For the Max Mara spring/summer 2024 collection, unveiled as part of the ongoing Milan Fashion Week, creative director Ian Griffiths looked back to the Second World War and the British Women's Land Army.
With the men away fighting, these women were left to keep the country running and had to learn new skills, from farming and animal husbandry to car mechanics, to help keep the nation fed.
The clothes they dressed in as they worked were Griffiths's launch pad, as he explored the utilitarian codes of overalls, dungarees and work aprons through the refined prism of Max Mara.
In a show walked by Somali-Danish model Mona Tougaard, British-Moroccan model Nora Attal, and Egyptian-Moroccan-Dutch model Imaan Hammam, the collection nodded to these women of eight decades ago with aprons wrapped around the body to make simple dresses with straps.
There were pencil skirts with wide, patch pockets that seemed to float around the hips and slightly masculine jackets, worn with the collars flipped up.
Jumpers arrived with large, military patches on the shoulders and elbows, and worn with short shorts.
“I didn’t want to interpret a military trend in a way that was warlike,” Griffiths tells The National backstage after the spring/summer 2024 show.
“It sounds a bit contradictory to say I wanted to do a military theme but in a pacifist way, but the expression 'turn swords into ploughshares' came to mind, from the book of Isaiah.”
For Griffiths, the idea of transforming something military into something peaceful was embodied by the Women's Land Army.
“These women were not fighting a war, they were feeding themselves and their families, They were learning about co-operation and teamwork, which is something that women seem to be very good at.”
For all its military leanings, the collection felt very British, albeit with its stiff-upper-lip formality unbuttoned by Italian style.
“In all the years I have been at Max Mara – which is 37 – we have never done an English-inspired theme,” Griffiths says. “And I am so English, so I thought I would bring a bit of that into the picture.”
In Griffiths's hands, overalls were slimmed to a jumpsuit in putty, worn with a crossbody bag, while dungarees appeared folded down and teamed with a silken blouse the colour of a caffe latte.
Amid the discreet neutral tones so typical of Max Mara, there was plenty of colour too, lifted apparently from Griffiths's own garden in the UK.
“I was thinking very much about sweetpeas in my garden,” he says. “The colours are just so exquisite, going from mauves and pinks, to fuchsia, whites and blues.
“I wanted to get some of those colours into the collection.”
To give a feel of women perhaps home-dying their clothes, Griffiths chose to garment-dye the looks, or to make the clothes first and dye them afterwards.
It gives shifting shades of the same colour and, as he explains, brings a different mood.
“Each piece will come out slightly differently, and [garment dying] gives the clothes a flavour you don’t get in clothes where the fabric is dyed first.”
For a house known for its elegant precision, this is something of a departure.
But Griffiths explains it was all very intentional, and centred on the idea of “more personality, more character coming through in the clothes”.
While the clothes were practical yet relaxed, the bags shifted from a multi-pocketed canvas tote to a hard-sided mini box in gleaming leather, inspired by the vintage leather cases that would have held binoculars or measuring instruments.
“The kind of bag you keep something precious in because they are hard-sided. It felt like a new bag shape.
“And the other shape was the gardening bag. The gardening bag and the gardening apron, too, were directly inspired by my garden,” says Griffiths.
“Whatever we do, I like to interpret in a way that is elegant. That is key.
“I believe in clothes that have a certain kind of toughness and grit to them. But I hate clumsy clothes or those that are overly loud, so elegance is a word that I am happy to hear, because that is what I was aiming for.”