In interpreting the iconic 'Serpenti' symbol from the house of Bulgari, Mary Katrantzou landed on innovative new developments. In this exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, she shares what makes this one of the coolest collaborations of 2021.
While designer Mary Katrantzou and luxury house Bulgari both share a common Greek heritage, the magic of their combined aesthetic first formed in 2019 for Katrantzou’s ‘Temple of Poseidon’ couture show. Bulgari accessorized the formidable collection, marking the start of a beautiful relationship. The shared experience eventually led to Bulgari approaching Katrantzou for a design collaboration called ‘Serpenti Through the Eyes of Mary Katrantzou’. Tasked with interpreting Bulgari’s iconic ‘Serpenti’ signature, Katrantzou sought to blend the worlds of craftsmanship and storytelling. Instead of focusing only on the serpent’s head, Katrantzou sought to bring other elements to the fore, landing on an innovative top handle that curved in a sinuous arc like the body of a serpent.
To understand why this collaboration resonates so powerfully, you have to understand Katrantzou’s underlying commitment to investigating her creative processes. As one of the most thoughtful designers we’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking to, Katrantzou’s commentary on the new handbag collection elevates it to the realm of the philosophical. In an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, Katrantzou shares the challenges of creating this collaboration during lockdown, the serpent’s metamorphosis that inspired her work, and more.
I love collaborations because it represents the best of both worlds, a meeting of the minds. What do you share creatively with the house of Bulgari?
I discovered – through this collaboration – that I share a lot more in common with the house of Bulgari than I initially believed. We share a common love for colors, for a daring design that is timeless and elegant. Also, the narrative behind each piece is immensely important to both of us. Each piece is a work of exquisite craftsmanship, but it also tells a story. And that is really what I wanted to bring into our 'Serpenti Through the Eyes of' collaboration.
This foundation not only gave us the framework to amplify the presence of the 'Serpenti' but also allowed us to talk about it as a symbol of transformation, as a symbol of rebirth. The idea of metamorphosis was a part of the inception at the collection – when we met before the pandemic – but at the time we didn't know how relevant it would become. The idea of transformation is more relevant now than ever before as the world around us is changing. It felt like it was the perfect moment to shed light on the symbolic nature of the 'Serpenti.'
Why do you think Bulgari approached you for this collaboration?
I hope they approached me because they felt that I would bring my unique perspective and creativity to the world of 'Serpenti' and they felt that our universes have something in common. When we first collaborated for my couture show in Greece we discovered that there is a strong synergy in our brand DNAs. I think that became the foundation of this collaboration. I grew up appreciating the world of Bulgari. But it's not until you really study their history that you understand the brand.
Many of those ideas felt innate to me because of our common background. So, I really hope that they chose me because they like my vision and they thought that it would be applicable to the story of Serpenti.
Before you worked with Bulgari did you know you shared a Greek heritage with its founder Sotirios Voulgaris?
I did know about it before our collaboration. I grew up admiring Bulgari. But I found out that Sotirios Voulgaris came from Greece much later in life. I think that's what made this collaboration even more personal. I never dissected the work of Bulgari throughout history in the way I was able to do through our collaboration and it was incredibly inspiring. It's an honor to be able to bring my perspective into the world of Serpenti because the 'Serpenti' is one of the most iconic Bulgari emblems. I think when you design for a collection that already has such a strong history and such a strong narrative, it allows you to filter that through your creativity and bring new energy to it, of course, while respecting the original design.
I think often the simplest thing can be the most effective, which is why the serpent handle is so striking. What gave you the idea for this element?
We wanted to highlight 'Serpenti' in different ways than how it's already been highlighted in Bulgari's accessories and leather goods. What is so iconic to Bulgari is the snakehead opening. So, I started thinking about what I could do with the 'Serpenti' from not only a design but also from a functional perspective – one that's not about the opening of the bag.
The initial idea was inspired by the 1968 Bulgari 'Harlequin' watch, which is transformed into a minaudière in the collection. It blew up the scale of the snake head and allowed an entire back to be formed into that shape. As soon as that idea came up, I felt, why always focus on the 'Serpenti' head? It has such incredible movement that it would be so wonderful to create a bag where the handle will be the 'Serpenti' in its entirety to showcase the movement.
Staying true to this idea of transformation, I wanted to design a bag that had dual functionality that can transform from an evening bag – with the 'Serpenti' handle – to then removing that handle and allowing it to become a cross-body bag that you can wear every day. For me, that bag is special, not only because the 'Serpenti' handle is a first for the Bulgari leather goods range, but also because it allows women to decide how they want to wear it. The dual functionality and the fact that the bag itself feels (almost) like a jewel is a reflection of the very idea of this collaboration.
Philosophically, what does the serpent represent to you?
That is the first question that I asked myself when we started working on this collaboration. I wanted to find the meaning of 'Serpenti' that I feel most drawn to because I believe the serpent can mean different things to different people. For me, it is its ability to shed its skin to allow for it to grow. This idea of metamorphosis and rebirth is the strongest one that you can attach to the serpent because it's relevant to all our lives. We all go through a process of transformation.
We naturally feel drawn to, or attracted to a snake or a butterfly, or any symbol that goes through this idea of change in its life cycle. For me, the strongest way to symbolize 'Serpenti' was in the idea of metamorphosis and that's why we chose that to be the theme.
It also feels incredibly relevant to this moment in time. When you buy a luxury product you don't only look at its design, but it is also a means of self-expression. I wanted women to be able to connect to the story of 'Serpenti' and its symbolism.
The idea for this collaboration happened pre-COVID, what are some of the unique challenges that the past year presented in bringing this to life?
We started designing the collection just as we went into lockdown, which is probably the most unorthodox collaboration we will ever do because we were never able to visit each other. Everything happened virtually. We relied on Bulgari for the development, and the whole process was seamless. All of our designs were executed with such detail by Bulgari. Everything was so precise that any change we made was more about the design – it had nothing to do with the excellence of the craftsmanship.
It was very interesting for me and my entire team to work on a project that we could never really touch, we could never really be part of the development. We had to rely on a lot of 3D renderings, making most changes virtually instead of physically. But, it also gave us the power to be more decisive because you have to, in these circumstances.
The real challenge was choosing the colors on a screen – selecting a particular shade. Also finalizing the shape of the 'Serpenti' handle and trying to explain how we change the curve. Bulgari sent us prototypes to study and then gave feedback, but the initial edits were all done virtually. A lot of it had to be decided on instinct, like the size of the snakehead, the size of the eyes, or the scales. Also, the whole way of communicating was new to all of us. We've never had to work in this manner before. So of course it was challenging, but at the same time, it allowed us to pause, reflect, and think about design to ensure that we got it right in the first place.
Bulgari made us all feel like we're part of the family. And it's a collaboration that truly was done as collaboratively as you can ever think of because we all had to come together and make decisions together.
I think both you and Bulgari are both very good at storytelling. What story does this collaboration tell?
I think in our collaboration the story revolves around the 'Serpenti' in the hands of Bvlgari through the decades. What 'Serpenti' symbolizes, what 'Serpenti' communicates – this idea of metamorphosis. Through this collection, particularly through the theme of metamorphosis, we wanted to send a message of optimism, and spiritual growth because symbolically that's what we're talking about. We're also talking about powerful femininity. It's a grounded form of femininity – the strongest face of femininity in the world of 'Serpenti.' We wanted to tell the story of growth, of change, and hopefully through it also send a message of optimism, which I feel is very important right now.