Max Mara’s Ian Griffiths on Swans, strategy, sustainability and style
When Max Mara staged its Marella Agnelli moda resort 2022 collection at sunset on Tuesday in the Bay of Naples it marked the latest step in a subtle and long-term repositioning of the house as a major league fashion player.
Max Mara had always had a sterling reputation as a purveyor of beautiful coats and coolly elegant clothes for wives of the haute bourgeoisie. But beginning seven years ago its management and design talent carefully edged the house into that category of top 20 global fashion houses, joining the likes of Christian Dior, Chanel, Giorgio Armani and Valentino. Instantly recognizable marques that hold annual fashion spectacles in elegant settings before VIP audiences. Brands that also work with the top photographers and stylists to create fashion moments covered by leading magazines and, increasingly, Instagram influencers.
At the prow of the project are two key players. Max Mara’s creative director Ian Griffiths, a one-time punk whose innate sense of sophistication and encyclopedic knowledge of fashion codes and history have taken Max Mara into fresh terrain. And Giorgio Guidotti, the brainy bon-vivant global communications director of Max Mara, without whom no chic dinner in Milan, New York or Paris would be complete.
Founded by Achille Maramotti in the north central Italian city of Reggio Emilia in 1951, Max Mara is still fully family owned by the Maramotti family, whose scions still form the key part of upper management. His son Luigi is the CEO, and grand-daughter Maria Giulia Prezioso Maramotti Germanetti is omnichanel retail director and brand ambassador. The house has been a great Italian success story, which last year scored annual sales of 1.2 billion euros. To their credit the Maramotti clan have given a great deal of creative free reign to Griffiths and Guidotti, and the result is a period of majesty for the marque.
Since a Tokyo show in 2013, timed to coincide with a retrospective exhibition called Marvelous Max Mara, the brand has staged shows in Shanghai, Reggio Emilia and Berlin. Due to the pandemic, the house was forced to cancel last year’s cruise show planned for St. Petersburg. But bounced back this week in Ischia.
Case in point, Tuesday’s cruise show. Staged amid the pine trees, bougainvillea and geraniums of Europe’s hippest seaside hotel, the Mezzatorre on the northeast corner of Ischia, the beautiful, once-volcanic isola verde famed for its thermal baths, locale of writers and authentic Italian cooking.
Griffiths entitled the show 'Local Color,' after discovering that book by Truman Capote, who spent a languid spring on Ischia, staying in a simple pensione in the nearby port of Forio. A brilliant piece of travel writing which Griffiths then connected to Capote’s coterie of billionaire-wife lunch partners, whom he nicknamed The Swans. Women like Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill, Gloria Guinness, Babe Paley, C. Z. Guest and Marella Agnelli, who left an indelible mark on fashion history for their natural grace, patrician aplomb and surprisingly understated style.
So, we caught up with 59-year-old Griffiths, who became creative director in 2005, for a discussion on Swans, strategy, style and sustainability.
FashionNetwork.com: Why did you decide to show in Ischia?
Ian Griffiths: Unlike Berlin and St. Petersburg, which were trips fully occupied by visits to exceptional cultural locations, we chose Ischia in part because it had none of those. It was the idea that we can meet again and enjoy boats rides; or buy espadrilles, sandals or ceramics.
Not to tax your mind in any way, just enjoying each others company. I started this project at Christmas when I couldn’t travel, so I re-read many of my favourite books, like 'Travels with my Aunt' and Edith Wharton's 'In Morocco,' Hemingway and Truman Capote. And when I discovered that Capote had written 'Local Color,' that got me thinking. It’s out of print now, and I bought it at great expense, well over 100 pounds from America. But we then spent hundred of thousands on the back of it!
Who could write like Truman Capote? There is another description in this book, when he writes about a train departure in Spain. It pulled out so slowly that butteries flew in and out of the window. That’s what I was really pining for, the romance of glamorous, unhurried travel.
Recently I actually flew from Milan to Australia on a Sunday and then flew back on the Wednesday. What sort of quality is that? Truman Capote had four months to consider spring and watch the sea changing color in Local Color. His description of the young woman who ran the pensione, Giocando, is magical. And, apparently, Giocando is still there and the pensione is still open. I find that link absolutely fascinating. So I wanted to bring people here to dream and celebrate – in a place you can still get to by train and boat.
FNW: What makes the island so special?
IG: I had been to Capri but not here, like a lot of people. Which is just the way Truman describes it in his book. But since we started this project, we have been four times. Initially staying in Naples, since everything was shut. Staying in Santa Lucia, I fell in love with Naples!
FNW: You have travelled with cruise before, like to Berlin. Why is that important to Max Mara?
IG: Well, our resort reality is not just about people passing summer holidays in Ischia. It’s about people who live in cities and have complicated lives. But its inspiration is the Swans. Women who would meet back in the '50s twice a year in Paris for couture, for Maxim diners or lunches at the Ritz. But otherwise they vacationed in an understated way. They might have been on the billionaire husband’s yacht, but they ate spaghettata, and wore espadrilles. Hence my idea of local color. That lifestyle still exists but it is not as elegant as that pinnacle of elegance.
