October 15, 2021

Alexandra Beer House

The Real Estate Experts

How Max Mara’s design chief Ian Griffiths brought feminism into fashion

Out of another man’s mouth, this might sound like a fast track to a #metoo moment. From Griffiths, it is so endearing that I have to ask: am I a Max Mara woman?

“Yes, I think so,” he says, promising that he is not trying to butter me up. “I think the Max Mara woman is a woman whose beauty is expressed through her intelligence.” Ah. That’s nice. Griffiths goes on: “It’s not about physical perfection, or ideal physical beauty.” Oh, I guess he’s determined not to butter me up. “For me, beauty comes from a sense of knowing who you are, from one’s intelligence showing through. Max Mara clothes are designed to allow that to happen.”


Griffiths is an unlikely fashion designer, and he’s the first to admit it. He’s possibly not who you imagine being the designer of Max Mara, either: he is British, for a start, and a man designing for women. On top of that, Griffiths is a former punk (check his Instagram for pictorial proof) raised on a council estate in Derbyshire. He studied architecture but won a student competition in 1987 for a role at Max Mara.

He has an apocryphal sliding doors moment: he almost didn’t submit his application, having run out of ink, but was encouraged when his flatmate returned home with a fresh pen at 2am on the morning it was due. And a good thing that was, too, because he’s been there ever since, working away, a quiet achiever in an industry where the volume is preternaturally, and constantly, turned up.

Ian Griffiths: “Nancy Pelosi wore that coat as a kind of psychological prop, as a statement. It was a wonderful moment.” 

“I don’t know if I’m a good designer,” says Griffiths, over video from his apartment in London (he has a country house in Suffolk, too, as well as a home in Reggio Emilia, where Max Mara is based). “But I do know that I’m a good designer for Max Mara.” There is a lingua franca to the label, he says, that he implicitly understood. “I feel that language. Absolutely. It has made me a perfect fit. So far.”

It’s an understatement faultlessly on brand for a label that embodies the axiom that elegance is refusal. Unlike other design houses, which use the personalities of their creative directors as currency (Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld was kooky, Celine’s Phoebe Philo was coolness personified, Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri is everyone’s favourite feminist aunt), Max Mara was founded on the principle that the product must speak first, rather than the person who designed it. In fact, the brand is so steadfast in this approach that it wanted this story to be about the company’s 70th year, rather than singling out Griffiths’ achievements.

It’s a simple idea – product before personality – and no doubt one that has assisted the brand in surviving 70 years in an industry in which novelty is key. By actively pursuing the opposite, it has carved out a niche for itself, and filled it ably ever since. Previous designers for Max Mara include no less than Karl Lagerfeld, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, and Narciso Rodriguez. Did you know that? Good. You weren’t meant to. And you now get the picture.

When Luigi Maramotti, son of founder Achille, approached Griffiths about working at Max Mara, he told him it was an offer for life. Griffiths was just 25 at the time. “I have the world’s shortest CV,” he says, laughing. He was not daunted to move to Italy fresh out of university because he felt “such a huge affinity with the company”.

“That sounds strange when you look at my own biography and my punk past and rebellious history. You think, why was this boy prepared to throw his lot in with a company whose values seem so radically different from his own?” He alludes to his childhood, which was less than affluent, before answering his own question.

“The fact is that I never saw Max Mara as being a purveyor of luxury. I thought of luxury as products which are expensive and unnecessary. Max Mara is a necessity, it is equipment for women to armour themselves with and take their place in the world.” Is a $5000 coat essential retail? OK, maybe not. But Griffiths’ point is this: Max Mara’s own quiet radicalism happened to intersect nicely with his own.

Griffiths’ Instagram biography tells us that he is a “dapper gent with a club kid past”. Music was his portal to another world; he moved to Manchester in 1979 to study architecture and quickly found himself swept up in the New Romantic movement, dancing to Joy Division and discovering the transformative power of clothing and cosmetics.

Looks from the 70th anniversary autumn-winter collection. 

Days were spent waiting for nights, he says, when he and friends would turn to Ultravox and David Bowie, dressing in thrift-shop finds and generally keeping out of mainstream culture. It was, he says, the right training ground for Max Mara.

“I have a maverick streak,” he says. “I think it’s the reason why a lot of Italian brands tend to employ British designers; we have a kind of creative originality in us. Italian design is all about codes, like a tacitly agreed uniform. And Brits, we often have this fresh, different way of looking at the world. When you put those things together, magic happens: it’s classicism meets radicalism.”

There was also, he adds, a maverick streak to Max Mara itself that appealed to him.

“It goes right back to the mother of our founder,” he says, referring to Giulia Maramotti, who ran a sewing school to encourage young women to earn their own money. “It was all about how women could make the most for themselves and their family with what was available to them. This is a woman who was ineligible to vote. She had no political platform. But she didn’t protest. She made the most of what she had.”

