Dream weavers

The cool kids of Bri­tish cou­ture, Ta­mara Ralph and Michael Russo, em­ploy more ar­ti­sans than Chanel and plan to open a show­room in Hong Kong this year. The savvy young founders of Ralph & Russo talk to Chloe Street about their me­te­oric rise and rewrit­ing t

Hong Kong Tatler - - Style -

On a trip to Lon­don a lit­tle more than a decade ago, Ta­mara Ralph, lost and not look­ing where she was go­ing, col­lided with a stranger in Knights­bridge. The young Aus­tralian dress­maker, whose clients in­cluded a col­lec­tion of Syd­ney’s rich and fa­mous, and Michael Russo, a fel­low Aus­tralian work­ing in Lon­don, got talk­ing. Find­ing them­selves still chat­ting in the same spot an hour later, they ex­changed num­bers. Ralph had to re­turn to Syd­ney, but the pair con­tin­ued a long-dis­tance re­la­tion­ship and, a year af­ter she got home, Russo gave Ralph a call. The fi­nancier had bought her a oneway ticket to Lon­don; would she come to live with him? “She ar­rived three days later,” re­mem­bers Russo.

To­day, Ralph, 35, and Russo, 36, still part­ners in love and soon to be mar­ried, are no longer anony­mous new ar­rivals in Lon­don but giants of the world of cou­ture. The brand they founded in 2007 with “just a few hun­dred pounds” and a sin­gle sewing ma­chine, Ralph & Russo, will this year make be­spoke gowns for a 1,000-strong client list of the world’s wealth­i­est and most in­flu­en­tial, along with be­spoke chil­dren’s wear, busi­ness wear and en­tire fam­ily wardrobes. Af­ter start­ing their busi­ness, the cou­ple’s rep­u­ta­tion grew so rapidly that by 2012 they were dress­ing An­gelina Jolie for the red car­pet; in 2013 Bey­oncé com­mis­sioned them to make the out­fits for her Mrs Carter world tour; also that year, the cou­ple made For­tune magazine’s list of the 40 most suc­cess­ful busi­ness peo­ple un­der 40—the only rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the fash­ion in­dus­try; and in De­cem­ber 2013, Ralph & Russo was ac­cepted into fash­ion’s most cov­eted club, the Cham­bre Syn­di­cale de la Haute Cou­ture, be­com­ing the first Bri­tish brand since 1915 to be ad­mit­ted to the of­fi­cial pro­gramme of Paris Haute Cou­ture Week. By 2014, when Bri­tish tele­coms ty­coon John Caud­well bought a 7 per cent stake, the brand’s value was es­ti­mated in the re­gion of nine fig­ures.

So how did these thir­tysome­thing Aus­tralian love­birds man­age to es­tab­lish them­selves as a Bri­tish cou­ture house on par with the ma­jor Ital­ian and French lux­ury brands, and in less than a decade? I meet the cou­ple over cof­fee at their Lon­don mai­son, an im­mac­u­late seven-storey Ge­or­gian town­house tucked away on May­fair’s Park Street (they have a sim­i­lar one on Rue Fran­cois 1er in Paris), to find out. She is pe­tite and pol­ished, dressed en­tirely in her own de­signs; he is soft-spo­ken in a per­fectly cut grey suit, also by Ralph & Russo. They are the chic and so­phis­ti­cated em­bod­i­ment of their brand. Her do­main is the ate­lier, his dis­tri­bu­tion and re­tail. Do they dis­cuss work at the din­ner table, I won­der. “It’s the board­room,” laughs Ralph. “There’s so much go­ing on and it’s what we love, so it’s hard not to talk about it.”

And with that the talk turns to the gen­e­sis of Ralph & Russo. When Ralph re­turned to Lon­don, Russo set her up with an iron­ing board and a sewing ma­chine, and they be­gan lay­ing the foun­da­tion for the brand of their dreams. Ralph had brought with her beau­ti­ful ex­am­ples of her dress­mak­ing skill, but she had no in­dus­try con­tacts in Lon­don. The pair spent a few years—“not months, years,” Russo stresses—re­search­ing sup­pli­ers and fab­rics, and train­ing the right crafts­peo­ple, be­fore of­fi­cially launch­ing Ralph & Russo in 2007. The busi­ness grew or­gan­i­cally via word of mouth. It had to; in the early days they re­lied on the money from one client to buy the fab­ric for the next. “It was ex­cit­ing,” Ralph says. “We knew ex­actly what we wanted to do and we spent time mak­ing sure we had the right foun­da­tion to start.”

To­day, the painstak­ing de­tail at the heart of the brand’s suc­cess is on dis­play at their 18,000-square-foot ate­lier in a non-de­script six­ties of­fice block a 10-minute drive from May­fair. Here, 150 white-coated ar­ti­sans— twice the num­ber em­ployed at Chanel’s ate­lier in Paris—bead, em­broi­der and sew to­gether Ralph’s fan­tas­ti­cal cre­ations. In one corner, two women painstak­ingly at­tach hun­dreds of small flow­ers made of feath­ers to 600 me­tres of pink tulle des­tined to be­come a train; in another, a young woman peers through a mag­ni­fy­ing glass as she sews minute crys­tals onto a three-di­men­sional but­ter­fly—just one of 250 to be at­tached to the fin­ished gown.

