Fashion often runs late, but two and a half thousand years is an awfully long time to wait for a show to begin. But it took that long for one to be staged in (or rather around) the Hellenic Temple of Poseidon, jutting over the Aegean sea at Cape Sounion, the southernmost tip of the Attica peninsula of Greece and built in 444–440 BC. It was the feted London-based Greek designer Mary Katrantzou who inaugurated the space with a show to close the Spring/Summer 2020 season – although, really, it was a show outside of fashion and perhaps even time, geared especially to the location, to her own heritage and the culture of her birthplace. That said, there’s an odd connection between this temple and London – following its excavation in the early 20th century, a column wound up in the British Museum, a few miles from where Katrantzou now lives and works.
Rather than aping ancient Greek chitons or sinuous drapery, Katrantzou pursued her own path. The collection was themed around not the idea of Ancient Greece, but the ideas – its place as a crucible of culture, with threads running through nearly every aspect of modern life. Trace everything back – philosophy, architecture, even the mathematics that are the basis for our hyper high-tech society – and you wind up back here. All roads may lead to Rome, but keep following them and you’ll wind up in Greece.
The way Katrantzou wove the whole lot together was intricate and, on occasion, mind-boggling. Take, for instance, her collaboration with Bulgari, the Roman fine jewellery house actually founded by a Greek, Sotirios Voulgaris, in 1884. So Bulgari loaned Katrantzou a national debt-worth of archival high jewellery pieces – figures thrown around concerning value hovered about the 40 million euros mark, and it looked like it. And, on the other end of the spectrum, the models walked out of the temple wearing flat Ancient Greek sandals, reworked by craftsmen in myriad rainbow colours.
In between the rocks on the neck and the rocks underfoot were some staggering dresses, emerging from the spot-lit temple like regal goddesses from a storied past. Each was entirely individual – some in custom woven fabrics, many with specially devised embroideries, each themed around different facets of Greek contributions to the world we know. There were fringe dresses embroidered with blurring quotes by Socrates and Aristotle, another with Archimede’s constant – better known as the infinite number Pi – hand-beaded across its surface, and even an olive-branch dress.
Some were more abstract, inspired by harmony (a sound wave embroidered on muted eau-de-nil satin), by justice (scales becoming a crystal bodice), or by orientation (giant compass embroidery, go figure). There was also one with the serpent-coiled staff of medicine – the latter apt, given that this show was staged for the benefit of the children’s cancer charity ELPIDA, whose founder Marianna V. Vardinoyannis was sat alongside the Queen of Greece, a few other crown princesses, and a Kennedy. When it comes to niggling questions of wearability, remember that those are the women for whom charity galas, grand balls, pomp and ceremony and Ferrero Rocher-packed ambassador’s receptions are regular occurrences. They need clothes like these.
One look, with a bodice draped into a big fat cholesterol-y heart of Taroni silk taffeta, was called ‘Love’ – and your own heart swelled at this show. Both the charitable aspect (a number of children helped by the ground-breaking work of ELPIDA walked in the finale), but also by Katrantzou’s ode to her home country, to its culture, and to fashion in general. The love of her, and for her, was palpable in the air. Plenty of people wound up in tears. That Aristotle quote, incidentally, translated as “everything happens for a reason”. And you kind of felt like the reason this show happened, here and now, was in no small part due to the fact that Katrantzou and her small but talented team and web of collaborators – including the Mumbai-based Aamir Beading, who hand-embroidered 20-something pieces for the show, with thousands of hours of concentrated – had reached a level of skill that allowed it to materialise. Not least the great Greek skill of debate – kudos to Katrantzou for persuading a reticent government to allow it to happen. They should be pleased and proud; it was a celebration of a Greek past, that influences the present, to create something for the future.
And for anyone that doesn’t have a coronation look to think about, this show allowed you dream, just a little.