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Issue 9

The Art That Inspires Roksanda Ilinčić

The fashion designer’s bold, geometric creations reference artists from Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner to Ljubica Sokić

BY Amber Butchart AND Roksanda Ilinčić in Frieze Masters , Interviews , Opinion | 07 OCT 21

Your work is often described as architectural. You studied architecture and applied arts at the University of Belgrade before moving to London to complete your MA in womenswear at Central Saint Martins. How does this background feed into your fashion design?

Architecture was a very important part of my schooling. My BA was the first time I fully appreciated the brutalist architecture that fills my hometown of Belgrade. There’s a part called New Belgrade, which is planned around concrete residential blocks that were designed for better living. I think feeling comfortable and secure is equally important in where you live and what you wear. I design light garments that reflect this fluid architecture.

Roksanda Ilinčić, RE19
Roksanda Ilinčić, RE19. Courtesy: the artist

You’re known for championing women artists through your work – especially Serbian artists, such as Ljubica Sokić. When did you first come across her practice and how has it influenced you?

Sokić was a giant of Serbian art, who has managed to carve a strong place for herself in a very soft and gentle way. What I love about her practice is that she depicted reality through the lens of her emotions,  beginning with landscape, portrait and still-life paintings. She then moved into something more like modern abstraction, which still retained the intimacy and melancholy of those early paintings. Sokić’s subtle tonalities are so important to me, as someone who uses a lot of colour in my designs. For example, she would paint abstract motifs in different shades of blue, or in beautiful hues of grey, beige and brown with touches of green and yellow. Her subtle palette is that of a musician or a poet.

Sokić was and always will be number one on my list of influences because I grew up with her work, I understand her as an artist and I know the landscapes she was painting; I can feel them because I come from the same background.

I admire the work of Anni Albers and it was great to see her major retrospective at London’s Tate Modern in 2018. Could you tell me about your collaboration with the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation?

That was so unexpected. I couldn’t believe it when I received an email from Nicholas Fox Weber, who is executive director of the foundation. He saw some of my previous fashion shows, which were inspired by Anni’s work, albeit indirectly. I never simply print artworks on garments: I use the mood that the work is radiating, rather than just the visual effect. Weber approached me to design a small collection inspired predominantly by Josef’s work but, of course, Anni is always present as well. The pieces were exhibited during Frieze Week London in October 2013. I made this very radical installation at my Mount Street store, with scaffolding and flashing, flickering lights. Displayed within this industrial setting were five dresses inspired by the Albers’ work. 

Lygia Clark, Bicho
Lygia Clark, Bicho, 1960, aluminium, 20 × 33 × 18 cm. Courtesy: © O Mundo de Lygia Clark-Associação Cultural, Rio de Janeiro

I admire Anni so much. As a woman, she was not allowed to study art at the Bauhaus. Instead, she was pushed to learn weaving. But, in true Bauhaus spirit, Anni didn’t look down on the medium; she didn’t think that making utilitarian objects was anything less than art. On the contrary, later in life, when she was in a position to move away from textiles, Anni stayed true to the medium and managed to elevate its standing. The Tate Modern exhibition really showed where she started and the problems she encountered: not just as a woman but as a Jewish woman in Berlin, at a time when the Nazi party was active in Germany, and then as a refugee in the US. Her struggles informed this incredible body of work. Instead of changing herself, Anni changed the world around her and made us see certain things in a different way – that’s such an achievement.

Some of your autumn/winter 2020 collection was inspired by the abstract expressionist artist Lee Krasner. When did you first see her work and how does it translate into your designs?

I first came across her work when we studied art history during my degree at Central Saint Martins. But what really drew me to Krasner’s practice was ‘Living Colour’, her exhibition at the Barbican in London in 2019, where I was lucky enough to hear her story from the incredible curator Eleanor Nairne. Nairne recounted how Krasner initially worked with colour, until her husband, Jackson Pollock, died tragically in a car accident, accompanied by two women, including his mistress, Ruth Kligman, the crash’s sole survivor. Faced with this betrayal and tremendous loss, Krasner struggled with depression and insomnia; she abandoned colour in her work as colour disappeared from her world. She created beautiful paintings, though she worked at night, in a studio that had barely any light. Her paintings from this period are rendered in shades of ivory, black, white, brown. I heard this poignant story while surrounded by Krasner’s paintings and it had a great impact on me. I was particularly moved by the last room of the show: when Krasner rediscovered colour, she rediscovered life.

