Ian Griffiths of Max Mara on gathering inspiration; channeling art; and adding a small element of politics
Jun 4, 2019
Ian Griffiths is one of the most happening designers in Italy. He has been working for Max Mara for the past 32 years, and though he effectively took over creative direction 10 years ago, has never taken a runway bow.
Since being given the reins, Griffiths has quietly and hyper effectively revamped Max Mara, adding an extra later of sophistication to its collections and concepts. On Monday, Griffiths presented his latest ideas in Berlin, staging Max Mara’s 2020 cruise show in the iconic Neues Museum, located on the capital’s Museum Island.
The night before, Griffiths and the Maramotti family – the owners of Max Mara – hosted guests on Sunday night at a brilliant performance by Ute Lemper, the great German cabaret singer, in a special performance called Rendezvous with Marlene. And Marlene Dietrich, along with David Bowie, turned out to be huge influences in the resort collection.
He shares homes with husband Mark in Reggio Emilia (Max Mara’s hometown); London; Marbella and a cottage in Suffolk. Naturally elegant, when we meet he is wearing a beige bespoke suit by Timothy Everest, made of fine Max Mara wool; one of 50 or so suits by the same London tailor. Griffiths even had four made to come to Berlin.
So, we caught up with the 58-year-old Griffiths for a pre-show coffee and discussion of what he has been doing at Max Mara, gathering inspiration; channeling art; interpreting Berlin and adding a small element of politics to the brand.
FashionNetwork.com: Why did you bring the cruise collection to Berlin?
Ian Griffiths: Because it’s been 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I’m always looking for an opportunity to say something about the brand. I have to confess it’s also for me, as Berlin meant everything to me since I went to art school in the early ‘80s in Manchester. I felt I knew it; from the Bauhaus to David Bowie who spent his most creative years here; Weimar, the film Cabaret.
And, so I always felt Berlin was part of my story. I didn’t come here until the mid ‘90s yet I found the energy that I heard existed here. The thing I love about Berlin is that it is a self-generating culture. Which is what we had in the ‘80s when we made our own culture; and our own fashion, clubs and music. That was what Berlin is all about, and that culture has remained here and the sense of doing it all for yourself.
FNW: How does all that relate to the brand Max Mara?
IG: Because I made it connect! It’s a bit hard sometimes to work out, ‘is this for Ian Griffiths or for Max Mara?’ I find it hard sometimes to draw the line about where one begins and where the other ends. I’ve been with Max Mara for 32 years. Let’s say my heroes are Max Mara heroes. They include David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich. I mean she has to be a Max Mara woman. So, if for nothing else, you can come to Berlin just to celebrate Marlene Dietrich.
FNW: What values and aesthetic does she represent?
IG: The refusal to accept convention; complete awareness of her self-image; ambition and determination. To me ambition and determination are the two strongest characteristics of the Max Mara woman. And a refusal to do things except on her own terms, another Max-Mara-woman characteristic. I joined the brand in 1987, two years before the wall came down and in the year when Bowie did his concert in the Reichstag, if you want to draw a parallel. When he sang Heroes outside the Reichstag that was credited as the moment that the fall of the wall became inevitable. In those days, the women I was dressing, that was at the beginning of ‘power dressing.’ Which enabled women to make it into the corridors of power, though in a uniform. So she tended to blend into the background by necessity in a male dominated world. But over the last 30 years she has gained that Dietrich refusal to blend into the background. She wants to announce herself and say ‘here I am.’
FNW: Why by necessity did she have to blend into the background?
IG: To be accepted in the workplace of that era, she had to kind of accept a uniform appearance. When you look back at the archives of that era, I see what we were doing was very innovative. It was designing a code that was still very new. Nothing backward-looking, it did not refer to a previous era. It was a new way of dressing, but it was a uniform. I mean a gabardine suit with a matching duster over the top, that classic Max Mara look, when we did the campaigns with Steevie van der Veen, when she was our face shot by Paolo Roversi. That look. And in the most recent shows I’ve done that’s the woman who has re-emerged.
FNW: You have been taking quite bold steps with such a classic brand, no?
IG: Yes! It’s been bubbling up. The first move was probably when I did the winter 2006 first punk references, and Sid Vicious My Way opened the show. It had a great reaction. When you work for a company for 32 years, you can take a slow approach. I am not one of those creative directors who has had to come in and change everything in three seasons. So, I feel confident about what I am saving, and if on the way I’ve made a few mistakes, I’ve been forgiven!
FNW: Where were you born and brought up?
