Interview: Maria Grachvogel, fashion designer

MARIA Grachvogel and I are playing dress-up. The game goes something like this: I tell her I couldn’t possibly wear her celebrated ‘magic pants’ because they are about 90 inches too long.

MARIA Grachvogel and I are playing dress-up. The game goes something like this: I tell her I couldn’t possibly wear her celebrated ‘magic pants’ because they are about 90 inches too long.

So she says: “Try them on. Then you’ll understand”. So I do. Along with a gold satin top, a blue polo neck dress (which, if I’m being honest, looks like a shapeless old sack on the hanger), a pair of heels and a digitally printed silk dress which I love so much I think I might die if I don’t get to keep it for ever.

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How do I feel? A little intimidated, actually. For there are some places in the world that just seem to whisper luxury and privilege. Grachvogel’s shop, in a quiet little London street off Sloane Square, is just such a location. An antique walnut dresser is home to Erickson Beamon jewellery – the designer’s favoured accessories for her catwalk shows – a low coffee table is strewn artfully with the latest fashion magazines, a single, blood-red orchid stands to attention in a clear glass vase and soft, floral-print chairs await the delicate pressure of wealthy bottoms.

Tall, willowy and impossibly elegant, with short, bobbed, dark hair, Grachvogel surprises me by telling me she is a size 12. Dressed in one of her signature black catsuits, she looks, at the very least, a 10. “I try to design for all women,” she says. “I try my designs on all of my team because I believe clothes have to work on all different shapes and sizes. I’m a size 12 – I’m tall and have a flat chest. We also have tiny people and curvy people. I want to see how things are on someone who’s self-conscious about their tummy or self-conscious about their hips. I want to make sure that, in every collection, there is something for a really curvy woman, the smaller person, that outfit that it doesn’t matter what size you are, it just works.”

Which brings us, of course, to the clothes. The silks and the satins, the elegant draping, the exquisite digital prints that look like a postcard from Hubble. The colours are rich reds, olive greens, golds and, of course, black. This is autumn/winter 2012 – the collection that will be Grachvogel’s first to be stocked in Scotland. But her mind is already six months ahead, in the picnics and lunches on the beach and the sunny days of summer 2013, as she prepares for her London Fashion Week show next Friday.

“I feel as though I’ve been painting for months,” she says, and for a moment I think she must have taken on a lengthy domestic decorating task instead of focusing on the job in hand. But, no, it’s the fabrics she’s talking about. “I do it all myself, digitally, and it’s quite intense.

“I’ve not replied to a single e-mail, I’ve just been very focused on the collection. Each piece is painted individually according to the garment, so it’s not painted as fabric but as a completed piece. It’s that whole ethos about making a woman feel amazing about herself, so I use print to sculpt the body, following the line of the garment but also thinking about the body inside that garment. Print can create illusion and shape, so it requires a fair bit of time. Even though you’re painting digitally, you’re still doing it full scale – so that could be about five metres of fabric.”

To celebrate her collection arriving in Scotland, she will be coming up to see it in situ. “I think Edinburgh is a fantastic place and will be a wonderful market for the collection. I’m coming up in November to do an appearance, so that will be really lovely.”

But that’s not her only Scottish link, as she has designed a dress for her friend Emma Thompson, to be worn at the Edinburgh and London launches of her book about Peter Rabbit. “I’ve designed it from the Peter Rabbit tartan,” says Grachvogel, smiling. “I thought very long and hard about what dress to create, and we’ve done something really quite fun. It’s long but hitched up with a giant kilt pin – it’s a pale blue with pink and yellow, and it’s strappy. It was the sort of fabric that would beg to have a little shift dress made out of it but I just thought, let’s do something much more interesting. It has a real Scottish feel to it, which I like.”

Born in London to a Polish father and Irish mother, the precocious Grachvogel had decided she wanted to be a designer by the age of eight and had produced her first collection by 14.

“That collection was quite experimental in cutting,” she smiles, “so, in that way, I guess there are similarities to what I do now. But it was definitely much more flamboyant and younger. When you’re that age you’re interested – or certainly I was – in being as different as you possibly could be. So it was very much extreme pieces that most people wouldn’t wear.

“Then, aged 15, I started experimenting with the bias cut. I still have the original dress for that and if you looked at it, you’d probably see some parallels, too.”

She’s self-trained, never having gone to fashion college or even had work experience with another designer. In fact, her only formal training could hardly have been further from the creative hotbed of somewhere like Central Saint Martins.

“I was very lucky in so far as my parents gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted to do. Equally, they never pushed me. They just let me get on with it. I think that’s pretty healthy.”

Full of ambition and passion – and desperately naive – at the age of 15 she tried to take an exhibition stand at London Fashion Week. “I went along with my collection and they were asking all sorts of questions about my stockists and my price points and I didn’t have a clue, I was making it all up.

“The woman just said, ‘Listen sweetie, you’re obviously very talented, but you really need to go away and learn how to run a business.’ And I quite quickly discovered that I had a lot to learn. As a creative, my mind was all on the product and I didn’t consider how to fund it.”

Seeing a job advertised in the City, she took it and thrived. So much so that she was encouraged to take her London Stock Exchange exams and passed – the youngest person to do so at the time, aged 18.

“It wasn’t necessarily my chosen career path,” she says now, “but I gave it my all while I was there, worked really hard and it helped me enormously in terms of being able to present myself as a business
person.”

