Joanna Przetakiewicz Interview: The Proof is in Karl’s Protégée
One of the best descriptions of the fashion industry was minted by columnist and wit, Caitlin Moran. ‘The difference between models and normal women is that normal women buy clothes to make them look good; whereas the fashion industry buys models to make the clothes look good.’
To an outsider, that’s a reasonable preconception. An unreasonable preconception about the industry would be to assume that certain women are only involved as a vanity project. We probably all dismissed Victoria Beckham’s fashion intentions as something of a joke and then she went and spoiled it all by being quite good at it. It’s potentially a similar story for Joanna Przetakiewicz. Her fiance is leading Polish business magnate, Jan Kulczyk. Thus, some might write Joanna off as wifey just playing at being a businesswoman. They’d be very, very wrong to do so.
“People may think it’s playing dress up, but it’s hard work,” says Joanna. “I don’t click my fingers and, POOF, a collection appears.”
In conversation, Joanna is pleasant, funny and charming. Her confidence is obvious and, as the conversation evolves, well placed. She’s not used to the easy life. She’s a grafter. She rarely switches off. She’s the embodiment of that old adage about ‘if you want something done, give it to a busy woman.’
“I have always had to be organised,” she explains, when asked about how she juggles a fashion business, her other obligations and her personal life. “I gave birth to my first son when I was at university. I am a qualified lawyer. I had three children. I owned dental clinics. I used to have restaurants. I was working in court. I had to have perfect organisation.
“Fashion is my fourth child and it’s a very small demanding child. Or perhaps it’s my jealous lover. Whatever it is, it requires attention all the time,” she adds. And whatever it is, it was perhaps always on the cards.
“I was born crazy about fashion. As far back as I can remember, fashion was my passion. It sounds clichéd, but the truth often does. I started to think about establishing a company a few years ago – not seriously – I just started to make a collection for myself. Yet, I think it was the best start I could have. I was wearing everything I made, but I first realised it could be a business when I got feedback from my friends. They are…” Joanna shrugs. “Let’s just call them jet-set people, women who live everywhere: Paris, London, New York, Rome, Milan… They’re international and they have fashion on the gold tray; everything is available for them.
“They are either well-known or very wealthy, everything’s available and they kept asking me ‘What’s that? Where’s it from? Where can I order one?’ It gave me a reason to think there’s a niche for me, because what I love is simplicity. It’s pure simple lines, with a twist. It’s clean – but modern.”
The Moran idea doesn’t apply to Joanna’s La Mania range. There’s a surprising practicality to her designs.
“Super romantic is not my cup of tea. I want wearable and very feminine, that’s very important, too. Conceptual is of no use to me. My designs are sensual, feminine but super modern and practical.” And, it transpires, born out of necessity.
“I was travelling all over the world and couldn’t find what I was looking for: something plain, not over-decorated, yet not easily recognisable. I’ll go to many events over the year and there’s nothing worse than when you have three women in identical dresses. You all look like clones. So that’s why I thought there’s still a place for a company that’s brand new, fresh, not so on the map.
“So now I wanted to create something different. I tailored one piece, then a second, then a few more… and after one year, when travelling, I realised that I was only packing things from my collection in my suitcase. Now this got me thinking. I spoke with two people – my partner and Karl Lagerfeld – and both said yes, go for it, it’s your passion, you have a special intuition. And that was two years ago.”
Any lingering doubts that La Mania is a vanity project should be killed off with that final paragraph. When Karl Lagerfeld suggests you should do fashion, that’s a pretty strong hint you should do fashion. More than that, Lagerfeld has pinned his own reputation to the label.
“I met Karl about six years ago through friends,” reveals Joanna. “They told me ‘Karl will love you, you have the type of optimistic energy he likes.’ And they were right.
“Karl is black and white. He knows exactly what he wants all the time. Usually when you work with designers or architects, every decision takes months! But Karl is always sure. And he’s fun, but surprisingly caring of those around him. He has a distinct image and reputation but he told me once he doesn’t mind that people find him snobbish and cold. ‘Let the them think that,’ he said. ‘That way I can do my sketches in peace…’”
Joanna is also committed to bringing the fashion industry to her home country.
“Nobody thinks about the past, but I was raised under the Communists and there was nothing fashionable in the Polish market. Yet all the women from my family were very, very elegant, and they were always thinking about their look, their style. Since I can remember, we always went to the tailor, at least twice a month. The first thing I ever designed, I was nine years old. To me the best present for my birthday was a fabric.
“Poland has a fantastic history of tailoring. Unfortunately, we started to supply millions of things to the Russian market and, inevitably, the quality dropped off dramatically. Still, I think the tradition is revivable.
“I’m opening three boutiques in Poland. We have other propositions – China, the USA, Paris, Abu Dhabi – but Poland is the most important thing, we have to do it carefully.”
And with a schedule that would make many blanch, even without mothering three children. Joanna laughs at the suggestion she has a routine.
“There is nothing like a typical day! I travel a lot. I’m always somewhere else…” she says with a smile.
“If I’m in Poland, I’m at the atelier, all day. I don’t even take lunch. I leave London tomorrow at 6:35am. I’ll go to my atelier where there are 25 models and 50 outfits that need styling with my team. We will have a trial of outfits, hair and make-up. Then I will meet with the people who are filming the fashion show. Then I’m meeting the people doing the public relations about 9pm. I will probably finish around midnight.”
It’s a schedule like this that explains why Joanna describes the evolution of La Mania as “four years in two years”.
“I have been in business for 20 years, I am used to making plans,” explains Joanna.
In terms of business knowledge, Joanna has great resources from her own background and Mr Lagerfeld. And, of course, her other half.
“My partner is very, very experienced as a businessman and I learn a lot from him. I don’t bother him every day, because fashion is a very different business to oil or gas or real estate. But on crucial points, I can always ask him. He is my best mentor.”
Joanna is no wallflower though and credits her own instincts.
“When people see my designs, they can see for themselves that this clothing is filling a gap. Only my friends knew about the boutique at first. I am quite well-known in Poland, so I didn’t want people to come just to rubberneck a known personality. I wanted them to come with no idea of who was behind it.
“For two months, we kept it quiet and the biggest satisfaction was that, after 45 days, we sold out. Everything. The manager came to me and asked what we should do. We were worried. Christmas was coming, I was panic calling factories trying to persuade them to tailor my collection again, which was super difficult.” Joanna laughs. “We should have been opening the champagne”.
See the full La Mania range here.