IG: I was born in the south of England. My parents were of that generation who moved a lot. My father worked in computers and we were very itinerant, moving from Windsor to Lancashire and Sheffield. I was brought up for most of my youth in Derbyshire and then had my glory days in Manchester. I studied architecture in Manchester but didn’t finish. I was too busy clubbing! I got my clubbing days out of my system at an early age. There was a fantastic club scene in the late ‘70s, with places like the Hacienda. Being part of a group of people in whom the establishment was completely uninterested, back in the days of Thatcher. So we made our own music and clothes and clubs. And it was a complete shock to us that the mainstream absorbed and processed it. I would never have thought that people would still be talking about it. In that sense it’s like Berlin too, where the people who created the culture enjoy it themselves.
FNW: Why did you choose the Neues Museum?
IG: I wanted to highlight the architectural renaissance of Berlin. Another connection to Max Mara, as Max Mara is architecture and this city is an architectural showcase. This building is a brilliant expression of that. It dates from the 19th century; was bombed out during the war and then abandoned for over 40 years; before Chipperfield’s restoration incorporated the building’s history, so all the signs of wear and decay were preserved. And then this pristine modernist structure built in the middle – it just speaks elegantly of Berlin’s renewal and architectural brilliance.
FNW: Define the DNA of Max Mara?
IG: Real clothes for real people. I had the privilege to interview Achille Maramotti with a student writing a thesis on the early days of Italian fashion. And he said that he founded the company on the simple idea that it wasn’t about dressing princesses or countesses in Rome, it was about making real clothes for real people. In those days it was the wife of the local doctor or lawyer; who he knew would eventually become members of those professions. The things that work at Max Mara obey that simple rule, and if we forget it, we go wrong. So even if we are doing a runway show, when you look at that show, it is not purely a piece of theater but something you as an observer can relate to. We are not showing a piece of experimental art.
FNW: The Maramotti family is famous for its unusual and eclectic art foundation. Does that influence your design?
IG: It must have done. I lived with that collection. All the art used to be in the corridors of where we worked. Now they are in the foundation. But beyond that, the art collection was an affirmation that Achille Maramotti’s intention was not conservative. Because he was buying that art, always avant-garde, as a provocation to hang quite difficult paintings in our workplace to provoke people to engage with these ideas. So while we might be classic, our intention was never conservative.
FNW: Why take this show on the road?
IG: We’ve done London, Shanghai and New York. It’s becoming more of a thing, but we find that when you hold this sort of event we have your attention for three days; so can really say something about us as a brand. Whereas in Milan we have you for 20 minutes in between 10 other shows. The show, concert, location and dinner are all calculated to tell you something about where we think you are going.
FNW: Have you tailored the collection to Berlin?
IG: It’s Marlene-Dietrich-meets-David-Bowie-in-Berlin by Max Mara, influenced by the museum itself to give it this raw-edged, neo-primitive theme. In my research, I had this vision of a white suit – al la David and Marlene - with raw primitive edges. There is a room in the museum with a recreated pre-historic loom and this raw piece of fabric. The last time I came here was a year ago, and had the most amazing weekend and that’s when I realized it was 30 years since the fall of the wall, and 100 years since the founding of Bauhaus. And I thought what a great opportunity to bring everyone together for a big Berlin party. It’s for the brand but a big personal satisfaction.
FNW: Given your own sharp suit, why doesn’t Max Mara do menswear?
IG: One answer is that it would be a betrayal of women. Max Mara is for women. Given how many things men have, Max Mara is the one thing that men have to borrow from women. The other answer is I would no longer be the only person in the world with Max Mara menswear!
FNW: What do you want people to think when they leave Berlin?
IG: I want people to come away with the idea that there is a political agenda to what we are doing. Even if it’s politics with a small 'p.' It’s always been there, but undeclared. But we have entered an era when you must declare your political beliefs. But that this can be done with elegance. Even when I was punk in Manchester in the late ‘70s, I was an elegant punk.
FNW: Which designers do you admire?
IG: Anne Marie Beretta, in whose footsteps I follow; Karl Lagerfeld; and my absolute beacons Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.
FNW: Where has you search for inspiration taken you recently?
IG: When I go on holiday, I tend to visit one of our homes. Instead, I tend to get inspired by work travel. Like, say, when I came to Berlin. Or, more recently a week in Australia before Christmas – three days in Sydney and two in Melbourne. My job requires me to travel the Max Mara Empire and hence find out more about other cultures. Like in Australia, I connected with aboriginal art so we made contact with Tim Klingender at Sotheby’s, the world’ greatest authority on aboriginal art. And I was interested in sustainability so I met Oost Baker – an eco-warrior, philosopher, horticulturalist and spent the day with him. Lou Weis at Broached Commissions who specializes in narrative design. Objects that tell stories. Which obsesses me right now. So, maybe that trip to Australia has been put in a box in my head and who knows, there may well be a Sydney show one day!
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