AUSTRALIANS TAMARA RALPH AND MICHAEL RUSSO MET IN LONDON A DECADE AGO AND STARTED A COUTURE SENSATION. THEIR SUCCESS IS NOT DOWN TO LUCK, BUT CAREFUL BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT AS WELL AS UNCOMPROMISING CRAFTSMANSHIP.
Hollywood couldn’t write it any better. Dashing chap meets stylish blonde on a nondescript street, they fall in love and follow a dream to create a couture label that fulfils the fantasies of the world’s super-rich and ignites a revolution in the world of fashion. Australians Michael Russo and Tamara Ralph founded their label Ralph & Russo in London in 2007 and began trading three years later with barely a contact or a client. Today the duo’s brand is a global fashion power house that has shaken up the elite world of haute couture and blown the critics away.
“We never thought that we couldn’t do it,” says Ralph after she and Russo burst through the door of their plush maison in London’s swish Mayfair district like a breath of fresh air on a grey winter’s day. “We went for what we wanted and we never thought it was going to be impossible. It never once crossed our minds. We had blind ambition to do what we loved.”
Ralph & Russo’s couture creations can cost anywhere from $40,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars and are worn by the world’s wealthiest women, Saudi princesses and A-listers such as Angelina Jolie, Rihanna, Uma Thurman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kylie Minogue. Beyonce has worn their designs on tour and made headlines when she wore a show-stopping Ralph & Russo bespoke gown encrusted with more than 20,000 hand-sewn Swarovski crystals while performing for Barack Obama at the White House in 2010. And in their biggest coup yet, Meghan Markle wore one of their gowns for her engagement pictures with Prince Harry in December, making Ralph & Russo the leading contender to design the dress for their wedding in May.
“It has been a whirlwind,” says Ralph, who is perched on a velvet stool, wearing a peach-coloured leather coat dress, matching silk pants and high heels.
The couple met by chance on a London street in 2004 when Russo stopped to admire the trench coat Ralph was wearing. Ralph, a young fashion design graduate, had just got off a plane from Sydney. “I had only been in the country for a couple of hours,” she recalls. “We realised we were both Australian and there was an instant connection. It was fate. We continued to talk for an hour and a half on the street like we had known each other forever. But it wasn’t until I came back to London about a year later that we talked about creating a brand together.”
They established Ralph & Russo with the intention of creating a luxury fashion brand that combined innovation with the finest craftsmanship and genuine customer service. Their delicate ruffles, classic draping, intricate beading and sculpted bustiers soon captivated celebrities and supermodels. Now their designs regularly appear in fashion spreads in top magazines as well as on the red carpet. One UK magazine recently dubbed them “Couture’s Aussie Upstarts” for their meteoric rise through the cut-throat world of fashion.
Ralph & Russo was the first fashion brand featured on Fortune Magazine’s “4o under 40” hotlist in 2013 and a year later it was the first British brand in almost a century to be accepted by France’s elite Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the governing body of the French fashion industry. The company was valued at £200 million in 2014 and its worth has risen since billionaire businessman John Caudwell took a minority stake in the brand. These days clients conduct bidding wars from their front-row seats as the latest collection appears on the runway, and there are 1.6 million Instagram fans from New York to Tokyo looking for their latest designs.
Ralph, the company’s creative force, stresses that the couple deliberately took their time establishing the business in the early days. “We spent some time researching and developing the brand and developing our supplier base,” she says. “We put a lot of thought into the brand image before we decided to register the company – we didn’t start trading straight away. We were so excited to register the brand because we came up with the name and then we did further development.”
Russo, chairman and CEO of the business, says they were always clear about the values they needed to complement their creativity and craftsmanship. “When we started we knew we could never compete with marketing at the same level as a Chanel or a Dior or some of those houses, but we were on an even playing field when it came to customer service,” Russo says. “It is free to smile, to be nice to people. So the customer experience became part of what Ralph & Russo was about. When you combine that with an incredible product, that really feels like success.”
When we meet, Ralph and Russo are seated in the sumptuous salon of the maison, a converted townhouse in one of London’s most prestigious locations on the edge of Hyde Park and a short stroll from the exclusive hotels where many clients probably spend the night. The room’s soft grey tones, opaque mirrors and velvet sofas are the perfect backdrop for the extravagant creations displayed on mannequins around the salon or seen floating along the runway on the large video screen on the opposite wall.
“When you sit in this room it is not arrogant luxury, it is comforting,” says Russo. “We are a brand that is about ... ” He pauses and Ralph finishes with “the client, the experience, the service and the craft”.
While Ralph and Russo are both Australian, they come from very different backgrounds and bring different, complementary skills to the business. Thirtyeight-year-old Russo was born in Brisbane to a family of Sicilian origin. He began his career in finance after graduating in business management and security at Griffith University. Headhunted by Deutsche Bank in
2001 Russo moved to London and worked at Barclays Wealth and PricewaterhouseCoopers. With extensive experience in company turnarounds, he developed a passion for building businesses and promoting start-ups.
