Max Mara’s Creative Director On Why Romance And Fashion Are Inseparable

by Keng Yang Shuen  /   December 10, 2020

Ian Griffiths, creative director of Max Mara, had plans to present the brand’s St Petersburg-inspired Resort 2021 collection in the gilded Yusupov Palace, but like many things this year, that had to be put on hold. In an exclusive interview, he shares why despite the times, romance remains indispensable to fashion and matters more than ever.


You were drawn to St Petersburg for this collection. What was it about this city that inspired you?

“Ever since I was introduced to Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Pushkin and Dostoevsky at school, I have dreamt of St Petersburg. When I finally got to visit the city, I was enchanted by its magic and magnificence. Its 18th-century Neoclassical architecture reflects Max Mara’s design philosophy of order, restrained elegance and rational harmony.

But taken as a whole, there is a kind of rhapsodic poetry that results from the city’s beauty – the same beauty that stirred the imagination of so many great writers, painters, composers, and choreographers (throughout the ages).”

max mara creative director
Credit:Courtesy

On Griffiths’ mood board after visiting the State Hermitage Museum’s archives are images of the ornate costumes worn by Russian aristocrat power couple Felix and Irina Yusupov and their guests for masquerade parties.

The collection is titled Reason and Romance – how did you integrate these two seeming diametrically opposite ideas?

“I have always been fascinated by the way contrasting concepts can create a dynamic tension that can be really powerful (together). The Max Mara woman is famously pulled together, chic, and in control; I wanted to explore the poetic side that lies beneath the polished exterior… The elaborately embroidered and fil coupe costumes that I saw in the State Hermitage Museum archive were the direct inspiration for the handkerchief-hemmed dresses and skirts – they are the romantic counterpoint to Max Mara’s rational tailoring.”

READ MORE: Prada’s Holiday Collection Is A Cinematic Dream

How would you say the idea of romance in fashion has changed over the years?

“Luxury fashion has always presented dreams of perfection. In that sense, it has always had a strong element of romance. But right now, more than ever, I think we’re looking for clothes that help us to be our best selves – clothes that we fall in love with because they make us feel good. Max Mara has always been about clothes that empower, and right now I think a lot of that empowerment comes from a sense of magic; romance means more to us than ever.”

max mara creative director
Credit:Max Mara

Griffiths reimagines and tempers the uber-romantic attire of the Russian aristocrats for Max Mara’s contemporary consumers this season. For example, the era’s elaborately embroidered costumes led to handkerchief-hemmed dresses and skirts while the antique-looking braids that adorn the collar of a tuxedo are inspired by ceremonial uniforms. Meanwhile the delicate, dusty hues that dominate the collection area a nod to the decor of the Yusupovs’ grand ballrooms.

How much of a role has romance had on you during the 30-odd years that you’ve been at Max Mara?

“One of the constant background influences to my work are the great idols of cinema: Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich et al. Their enigmatic and powerful allure is the brush I use to colour my design process – I’m always aiming for a synthesis of simple beauty, a lyrical quality. In that sense, there has always been a romantic element to my work.”

The fact that you’ve helmed Max Mara for such a long time is in itself an increasingly rare thing these days. What keeps you going and inspired through the years as a designer?

“For me the secret is knowing the brand like you know yourself, identifying with its philosophy 100 per cent and respecting the Max Mara woman like she’s your best friend. I always want the absolute and only the best for that woman.

I came to Max Mara by winning a competition when I was a student at the Royal College of Art in London. I was a new-wave, punk-rock rebel – seemingly a long way from the world of Max Mara: but I had studied architecture and so I approached the project from a quasi-architectural Bauhaus-inspired perspective. And, to my amazement, my approach worked: the prize was a job for life.

READ MORE: Meet The Asian Fashion Designers With The Bold Ideas

Ironically, as I explored the psyche of the Max Mara woman, I discovered that she does share a little of my rebellious spirit. She’s pulled together and chic at all times, but she has an agenda to change the world. You might say that I fell in love with that woman, and it’s been a pleasure to be a part of her success.

The inspiration for each particular season comes from thinking about where that woman is at, what’s going on in the world, and what’s going on in her head. Each collection is like a new chapter in her story, but whatever the theme, she’s the central character.”

max mara creative director
Credit:Max Mara

The State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg is the second-largest art museum in the world and was built in 1764.

A lot has been written about how consumers gravitate towards sensible, minimalist styles during uncertain times. How true is that in your experience – and where’s the romance in that?

“It’s clear that for the foreseeable future we will be socialising less. Maybe we will only go into our office two or three days a week, evening engagements will be rarer, foreign travel rarer still. But I think that will mean that we will think of each occasion as a valuable opportunity to show our best selves, to dress up.

READ MORE: The Influence Of Minimalism Is Going To Be Stronger Than Ever

We will relish planning what we are going to wear to our next appointment; we will rediscover the emotional and psychological boost that fashion can give us. Of course, the Max Mara woman always keeps her head, but I think we’re going to see more romance, not less.”

max mara creative director
Credit:Max Mara

The elaborately embroidered and fil coupe costumes that Griffiths saw in the State Hermitage Museum archive were the direct inspiration for the handkerchief-hemmed dresses and skirts in the collection.

What’s the most romantic thing that has happened to you this year?

“Normally, I return home to the UK only on weekends; though I love Milan, I often dream of being at home more. It was an unforgettable experience being locked down at our picturesque country cottage in Suffolk. Seeing my partner and our dogs every day, watching the seasons change from winter to spring to summer, enjoying the garden, feeling close to nature, the wildflowers, the staggering variety of birds and fauna; it was magical.”

What’s the ideal romantic day?

“A long walk over the wild and windy Suffolk heathland and through the enchanted woods with my partner and our dogs (of course), followed by a long and lazy evening spent reading in front of a roaring fire. Simple pleasures.”

Where are you looking forward to visiting when you’re able to?

“I’ve been dreaming of Hanoi. I visited there, many years ago, but I want to go back and be inspired by the mystery, magic, and charm of Indochine.”

A version of this article first appeared in the Dec 2020 Be Yourself edition of FEMALE