Ljubica Sokić, Boulevard Edgar Quinet, 1939
Ljubica Sokić, Boulevard Edgar Quinet, 1939, oil on cardboard, 40 × 50 cm. Courtesy: © Gallery RIMA Collection, Kragujevac 

My finale dresses from that collection were based on Krasner’s black and white works. I handpainted colour onto the garments, which popped through, evoking the idea of coming back to life, coming back to joy. The grand finale was this fluorescent orange dress: orange stands for something very powerful and positive. That was the deeper meaning of my show. 

You’ve also spoken about the influence of Helen Frankenthaler on your designs. How has her work inspired your own innovative use of colour?

Frankenthaler’s colour-field paintings are different from many modern abstract paintings: they’re softer, more delicate, more fluid. Her works are large in scale and demand attention. I really love Frankenthaler’s colour combinations and can find some similarities between us – her unusual juxtapositions sing beautifully on each canvas. Every small detail and brushstroke, even the most minute, are important. I used her as inspiration for my Resort 2019 collection.

The Brazilian Constructivist Lygia Clark has likewise impacted your work.

I came across her work when I was studying in Belgrade. When I began learning about modern art, the focus was on male artists, as that’s who history takes as a reference point. I came across a few women artists and Clark was one of them. That drew me to her, along with her very modern style. Her sculptures are beautiful. They’re graphic, pure and minimal at the same time. I fell in love with them immediately. I went to the last Frieze Masters fair in 2019, which included quite a few of her pieces. There’s some magnetic force that pulls me to them.

Roksanda Ilinčić, AW20. Courtesy: Carlo Scarpato/Gorunway
Roksanda Ilinčić, AW20. Courtesy: Carlo Scarpato/Gorunway

Shape, line and structure are powerful in the work of both Rana Begum and Carol Bove. What impact have these artists had on your creative thinking?

Geometry, sculpture and perceiving a piece from a 360-degree perspective are important to me. Clothing can often be beautiful from the front, while the back is less important. I was never happy with that; I wanted my garments to be interesting from all angles and inside as well. I take a holistic approach to design, attending to every centimetre of what I create. The graphic element of Begum’s and Bove’s work has the same starting point. They create sculptures in conversation with the space around them. Earlier this year, Begum had an exhibition at Kate MacGarry in London, where she showed this wonderful, subtle mesh piece that was installed below the gallery’s skylight. With my garments, I also like to create something sculptural that still allows for air, light and movement to flow through it.

Visiting galleries is a vital part of your research process. Are there any spaces you go to regularly?

In London, the Serpentine Galleries, Maureen Paley, Sadie Coles HQ, Marian Goodman Gallery and Modern Art are all special to me. I also love David Zwirner, who represents the Albers’ estate. For my last show, during London Fashion Week in February, I made a short film, Friday in February (2021), with Vanessa Redgrave, her daughter Joely Richardson and granddaughter Daisy Bevan. I was able to project it onto Tate Modern – another favourite gallery – during lockdown.

I adore the Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park. I took my team to the Magdalene Odundo show, ‘The Journey of Things’, at the Hepworth in 2019; it was fantastic. In addition to the art, those two places are special for their architecture and surroundings: they’re food for the mind and heart. 

Helen Frankenthaler, Untitled
Helen Frankenthaler, Untitled, 1958, oil and charcoal on canvas, 2 × 2.1 m. 

Courtesy: © Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Gagosian and ARS, New York/DACS, London

Are there any artists you’re looking to for inspiration for the collections you’re currently working on?

Sheila Hicks is an artist I always return to for inspiration. In my work, all these women, these incredible artists, are not just there for one collection. In every collection, you can see elements of their work, of their spirit, their struggles – something that I want to keep alive. 

This article first appeared in Frieze Masters with the headline ‘The Art That Inspires Roksanda Ilinčić’

Main image: Lee Krasner, Night Creatures (detail), 1965, acrylic on paper, 76 × 108 cm. Courtesy: © Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, New York

Amber Butchart is a writer and broadcaster. She presented the six-part television documentary series A Stitch in Time (2018) for BBC Four. Her most recent books are The Fashion Chronicles (2018) and Fashion Illustration in Britain (2017). She lives in Margate, UK.

Roksanda Ilinčić is a fashion designer and founder of the label Roksanda. Recent collaborations include the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Rana Begum, Caroline Denervaud, Diébédo Francis Kéré, Ella Kruglyanskaya, Eva Rothschild, Studio Voltaire and Troika. She lives in London, UK.