Ralph, 36, grew up in the Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla and comes from four generations of fashion and couture. She began designing clothes for herself and her friends as a teenager. “When I was young I would design pieces for myself because I couldn’t find things in the stores that I wanted,” says the vivacious Sydneysider. “That’s where my passion for creating came from.” Ralph later graduated from the Whitehouse Institute of Design in Sydney and appears to be the school’s most famous alumna. Nevertheless, she and Russo are modest about their brand’s burgeoning growth and insist it has evolved organically.
“We started with one or two clients, we designed for them personally. I would sketch for them, they would select from sketches and we would create from that,” she recalls. “One client turned into 10, turned into 100, turned into 500, turned into the thousands of couture clients we have today.” Today Ralph & Russo has 400 employees including teams of designers, seamstresses and embroiderers who spend hundreds of hours at the brand’s Chelsea atelier on the detail that brings the designs to life. They also use ateliers in Switzerland, Italy and France for their fabrics and expertise and often call on the artisans of Maison LeSage or Vermont in Paris for their highly prized embroidery. In our 21stcentury throwaway culture it is simply mind-boggling to see a couture gown in delicate lace or silk finished with 6000 hours of painstaking hand embroidery.
“We design from the most simple outfit up to the most extravagant pieces that museums don’t even get to see,” says Ralph. “It is such a broad mix and that is also why it is exciting because the client base is so diverse in terms of different cultures, nationalities, and ages. Couture is more about a lifestyle and a luxury and enhancing someone’s life. It doesn’t have parameters. Our youngest client is three months old.”
The creative director leaves her sumptuous stool to sift through the colourful designs hanging on the rack and pulls out a few favourites from R&R’s latest collection. “Feel this one, it’s beautiful,” she says as she caresses what looks like a modern version of a 1930s Charleston dress made of layers of thinly cut metallic fringe.
“It is cut from metallic sheeting and sliced to a millimetre wide. That makes it soft and airy,” she says before moving on to a white jacket ornately embroidered in brocade, pearls and crystals. “This piece is a work of art,” she says. “Every element is done by hand.” Gold sequins are embedded in a double-breasted wool tweed hanging on a rack in the salon and delicate ostrich plumes merge with thinly sliced layers of metal fringe.
But the pièce de résistance is the Chantilly lace bridal gown worn by Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor at the couture fall collection last year. More than 100 artisans worked on the gown, which features a double duchess overskirt and more than 100,000 handembroidered Swarovski crystals. Any orders? “Yes, of course,” Ralph replies. Couture has never had a price limit and clients are happy to pay top dollar for exclusivity even before R&R’s latest designs have left the runway. Ralph says: “A lot of my clients send me messages about which pieces they want, to make sure they have them. They say ‘This one’s mine” while it’s still on the catwalk.”
Now after a decade of success Ralph & Russo are launching themselves into a much bigger market with their first ready-to-wear collections, and the brand plans to open 12 flagship stores in several countries. “We were receiving hundreds of calls a day from all around the world from clients who were not necessarily couture buyers,” says Russo. “It came from that demand.”
With nearly three million followers on social media, Ralph & Russo thought ready-to-wear was the best way to satisfy demand and a new retail network is part of that strategy. The brand is also producing shoes and handbags and has plans for eyewear, perfume and accessories. “Social media has forced us to create our distribution and retail network much faster,” says Russo. “We have amassed millions of followers now and when you post a product you are creating aspiration and desirability, and the customer wants to buy the product.”
For the first ready-to-wear line released in September last year, Ralph took some of the signature designs of her collection – the trench coat, the little black dress and the tuxedo – and gave them a fresh twist with dazzling metallic fabrics, frills and feathers and plunging necklines. The critics were impressed. “This was no everyday wear,” said Samantha Conti for Women’s Wear Daily. “These were look-at-me clothes, beautifully made for big personalities.”
Angelina Jolie was so taken with the range she wore one of the dresses at the Toronto Film Festival before the collection even hit the runway. Ralph told The Hollywood Reporter: “We thought, ‘Who better to wear the first ready-to-wear piece than her?’”
Critics and fashion bloggers applauded the show. “London should breathe a sigh of relief to have this label,” gushed Vogue’s, Luke Leitch. “Ralph & Russo represent a new iteration of luxury, made in London but cut for everyone who can afford it. Good on them.”
The company’s couture line is already on sale in 60 stores including two of the world’s most exclusive stores, Harrods and Bergdorf Goodman. But Ralph & Russo now plans to open flagships in the coming months in locations including New York, Hong Kong, Dubai and Los Angeles. Australia is also on the agenda. “Australia is among the top three for online purchases, there is huge demand,” says Russo. “We are already looking at opening a boutique in Sydney and checking locations.”
For a couple who have created a spectacular fashion empire on the other side of the world, an Australian store would be a fitting way to share their success with fans and fashionistas back home. “Even though we have lived here a long time, Australia is still home,” says Ralph. “We do miss it a lot.”
“This was no everyday wear. These were look-at-me clothes, beautifully made for big personalities.”
From the spring-summer 2018 couture show, a Chantilly lace wedding gown worn by Sonam Kapoor, a neon pink sunray-pleated silk chiffon dress, and a tulle dress with metallic fringing