Such stealth feminism attracted him to the brand and keeps him there, as do the house’s design codes, which he compares to the Bauhaus movement – again, a perfect match for the former architecture student.

“Architecture starts from the user’s perspective,” he says. “And so there’s a degree of objectivity, that there isn’t always in fashion design.” Maramotti wanted a ready-to-wear label – itself a departure from the norm at the time, when most Italian women had their clothes made by a tailor – that made simple, beautiful clothes to last a lifetime.

“The temptation for a fashion designer is to impose what they think upon the woman that they hope to dress. But an architect should always start from thinking about the occupants of a building and how they’re going to use the building, what it’s going to mean to them. And that is how I think of fashion design.”

From the 70th anniversary autumn-winter collection. 

Until a few years ago, fashion dared not touch the thorny subject of feminism. Even now, Griffiths is careful not to identify with the more extreme examples of the movement, describing the company’s attitude to feminism as “pragmatic” rather than “bra-burning”.

“She never went on demonstrations,” he says of the “Max Mara woman” he so often thinks about. “She is a feminine feminist.”

And yet, Griffiths has Trojan-horsed some very feminist acts into his tenure: putting a model in a hijab on the runway in 2017, and in 2015, building a collection around a narrative that reimagined Marilyn Monroe as a bookish intellectual rather than a sex bomb. And much of what is written about the brand leans into its feminism. How does Griffiths, a man, fit into this narrative?

“I’ve been wondering when somebody would ask that,” he says. “It seems to me like a very obvious question, because you’re talking about the empowerment of women. And yet I am a man in a position of authority within the company, giving sartorial orders to women.” He pauses for a moment. “And yes, biologically, I am a man. But who’s to say a man can’t be a feminist?”

Without “revealing political allegiances” he says he was “immensely proud” when US Democrat house majority leader Nancy Pelosi wore a red Max Mara coat to formally dress down Donald Trump in 2018.

Nancy Pelosi wears a red Max Mara coat outside the West Wing at the White House after a meeting with Donald Trump. AP

“For a woman with such great courage and intelligence, that she chose to wear something that I designed? It was a wonderful moment.” It is a rare admission of personal pride from the company man. Even better, he says, was the fact that the coat was five years old when she wore it – proof that Max Mara has staying power.

“It was obviously an item that had huge emotional and psychological value to her, she must have thought about that meeting. She wore it as a kind of psychological prop, as a statement. I think that’s one of the best features of a Max Mara piece – you develop a relationship with it.”

As an aside, he adds, he first heard that Pelosi was wearing the coat while he was getting changed. “I received a phone call from our American PR, who had The New York Times on the other line, wanting to confirm that it was our coat.” His eyes light up.

“So it was becoming this viral image, and I’m learning about it with my trousers around my ankles, and the phone calls just keep coming and coming, and I’m giving all these interviews about it with my pants down, shuffling around the room.” Without missing a beat, and without a shred of irony, he adds, “It was a hugely rewarding moment.”


It must, I say, get a bit boring after a while, to be at the same company for such a long time. Do his feet ever feel an itch? Does he ever despair at designing classics season after season?

“I like to push against the boundaries,” he says. “But the boundaries are ones that I create. If I was given carte blanche, I wouldn’t know what to do. I enjoy working within a language and seeing what I can compose from that.” He points to the 70th anniversary collection, based on British signatures such as kilts, waxed jackets and quilted gilets.

“We took the classical rigor of Max Mara and then pushed the envelope a bit, by adding cashmere knit shorts, which are a little bit out there, you know. There is a nice tension to doing classic things in an unexpected way.”

He doesn’t think about leaving, he says, but sometimes he thinks about what he might have done if his flatmate hadn’t come home with that pen. “I would always have worked for a brand,” he says. “I was never interested in having my own label. It seemed like a kind of personal liability that I never felt the need for.”

More and more, he has used his architectural training, recalling his school days. “Possibly I could have become an architect,” he says. “Though I think I’ve done better using those skills with clothing.”

One unexpected career choice he has made is to teach. For 10 years, Griffiths was head of the fashion school at Kingston University (he has also taught at the Royal College Of Art, his alma mater).

“I get real satisfaction from engaging with students of design,” he says. “I sort of pride myself on teaching them about the true nature of design. However much fantasy is involved in what they do, and how ostensively creative, I try to instil in them that what they do cannot just be a reflection of themselves, it has to be for a real person.”

It’s not easy, he says, and one “shouldn’t underestimate the natural exuberance of designers wanting to express themselves”.

But he persists, telling his students the greatest lesson he has learnt in his career. “There is so much joy to be discovered in designing for someone else, and letting go of yourself for a while. It’s not about you. It’s always
the clothes.”

The Fashion issue of AFR Magazine is out on Friday, August 27 inside The Australian Financial Review. Follow AFR Mag on Twitter and Instagram.

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