SPARKLERS

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.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING - STORY JOSEPHINE McKENNA

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.”

W

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

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