The architecturally-minded designer is on a roll thanks to her elegant aesthetic and exacting eye.
The rain is hammering down on the metal roof of Roksanda Ilincic’s east London studio as I wait for her to arrive. It’s
mid-May and Ilincic is finalising the details of her 2013 resort collection, so the pitter-patter seems dramatically at odds with where her business is right now. However, the metallic tapping is the only real noise to speak of, as Ilincic’s mostly female team calmly goes about cutting, sewing and selling. It’s this tranquil touch that has characterised the Belgrade-born, London-based designer’s rise to prominence.
This is borne out through the brand’s revenues, which have grown 40% for the past four consecutive years, although turnover figures were unavailable. Since launching a small collection of dresses in 2002, Ilincic has gone on to not only expand the line but also create a swimwear range for spring 12 and kidswear in a spring 12 pre-collection. “We are profitable,” she says, as we discuss her latest resort collection. In line with the wider industry, it’s the inter-season ranges that are driving the rapid growth.
“Resort is definitely the main collection. I’m always expanding all the collections but resort is certainly the bestseller,” she explains. “But I think the show is still so important. The presentation creates the voice of the designer - I don’t think they’ll ever disappear. To create such a strong voice you have to push certain priorities forward,” she says, adding that price point and wearability might not be front of mind when creating a collection. “We need both of them - one for creativity and one for driving the sales.
“Commercial is seen as this ugly word. I call [the pieces] ‘must-haves’,” she continues, as she reveals her finely tuned mind. “Perfectly priced garments are very important - resort and pre-collections have become so vital to everyone’s business,” adds Ilincic, noting that she sees buyers investing more heavily into the lines she shows away from the catwalk.
Ilincic started the balancing act early. “I was always into fashion, even from being a little girl,” she recalls. “I liked to customise every single toy I got. I customised my mum’s clothes. And when I say ‘customised’ it means in other words, ‘to ruin’. That’s where it all started.”
Once all grown up, she travelled from Serbia to Soho, simultaneously studying fashion and architecture in her homeland before arriving in London to attend the famed Fashion Design MA course at Central Saint Martins in 1999.
But her architect’s eye has always been a key part of her design process and one of the reasons her brand has flourished over the past eight years.
“Construction is so important. I think more about the lightness of construction, done with just a few things,” she explains. Her dresses are suspended by the minimum of internal points, creating “a fluid architecture”, a construct Ilincic also wants someone to enjoy wearing. “I’m always thinking about the comfort of the person that’s in the dress” she adds. And it’s this approach that has made the brand a hit with buyers.
“I think Roksanda really understands what women want to wear,” says Laura Larbalestier, buying director of London luxury indie Browns, Ilincic’s first major stockist. “She reinvents herself season after season,” she continues, both qualities Larbalestier attributes to her success in the UK and beyond and why Browns and many of its competitors increase their spend on Ilincic season on season.
Natalie Kingham, head of fashion at designer mini-chain Matches, agrees: “Her collections always do incredibly and we see a strong sell-through each season. Roksanda always gets it right. She also has a very good eye for colour combinations and has a knack of always getting the proportions just right.” Ilincic herself speaks of the “dialogue” between her, her stockists and her customers as being core to her business, working together and listening to feedback while maintaining her vision and driving her brand.
One such example of really hitting the sweet spot came in Ilincic’s beautiful spring 12 range, when a dress dubbed The Margot, an eye-wateringly pink, lantern-sleeved style, was revealed, and its rocketing popularity was tracked by Ilincic’s rising star. Understatedly Kingham describes it as being “incredibly popular with our clients” - rumour has it Matches sold out of the dress 80 times over - and you couldn’t move for sightings on socialites and football WAGs alike. But Ilincic has never courted celebrity and actively decided to take the attention away from the dress even though there might have been more money to make.
“It was such an unexpected success and not something I planned, even though I do try to make those must-have dresses,” Ilincic recalls, “But I also feel that at the time it wasn’t really right to have so many of them and kill the magic of the dress. Exclusivity in fashion is very important.” She does continue to produce The Margot for private clients and doesn’t rule out revisiting it in the future, but stepping away from such a cash cow illustrates just how in tune the designer is with her woman, her business and her label.
Adding ranges along the way, as well as collaborating with retailers Whistles, Debenhams and Aldo, has served Ilincic well as she beefs up the brand. The introduction of kidswear in particular has added a new dimension. “It was in the five-year plan but wasn’t supposed to happen so soon,” Ilincic explains. But then along came her daughter Efimia in 2011. “Mia was the reason I started it and why I understand it. If I started before I wouldn’t be so aware of what works. I thought let’s just start with one dress and it went from there,” she says, gesturing to a rail bursting with the latest collection.
But becoming a mother for the first time didn’t just give Ilincic a new collection to consider, it changed her outlook: “Before I had a child I couldn’t even understand how women can have several children and still run successful businesses. But once you get your own child you realise things are possible and you can create things just as good as before but with a slightly different approach. Things aren’t a matter of life or death as they used to be,” she reveals.
“We are in a good place now,” she chuckles, as she sits running through her plans for the future. In the pipeline is a range of accessories, bags, shoes and jewellery - all sensible next steps Ilincic feels are important to growing the brand further - with menswear something that “will definitely happen, but not in the near future”. Sorry boys.
A first flagship store is on the horizon too. Ilincic explains: “It has to be in London - it’s such an important market for me it wouldn’t make sense to open anywhere else.” She goes on to describe how much more powerful London is than when she started showing at London Fashion Week in 2003 and how she is happy based in the city, both in terms of the business and her headlining catwalk show.
“But who knows what the future will bring?” she adds, her pragmatic mind making sure she doesn’t close off any opportunities. “We have a strong plan but not a stubborn plan,” Ilincic asserts. “[Backing] coming from outside but with real fashion knowledge and expertise would be a dream come true but there are other ways to achieve our goals.” Funding is important to Ilincic but not the final word: “I’m not doing this for the money - I do it for the love.”
Would she go in-house to design for a megabrand? “I’m open to that. You can gain a lot from the connection with certain brands and bring a lot back to this business as well,” she says, before adding coyly: “There have been some offers in the past but they weren’t quite right.”
The forecast seems bright for the brand as it enters its next chapter; and Ilincic is a woman very much in control of her future. And the weather too, it seems - as I leave the studio the rain stops and the sun peeks through the clouds. How very apt.