narrative in my mind that becomes the generator of the collection. Sometimes, I become obsessed with that story and work on it constantly. But even though that story is always present, it always relates to the overall story of Max Mara. In the end, it’s about the Max Mara woman—she’s the central character.
Tell us more about that woman.
There’s not one person who expresses all the qualities. Over the 32 years I’ve been with the company, I’ve met so many women who embody some aspect of the Max Mara identity and I’ve formulated it from all those pieces. Some are famous; there are actors such as Amy Adams, and people from the past like Marilyn Monroe and Dorothy Parker. Some are not, like my mother and sister. She’s a complex character. She has to be, because it’s not just one woman in the world—she’s millions of women.
Max Mara is very much driven by real clothes for real women. Do you enjoy working within those parameters or does it come with certain challenges?
I detect in your question a sense that realness, or commerciality, might be the enemy of creativity, but I’ve never thought of it that way. I’ve always derived creative satisfaction from designing something a real person could wear. Designers shouldn’t be frightened of designing simple clothes. An architect can design a building that is a simple shape and we wouldn’t think he’s less good than the architect who designs a very complicated structure. It’s almost unique to fashion that we feel tempted to think it needs to be complicated to be good. I believe that simplicity is often a sign of really good design and confidence.
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