FNW: How do you believe your aesthetic has evolved while working Max Mara?
IG: Do you mean, how do I feel about designing for a wife that aspires to dress like Babe Paley, compared to how I felt when I was punk rock kid in Manchester? Partly, I would say I would have reviled the very notion.
But another part of me was always very attracted to elegance. I was a very elegant punk with an eye for aesthetic – perfect air and perfect makeup. Back when I was a fashion student, we were given a project to design for an ancient woman – oh, at least 40 years old – and I really enjoyed that idea and project. So, if you asked me 40 years ago if I could design for a Swan, I could probably have done it. Anyway, what I did then was inspired by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
FNW: How was it to make the transition from key designer at Max Mara to creative director?
IG: I was ready for it, after 25 years! I had absorbed all that DNA. And you had to be susceptible to that. I learnt the finesses of Italian sartorial culture – the creation of types of clothing and what was appropriate in creation.
Like the same way you cannot have cappuccino after 11 a.m., you cannot wear crispy and cool fresco di lana wool in the winter.
FNW: What role does sustainability play in this collection?
IG: We are developing a company-wide policy. We take it really seriously. But we resist shouting out individual initiates to garner applause. We have some quite innovative ideas – but we don’t like to say 'look at us, we make jeans out of recycled bottles.'
Max Mara’s starting point is producing clothes that are made to last. That’s a good starting point. Sometimes I think our generation has been blindsided. If you think of the issues that preoccupied us – equality and diversity – a lot of that has been played out in fashion arena. While this whole issue of sustainability has crept up on us. Yes, of course, we do have to take it seriously but when I examined my conscience on whether we should have done this earlier, I have to say we were also fighting for sexual and gender equality and for gay rights. And we lived through the AIDs crisis. Now we wonder, are we the bad guys? The key thing to me is that this huge problem won’t be solved by press releases but by tackling it properly. At least we have addressed this struggle; now the next generation faces a mountain to climb.
FNW: You hired Ginevra Elkann, one of the granddaughters of Italy’s most famous Swan, Marella Agnelli, to direct your show video. What was your brief?
IG: We wanted to close the circle by working with someone who was descended from that world. For unpretentiousness was real elegance. With Ginevra we’ve had great trips here to Ischia where she talked of all the geraniums – a humble plant that blooms here and on the windows of the Plaza Athenée in Paris, another link. Ginevra also reminded us how her grandmother’s concept of elegance was based on simplicity. We are also very happy the Mezzatorre agreed to close the hotel for the event. It is the prefect setting to express the glamor of travel. Ginevra will include images of the actual show with pre-recorded ideas and we can reach millions and millions of people on the web. When I think back to being a student when we had to buy the Sunday Times to see one page on Paris couture and six small photos of fashion!
FNW: Are influencers the new Swans of our time?
IG: The modern Max Mara Swan has a way more complicated life than Truman’s Swans did.
Last night, I was out with a gaggle of influencers, and we ended up dancing on tables. We have about 20 of them here with us – Tamu McPherson, Caroline Daur, Xenia Donts, Alexandra Pereira, Leonie Hanne. There is a parallel. Yet there was a co-ordinated elegance to what the Swans did that does not apply to influencers. Without denigrating them, influencers are very fortunate to enjoy a life floating above everyone less fortunate. Yet they are still actually really nice people and great fun.
At which point, a hungry seagull sweeps onto the roof of the breakfast room, crying out for food as Griffiths speaks.
IG: We often start creating the show music before the clothes, and we work with the great Johnny Dynell. He even put in a great song, Una Notte a Napoli, with lyrics by Alba Clemente, who is a guest with her Neapolitan husband, the painter Francesco. Johnny also put seagulls on the soundtrack. But I immediately wrote to him and said, ‘they don’t have seagulls in the Med! Take them out!’ But when I was finally able to spend a night in Mezzatorre, the first thing in the morning a huge gull woke me up! So, I wrote again, ‘put the gulls back in!’
FNW: How do you think you have evolved as a designer at Max Mara?
IG: In some ways I try to be like Truman Capote, who could use simple words to write so well. If I could criticize my early work, I could get visually very noisy and ‘look at me!’ I think I have developed a maturity to elevate everything to its simplest form. These clothes are about clothes that work for you, not to show off that you are going on a trip. In our film, I don’t want a perfume ad. One has to show clothes look by look and introduce an element of narrative; a story of a group of smart women meeting at Mezzatorre for the first time in two years.
FNW: Do you believe your strategy of stylish show events have helped build Max Mara globally?
IG: There is more than one brain involved in that. It’s mine linked with Giorgio Guidotti. Back when I was a 20-year-old punk rocker who joined MM, even then I wanted to be with the best. Why wouldn’t you? So, I love these events and not just because other top brands do them, but as an opportunity to get your attention and really focus on who we are, and really communicate with our consumers. The way you cannot do with just one show among 50 during the ready-to-wear seasons in Milan and Paris.
This sort of show also accelerates attention on Max Mara, so what is not to love? It is hard to get it right, but Giorgio is the most sanguine person I met in my whole life, so we do. He only ever worries abut two things: an incorrect table setting; and if it might rain and someone gets wet!
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