Serbian-born designer Roksanda Ilincic has decided to focus only on dresses. The world’s celebrities have noticed.
If you’re only as good as the people you dress, as one designer famously put it, then Roksanda Ilincic is doing pretty nicely – having dressed Michelle Obama, the Duchess of Cambridge and Samantha Cameron this year alone. So what’s the secret of her soaring popularity? She talks to Elle UK associate editor Avril Mair.
Roksanda Ilincic is the undisputed queen of modern glamour. But on this hot, still August afternoon in London, it’s hard to see how she managed it. The sun is a neon orange explosion above the stagnant, odorous canal that runs behind her Hackney studio and diesel fumes force their way through the open windows as a bus grinds noisily by. There’s no air conditioning and design assistants scuttle around in varying stages of sweaty undress, hard at work on the next collection, which will be presented at London Fashion Week in just over a month’s time. Though there are hydrangea blossoms in ribbon-tied jam jars and everything is pale and white, it isn’t where you’d expect to find someone who has already dressed Michelle Obama, Samantha Cameron and the Duchess of Cambridge this year. Yet the 35-year-old Serbian-born designer has built her career by being deliberately contrary.
From the start Ilincic knew her own mind. For her debut show, presented in September 2005 at Bibendum restaurant in South Kensington, she offered only 13 cocktail dresses in bright, jewelled colours. While her Central Saint Martins contemporaries indulged their creative fantasies, she continued to design nothing but dresses, admittedly charming but out of step from the rest of London and, indeed, fashion itself. Still, the strategy served her well. Now celebrities – as well as famous first ladies – clamour to wear her clothes: Gwyneth Paltrow, Emma Watson, Lady Gaga, Keira Knightley, Florence Welch.
Since 2010 sales have gone up by 140 per cent. The brand, which includes four collections a year plus swimwear and a new children’s line inspired by her 18-month-old daughter, Efimia, is stocked in 40 countries worldwide. Though initially dismissed as ‘occasionwear’ – frivolous and insubstantial, not a serious business – it has earned commercial respect as well as critical acclaim. In her slow, stealthy way, Roksanda Ilincic has become one of Britain’s most successful designers. ‘You can’t design for the sake of belonging somewhere,’ she says. ‘I was always really passionate about the magic you feel the moment you put on a special dress, so I decided to follow that love and that dream, rather than run away from myself.’ She adds, with elegant understatement, ‘I think I made a good choice.’
As always, Ilincic is poised, polished and perfectly composed in a simple beige silk dress with a soft V-neck and long sleeves. She’s wearing flat jewelled sandals, which she customised herself, and matt red lipstick, nothing more.
A former model, she seems strangely out of place in this east London setting, with her milky-pale skin and long dark hair; there’s something charming, almost old-fashioned about her glamour and manners (‘I do like to dress up,’ is how she summarises her style.) She is unruffled, despite the broiling heat and her all-female team (numbering 11) are wilting like the hydrangeas. ‘You would have had to live it in order to experience how hard it has been,’ she says of her rise. ‘At the same time, none of us would be here if there was no pleasure in it. I was always very focused and very driven. I had a clear vision for where I wanted to be.’
As the mother of a young child, Ilincic is very matter-of-fact about how she makes it all work. ‘Before I had the baby, very often I would be in the studio seven days a week. But that had to stop. Things can be done in different ways when they need to be. It doesn’t come easy, but you learn as you go along. The longer you have a family, the easier it gets. It’s just the life-work balance and how to juggle both.’
There’s a kind of quiet confidence that emanates from Ilincic. She manages to be softly spoken and self-assured at the same time. The daughter of Lazar, an economist, and Ranka, a pharmacist, she says that as a child she ‘didn’t know what a fashion designer was, but I was always drawn to making and changing things. I started out customising my dolls – basically, ruining them – then in my teenage years I went to work on my mum’s wardrobe, cutting up all her precious YSL dresses into miniskirts. There was always an interest in clothes and having fun with them. When I actually started designing, it was all about creating,’ she reflects. ‘But as you go on you find out how exciting the business side of it can be as well.’
Her husband, Philip Bueno del Mesquita, the founder of the trainer brand Acupuncture – they met at Saint Martins – is now her business partner but they remain independent. Ilincic has been offered jobs at other brands, she says, but would never take on anything that meant giving up her own. ‘I have had approaches and am open to the idea. It’s something that would need to live alongside my own label, though, and that doesn’t always work.’ Opening a London store is the next plan; perhaps, later, a perfume. As she says, with a smile, ‘Many things are cooking up.’
So how has she managed to achieve such success? Prof Louise Wilson, the MA course director at Central Saint Martins – who has taught stars such as Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane, and gave Ilincic a place on the acclaimed degree course when she first arrived in London in 1999, having heard the best designers studied there – sums it up succinctly: ‘Roksanda Ilincic is a woman who creates for women.’ The designer agrees: ‘It’s true,’ she says. ‘That means I always think about how any dress would fit. Is it going to be comfortable? Is it going to be something to wear over and over again? And it’s that which probably defines me as a designer.
