Creative director Ian Griffiths guides us through the streets of St Petersburg and the halls of the Yusupov Palace

Like most industries that have gone through the wringer known as 2020, the fashion landscape of the new year will likely see a seismic shift; with fashion shows as well as social gatherings lessened, and in-person communications replaced by telecommute, it’s no wonder that many have started hunkering down for the long run or are anxiously waiting for the dust to settle.

When asked where one would go from here, Ian Griffiths was pensive in his answer, having faced the pandemic’s limitations when Max Mara’s resort 2021 show, originally set to be staged in the Yusupov Palace in St Petersburg, was cancelled.

“I think,” he began, slow and considering, “that although we may be socialising less in the foreseeable future, what with how our evening engagements are made rarer and foreign travel becoming more so, it just means that we’ll take care to think of each occasion as a valuable opportunity to show our best selves, to dress up. We’ll relish planning what we wear for our next appointments; we’ll rediscover the emotional and psychological boost that fashion can give us. We’ll rediscover the poetry of beautiful clothes. And we will open ourselves to a little beauty and romance.”

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St Petersburg held that very narrative for Griffiths, who was charmed by its history ever since he’d learned about the likes of Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Pushkin and Dostoevsky as a student. And after reading Grigori Rasputin’s autobiography, Lost Splendour, the designer found himself drawn deeper into the lives of early 20th-century Russian aristocracy, particularly that of Prince Felix Yusupov and Princess Irina Alexandrovna’s story. And what better way to immerse himself in their tale, than to follow in their footsteps?

“I was enchanted by its magic and magnificence of course,” Griffiths enthuses as he recalls his visit to the cultural capital of Russia. “I got to tour the State Hermitage’s magnificent collection—I was also extremely privileged to have a private visit to the museum’s archive, where I saw the costumes worn by Prince Felix, Princess Irina as well as their guests at the glittering Yusupov balls and masquerades.

“It was such an emotional experience too, to be able to touch and feel the very costumes recognised in historic photographs and paintings. To be able to walk through the grand salons and galleries I remember from reading Prince Felix’s memoirs. It felt as if they were right there with me.” 

Griffiths likened the aristocrats to the characters in his favourite Russian novel, War and Peace, describing the Yusupovs as well as their contemporaries to have lived at a “crossroads in history”; that despite the onset of constructivism, modernism, World War I and the machine age, the Yusupovs had reinvented themselves in response to the tumultuous events at the time while remembering their roots—a lesson the designer found apt for the present and a sentiment he’s applied to the resort collection.

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I have always been fascinated by the way contrasting concepts can create a dynamic tension that can be really powerful. I allowed myself the freedom to play with my contrasting sources of inspiration, but I always kept that modern woman in mind.

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Maintaining a fine line between historicism and modernity, the series comprises strict, geometrical lines that spoke of the neoclassical style of St Petersburg’s architecture, as well as hints of decorative ornamentation that were a subtle nod towards the elaborately embroidered and fil coupé costumes the nobles wore. To pay further homage to Russian ceremonial dress uniform, antique-looking braids highlight the seams of tuxedos and wide-legged pants. The kosovorotka—which meant ‘skewed collar’ in Russian and was a garment associated with peasants—was given a new colour palette that echoed the influence of Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich. Then, to add a more modern feel, dusty-toned rococo florals of Yusupov Palace were also worked into neo-constructivist clothing.

“It’s a careful balance of contrasts that create this collection’s dynamic,” Griffiths says. “While thinking about the Yusupovs’ style has helped infuse this new sense of romanticism, what helped to keep that balance right was the image of the Max Mara woman herself. She’s got this cool, polished exterior, but I wanted to find that romantic streak underneath. When it comes to her, I think about what’s going on in the world, where she’s at and what she thinks about it. Each collection is like a new chapter in her story, but whatever the theme, she’s the central character.”

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Courtesy of Max Mara

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