In retrospect, yes, fashion college might have been useful. And perhaps her parents could have pushed her more, she admits now. “I certainly didn’t see the value of it back then. I was young, ambitious, determined. Regret is a very wasteful emotion, but I can now see the value in it, in a way I didn’t see before. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the experiences I’ve had. So, perhaps if I’d have gone to college I wouldn’t be where I am, maybe I’d be somewhere different, who knows?

“As a parent, I’d want my son to have all that freedom, but maybe also give him a little help or encouragement.”

She met her husband, investment banker Mike Simcock, at a party in 1997. “I thought he was cute, he obviously thought I was cute, too. We were together for a really long time before we got married. We never really got round to it.” They eventually wed on her 40th birthday, in July 2009. Their son, Ansel, is two. But being pregnant, she says, gave her a dramatic insight into how women think about their bodies.

“Until then, I didn’t have any understanding of what it was like to experience your body in a whole different way. I’ve always had a flat stomach – each of us has areas we don’t like, real or imagined, but one of my things I always felt good about was my tummy. Suddenly, I had this large tummy; I felt really self-conscious about it. And I had boobs. It rounded out my experience of being a woman.”

Women are, after all, her customers. And her whole ethos, she says, is to make them feel incredible about themselves. “I’ve developed ways of cutting that flatter a woman’s body. I think clothing, in a psychological way, we use it to express who we are, or how we want to be seen by the outside world. It’s incredibly powerful in that it can transform your way of being. Sometimes you can put on an outfit and, from feeling absolutely terrible and not wanting to go anywhere and not wanting to be seen, suddenly you can feel like a million dollars. That is my mission.”

She is inspired when she simply gives herself space to think and feel. “You have to allow the ideas to come to you. If you’re constantly busy, it’s very hard for the ideas to come. You have to create some space around you and it’s like water, it just flows. I walk every day – to the office and home from the office, which is three or four miles each way. First of all, it keeps me fit, but it also gives me some quiet head space, which is alone time. I find that quite meditative.

“I also make a rule that when I’m away on holiday, I am on holiday [the family has a home in Captiva, off the west coast of Florida] and I don’t take calls and I don’t look at my e-mails. I do paint and sketch – that’s an outlet for my creativity – but I don’t connect with the day-to-day business stuff.”

That “business stuff” includes catering for big-name customers such as Kelly Rowland and Scarlett Johansson. And, of course, her bosom buddy Victoria Beckham, who appeared on her runway in February 2000, all spiky haircut and green hotpants, sending the fashion press wild and pretty much securing the Grachvogel name in the fashion annals for posterity.

“It was just one of those things that happened,” she laughs. “We’d known each other for a long time, we were friends, she loved what we did. I can’t really remember exactly how it happened, but I think it was in the changing room and she was trying stuff on. We said, ‘Wouldn’t be funny if...’ then promptly forgot about it.

“She then called me up and said, ‘Look, maybe we should do this, maybe it would be fun.’ So we did. I don’t think either of us knew it was going to make such a big noise.”

And while she may play it down now, as an astute businesswoman, she recognises the value of her celebrity following. “It has become very important. I’ve never really gone out there and courted it so I guess I’ve been lucky. But, for branding, in terms of getting your name out there and people knowing who you are, it’s very important.”

Her collection for autumn/winter is inspired by the Jazz Age: “That feeling of freedom, where women were very empowered. ‘I don’t necessarily need to wear a corset’, ‘It doesn’t matter if I dress like a man or a woman’, ‘I can dress how I want’. Those things were really radical at the time and it gave a woman a certain degree of freedom.

“I wanted to capture that essence and that sense of the juxtaposition between masculine and feminine.”

But she also wanted it to be functional. “Clothes should be worn, they should be enjoyed, they should empower you, they should make you feel good about your body. All the prints can go in the machine,” she adds, making me splutter. They cost £1,000 a pop – she really sticks it in the old twin tub with a scoop of Persil? “It means that when I come home from a day at the office and I’m doing bathtime with my son, I’m not worried about it getting splashed.”

So if a woman could buy one piece, I wonder – an item that will take her from season to season yet will be unmistakably Maria Grachvogel – what would it be? “Every woman needs a pair of magic pants,” she smiles knowingly. “I didn’t name them, they got their name because I had a mission to create a perfect pair of trousers. I found it really hard to find a pair to fit – if they fitted me on the waist they didn’t fit on the hip, and generally they would make me look bigger than I actually am. I wouldn’t even come out of the changing room in them. I thought there has to be another way. I really invested time in it – not just for my shape but for the whole team.

“They went into the shops and we did not stop getting calls from our stockists: ‘We need to reorder the pants – you know, the magic pants.’

“I tried to take them out of the collection but I wasn’t allowed, so they’ve been around since 2006. They’re a staple now, and all my trousers are based on that block. A girlfriend tried them on once and said, ‘Ah, now I know you’re not really that slim.’”

Which is how I end up in the changing room, and how she wins me over to her magic pants (they can be taken up, she insists), and to that sack dress which, actually, looks incredible on – the way it hangs so perfectly. And how I set my heart on a red printed dress – “Try it with the belt,” she suggests, and I do, and it looks amazing. I’ll never be able to afford it. But a girl can dream.

• Maria Grachvogel is available for the first time at Harvey Nichols, Edinburgh. The designer will be at the store on 6 November, spaces extremely limited, www.mariagrachvogel.com, www.harveynichols.com, tel: 0131-524 8388.