I wear my own dresses every day, so I test them myself. It’s not necessary for me to have a muse. I know what other women want. Though we may be different ages or have different body shapes, the thing that we all share is a certain modern outlook.’
The Oxford English Dictionary defines glamour as ‘magic’ – a word often used by Ilincic herself – and it’s appropriate. Her designs flatter the body like a lover, though they conceal as much as they ever reveal. As befits a former student of architecture – she studied in Belgrade, before committing to fashion – the dresses are calculated and perfectly proportioned: feminine and romantic, of course, but also with a kind of couture sensibility. ‘The allure of dressing has nothing to do with showing off flesh,’ she says. ‘That’s something that comes directly from how I feel. I’m always wearing a polo neck under things, even in summer. I don’t like exposing too much of my sexuality. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, but I keep a little bit hidden. I like the mystery when a woman is wearing that kind of dress. Something left to discover…’
If Ilincic has a signature, aside from that easy femininity, it is a kaleidoscopic understanding of colour. In a corner of her studio, hanging-rails erupt with pieces from the pre-fall collection in an almost volcanic orange, the same shade as the sun currently filling the windows. ‘I love colour,’ she says. ‘It comes from being brought up in a sunny country. The colours in Serbia are so bright.
We’re all more optimistic when the sun is out and I thought that happiness could be transported to other people in a dress. It’s so important for my designs to feel uplifting. If you are happy, everything you wear looks better.’
It makes sense that celebrities would be drawn to these dresses. Of course, the biggest fashion catch of the moment is the Duchess of Cambridge and she has worn Roksanda Ilincic not just once but twice. When she arrived at Los Angeles airport on her first foreign tour last year, she emerged from the Royal jet in a perfect sleeveless sheath of lilac-grey wool crêpe, draped just so. The colour matched the clear Los Angeles sky. The same dress made a reappearance in July as the Duchess of Cambridge visited the Royal Academy of Arts for a ‘creative industries’ reception. By this point, the £815 dress had long sold out. ‘She is such a great ambassador for British fashion and a truly elegant woman,’ Ilincic says. ‘It was really very special for her to wear my dress.’ But how did it come about? The designer smiles: ‘My lips are sealed. I think it’s best to keep some things a secret.’
This isn’t the only Roksanda Ilincic dress with significance, though. The spring-summer 2012 collection produced Margot, a fuchsia-pink wool-crêpe dress with a round neck, fitted waist and lantern sleeves. Margot – named, randomly but glamorously, after a French film noir character – was not just another dress, but the most significant of this year, creating lustful waiting-lists and appearing on women as diverse as Emily Blunt and Coleen Rooney, plus a generous handful of fashion editors.
Form-fitting but also restrained, long-sleeved and knee-length (has there ever been an it-dress with long sleeves?), Margot flattered female curves without flaunting them.
‘To create a dress that appeals to so many women means it has special magic inside it,’ Ilincic says, simply. ‘It was a dress to last from the office to cocktails and then, later on, all the other places that the night can take you. That’s what makes it feel modern – it answers the many demands women have in their lives now.’ Though stores are still begging for more, in different colours – Princess Beatrice wore one in white on the red carpet – Ilincic has declined. It’s time to move on. How she has managed this is something of a surprise, though. The autumn-winter collection added daywear to those famous dresses.
‘Everyone does cocktail now,’ Roksanda reasons. ‘I wanted to explore different things.’ What she offered was a kind of luxe sportswear – understated separates that were at once eye-catching and wearable. The sweatshirt was reinvented in silk with an extravagant fur hood, a zip-up hoodie was tucked into a fur-trimmed skirt, an oversized silk and wool parka was slung over a simple little dress. All her signatures were there – the colours, the cutting, the draping – but downplayed. ‘Our lifestyles are so fast now and it’s about looking great all the time,’ she says. ‘When we talk about glamour in our age, it’s a very different concept – there is a certain level of polish to it but, at the same time, it’s much more free and effortless. The boundaries of what is day and what is night have blurred: nobody wants to look too dressed up. It’s about getting the perfect balance while still looking special. Effortless, chic, comfortable clothes for women is how I’d describe it.’
While she says buyers have been asking for more daywear in her collections for some time, she herself sees her customers as the driving force for change. ‘It is a cultural thing,’ she rationalises. ‘There is a freedom that has come from such easy access to information on fashion – with the click of a mouse you are in the front row of the shows and aware of everything that’s happening. I think that’s partly the reason why women feel more confident to experiment, to be themselves, because there are no dictates anymore, only the option to have fun when you are dressing up.’
If this is the essence of modern fashion, then Roksanda Ilincic has nailed it. She knows what works, for both her and the woman she dresses. It’s not easy to create clothes that are effortless and fabulous at the same time, but the success of that business and the stellar client list show she’s managed it.
‘What I’ve discovered as a designer is that there are no rules,’ she says. ‘You find what you’re the best at. For me, it’s about doing something with love that will make other people enjoy it and feel loved as well.’