Scat­tered about the room are dozens of “bod­ies,” head­less dum­mies packed to a client’s ex­act shape ac­cord­ing to 35

mea­sure­ments taken dur­ing a fit­ting. “Clients these days don’t have time for six fit­tings, so these moulds are specced out to the mil­lime­tre,” says Ralph. Hand-writ­ten in black marker on the “bod­ies” are in­trigu­ing names: those of Euro­pean princesses, Mid­dle East­ern roy­als, celebri­ties and sim­ply the rich—an in­sight into the breadth of mod­ern cou­ture cus­tomers. “The clien­tele has ex­panded hugely,” says Ralph. “It’s not just a cou­ple of hun­dred women who can af­ford to buy cou­ture now; the client base is big and it’s grow­ing.” Russo agrees: “I think it’s a mis­con­cep­tion that cou­ture is only bought by princesses. Of course, they’re there and they’re def­i­nitely buy­ing, but there’s such a broad mix of peo­ple, from busi­ness­women to so­cialites to celebri­ties and politi­cians. Even one-off cus­tomers who want to buy some­thing special for a big day.”

The fin­ished gar­ments start at £50,000 for the sim­plest of day dresses and jump to £500,000 for evening dresses. Ralph, who gets most of her in­spi­ra­tion at night (“I drive him crazy, as I will get up and sketch in the mid­dle of the night while he’s sleep­ing”), has built mas­ter­pieces around a client’s jew­ellery. “I had a client who wanted cuffs made by Cartier so we had to work with the Cartier workshop,” she says. “There have been oth­ers who want dresses or robes to in­cor­po­rate special neck­laces or jewel-en­crusted belts.”

While the cou­ple’s celebrity clien­tele, which in­cludes the likes of Blake Lively, Gwyneth Pal­trow, Fan Bing­bing and Kim Kar­dashian, give them plenty of ex­po­sure, many of their cre­ations are never seen in public. “There have been some in­cred­i­ble pieces—robes cov­ered in real gold, di­a­mon­den­crusted gowns—that no one will ever see,” says Ralph. Cre­ated for pri­vate events, these dresses are of­ten worn only once and then stored in the clients’ own tem­per­a­ture­con­trolled ar­chives. “They’re in­vest­ment pieces be­cause they’re works of art,” she ex­plains. “Peo­ple put them in mu­se­ums or keep them in ar­chives; some pass them to their daugh­ters.”

“THEY’RE IN­VEST­MENT PIECES BE­CAUSE THEY’RE WORKS OF ART. PEO­PLE PUT THEM IN MU­SE­UMS OR KEEP THEM IN AR­CHIVES; SOME PASS THEM TO THEIR DAUGH­TERS”

This goes some way to ex­plain why, un­til their Paris Haute Cou­ture Week de­but in Jan­uary 2014, the brand re­mained rel­a­tively un­known out­side elite cir­cles. The cou­ture shows, which take place in Jan­uary and July, have cat­a­pulted Ralph & Russo into the wider fash­ion world’s con­scious­ness. “Many of our clients were ac­tu­ally dis­ap­pointed that we ended up show­ing,” says Russo. “We were no longer their best-kept se­cret.” Those wish­ing to pur­chase from the run­way have to be quick; just one of each style is sold in a coun­try to en­sure ex­clu­siv­ity. Clients tend to re­serve dresses dur­ing the show: “Our phones go crazy from the mo­ment the first model walks out,” ex­plains Russo, and back­stage there is a map of the world; a pin goes in when a par­tic­u­lar dress has been sold in that coun­try.

Ralph is in con­stant What­sapp com­mu­ni­ca­tion with her clients, and she and her team fre­quently travel in­ter­na­tion­ally to visit them for fit­tings. “Many clients don’t come to the shows be­cause they don’t want to be seen, but what they want is the very first ap­point­ment af­ter the show, pos­si­bly even back­stage be­fore the col­lec­tion has been trans­ported back to the show­room, so they have the largest se­lec­tion,” she says. The com­pany’s driver is also al­ways on the move, de­liv­er­ing pieces and fer­ry­ing clients to and from air­ports in the Ralph & Russo Roll­sroyce. “These peo­ple have faster life­styles. They’ve got lots of po­lit­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties or royal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties or events,” says Russo. “We aim to make their lives eas­ier.”

In De­cem­ber 2014 the pair made an un­usual move for a cou­ture brand, launch­ing a bou­tique in the Su­per­brands section of Har­rods. Its cus­tomers can buy cou­ture “off the rack” and have it tweaked to fit them in a process that takes three weeks rather than the usual three months. “Ini­tially some peo­ple didn’t un­der­stand why you would have a cou­ture re­tail ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Russo, “but it has helped ful­fil a need for some of our clients who want an ex­clu­sive piece but need it fast.” And al­though cou­ture will al­ways be at the heart of the brand—“it drives the fan­tasy,” says Ralph—they have also di­ver­si­fied, very suc­cess­fully, into hand­bags and shoes, with menswear and ready-to-wear on the hori­zon. The cou­ple also plan to open show­rooms in New York and Hong Kong this year. “You’re go­ing to see a lot of us in Asia,” says Russo. “We’re re­ally try­ing to po­si­tion the brand as a lux­ury pow­er­house. There is no other brand that has started with cou­ture; we have rewrit­ten the rules in that sense.”

It’s a tricky bal­anc­ing act, to make cou­ture more ac­ces­si­ble while main­tain­ing a sense of ex­clu­siv­ity, but Ralph and Russo have man­aged it, mar­ry­ing old-world re­fine­ment and splen­dour with new-age busi­ness savvy while re­tain­ing the per­sonal touch. “Things have changed,” says Russo. “If you stay in the past, you live there as well.”

the haute life Dresses on dis­play at Ralph & Russo’s pri­vate Lon­don town­house, where clients can book an ap­point­ment for fit­tings

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