Serbian designer Roksanda Ilincic’s refined yet rebellious sensibility is nowhere more visible than in her bold and trailblazing use of colour...
Royal blue and aubergine. Pink and citrine. Lime green and fuchsia. "If it’s a combination that people find a little strange, then I can’t resist," laughs Roksanda Ilincic. The designer isn’t just being contrary: her ability to render the most unlikely colour mashup not only wearable, but wildly covetable, is one of her signatures. "I think I might be more attuned to colours, or maybe I see them differently to others," she shrugs. "I don’t think about it too much. I just follow my heart and do what feels intuitive, even if that means I end up going against the grain."
So far, her singular – and single-minded – approach has served the Serbian-born, London-based designer well. Take, for instance, her insistence on specialising in occasionwear when she graduated from Central Saint Martins in 1999. "Cocktailwear wasn’t exactly flavour of the month, or decade, for that matter," she laughs. Still, in a sea of high-concept and cool, her catwalk show stood out, and – quite by accident – she ended up identifying a chronically underserved niche. "Occasionwear that looked contemporary was definitely lacking," she says. "And as a category, it was looked down on by other designers. But to be honest, it just felt unique and different, and most importantly, authentic to me. I wasn’t thinking about what would sell or what people would like."
Today, Ilincic’s sensibility is more relevant than ever, and – combining modernity with an almost old-fashioned modesty and effortless elegance – it chimes powerfully with women’s wants and needs in a post-MeToo world. "My aim is to make women feel empowered and protected when they wear one of my designs," she explains. "I want them to feel like themselves, but wearing armour." Her collections are both fashion-forward and feminine; critically acclaimed and commercial. "Being a woman who designs for other women gives me a major advantage," she says. "I know exactly how women want to feel in an outfit, what they want to hide and accentuate, and what their lifestyle is like. It’s one of my biggest strengths as a designer."
Another is her originality, which she chalks up to her background. "Serbia leans towards classical fashion, while London is all about experimentation," she explains. "I’m quite an unusual blend of both." It’s also down to her rebellious streak, which, as a child, her mother (a fashion-obsessed pharmaceutical PR agent) encouraged, along with her daughter’s love of design (though that’s something she may have regretted when a young Ilincic took a pair of fabric scissors to her beloved Saint Laurent skirts to make them shorter). "Oh god, I was absolutely awful," she cringes.
During the midst of the Balkans conflict, which erupted when Ilincic was a teen, fashion wasn’t considered a viable career choice – "it felt frivolous; a passion, not a future job". So she studied applied arts and architecture at college, only switching to fashion when she timed a solo trip to London to coincide with the admissions process for Saint Martins. She managed to get in, despite presenting the late – and formidable – Professor Louise Wilson with a portfolio that featured no actual fashion.
"Even today, my mood boards reference art or architecture rather than fashion," Ilincic says. For her SS19 collection, it was one of Le Corbusier’s bright-yellow tapestries that captured her imagination. "People have kind of forgotten about his wall hangings and drawings, but to me, they’re just as creative as his buildings." The show was a tour de force, featuring plenty of the pieces she’s known and loved for (think fluid deckchair-striped dresses cinched in at the waist, and voluminous pastel gowns) alongside relaxed tailoring, softly cut separates and deconstructed outerwear. "If you want to grow as a brand and evolve as a designer, you can’t be pigeonholed into just one category,” she says of her move into daywear. “But you’d be surprised at how many people see me as just an occasionwear designer."
"I think I might be more attuned to colours, or maybe I see them differently to others."Roksanda Ilincic
Another misconception that rankles: the belief that the statuesque designer – who was signed by Storm in her early twenties and modelled to part-fund her studies – caters solely for the tall and slim. "It’s frustrating to be labelled like that just because I look a certain way," she says. "People are so judgmental towards female designers. If I was a man, nobody would be saying those things, because they couldn’t make such comparisons. The fact that my clientele is so diverse, in size, age and nationality, is one of the things that makes me the most proud."
As well as expanding her womenswear repertoire, growing internationally and evolving her sensibility – partly spurred on by the fact that she’s been so relentlessly ripped off by the high street ("flattering, unless they make a really bad version") – Ilincic has been exploring areas outside fashion. Last year, the designer – a keen collector of art – curated a Sotheby’s auction, while a recent collaboration yielded a small homewares collection. "The dream is to create a full lifestyle brand," she says. "But I don’t have any set plans. I just want to keep making clothes that women want... and to keep things surprising."
By Lindsay Macpherson
- Photographer Danny Lowe
- Stylist Christophe Ruiz
- Model Jasmine Hussain @ Elite
- Hair Alex Price @ Frank
- Make-up Emma Miles @ Caren
- Photographer's Assistants Christopher Fernandez & Tommy Francis