FANTASY MADE REAL The London couture label Ralph & Russo is set to conquer the ready-to-wear world
The story of Ralph & Russo is a fashion fairy tale come true. In just 10 years, Tamara Ralph and Michael Russo have turned their small couture atelier into a global powerhouse, with a client list that includes international celebrities, billionaires and r
Should Meghan Markle ever find herself in need of a special gown – something floor-sweeping, exquisitely embellished and suitable for marrying a real-life prince, say – then she could do no better than turn to Ralph & Russo. Though its atelier is conveniently situated a stone’s throw from her prospective grandmother-in-law’s London residence, there are more compelling reasons as to why this British house should be the choice of our next royal bride.
Haute couture is about fantasy: an extraordinary world of handstitched dresses, million-dollar jewels and uninhibited, almost unimaginable luxury. And at the centre of it all, unexpectedly, are Tamara Ralph and Michael Russo, a thirtysomething Australian couple, partners in both life and love, who started out a decade ago with just a sewing machine and a few hundred pounds but who now boast 1,000 clients and employ more skilled artisans than Chanel or Dior. It’s as close to a fashion fairy tale as it gets. ‘We’re still astounded every day,’ they say, with sophisticated understatement.
If you could wear anything… well, why wouldn’t you wear Ralph & Russo? Sheikha Mozah (the wife of the former Qatari emir and owner of what is purportedly London’s most expensive home) is a loyal client and her family owns Valentino. Princess Ameerah al-Taweel of Saudi Arabia, Angelina Jolie, Beyoncé and J-Lo are also customers. These are the world’s most exclusive dresses – should you need to enquire about the cost, you almost certainly can’t afford them – but they’re also among the most beautiful. Constructed entirely by hand over thousands of hours, using techniques that are centuries old, with sublimely feminine silhouettes crafted around corsetry and then embroidered or otherwise extravagantly decorated, this is truly the best that money can buy; beyond price, beyond fashion, beyond all reason.
Ralph & Russo’s masterstroke, however, was to launch in London. The city used to be known for couture craftsmanship, through the golden era of Hardy Amies, and Norman Hartnell, who created the Queen’s wedding dress and Coronation gown, as well as dressing swathes of high society, but the great tradition had declined and then all but died out. Now, Ralph & Russo’s client list is a snapshot of the new social landscape, encompassing as it does an impressive selection of the global rich: from the daughters of Chinese billionaires to Middle Eastern sheikhas, all of whom have houses here and need glorious gowns for the Season. ‘It’s a place to settle, as opposed to some of the other destinations for luxury,’ says Russo. ‘It’s where our clients buy property and send their children to school. It feels like the centre of the universe.’ As Ralph adds: ‘Ironically, accessibility is key. People want the exclusivity and the craftsmanship of couture – but they want it to be able to fit into their lifestyle.’ You don’t have to sit on a gilt chair, or even board a private jet to Paris, in order to buy these clothes: as well as its atelier, which takes up three enormous floors of a shiny office block opposite Admiralty Arch on Hyde Park Corner, Ralph & Russo keeps a Mayfair townhouse, a seven-storey 19thcentury mansion painted a flattering dove grey, where fittings take place in lushly carpeted salons under the light of glittering 1920s chandeliers.
Ralph is calm and composed, the personification of elegance in wide cream trousers and a thin cashmere sweater, both of which are Ralph & Russo couture (‘A perk of the job – I just tell the atelier what I want to wear’). She’s a fine-boned blonde with perfect skin and surprisingly dry wit; skinny diamond bands scatter her fingers, and her nails are covered in a shiny metallic foil, but she’s possessed of an old-world courtesy that any client would find appealing. Russo is the more impetuous, garrulous one, a former financier who is dressed in form-fitting black Dior Homme, his iPhone clutched in one hand, pinging constantly. They met when Ralph, who was designing dresses for Sydney socialites at the age of 15, literally bumped into Russo on the King’s Road during a short trip to London (‘She was lost and I was looking,’ he says, laughing) and moved over a year later when Russo, somewhat presumptively, sent her a one-way plane ticket. Together, they are delightfully well-mannered and gracefully understated, clearly supportive of each other while appearing an intriguing study in contrasts.
Their rise has been fast and furious; nothing short of revolutionary in this rather old-fashioned industry. In 2013, the duo appeared on Fortune magazine’s list of the 40 most successful business people under 40 – the only representatives from fashion – alongside Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. When the Phones 4U
These are the world’s most exclusive dresses, constructed entirely by hand over thousands of hours
billionaire John Cauldwell bought seven per cent of the brand in 2014 – the same year it became the first British house in a century to be invited by the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to show its collections on the official Paris schedule – Ralph & Russo was given a nine-figure valuation. Now, in 2017, the pair plan to open more than 17 stand-alone boutiques across the world; Russo, who spends nearly all his time travelling, rolls off a list so long that he can barely remember it: ‘Miami, New York, LA, Hong Kong, Japan, China, Malaysia, Doha, Dubai…’ Their ambition is almost off the scale. ‘We’re not just a couture house now,’ he says. ‘We are a luxury brand. It’s an important distinction.’
In fact, most of what you see on these pages is not couture. Instead, this is an exclusive look at Ralph & Russo’s ready-to-wear debut – the first collection will be available this summer in anticipation of the official global launch, which will be on the catwalk during September’s RTW S/S 18 collections. It has all the glamour expected from the label – a demure gracefulness that somehow has the evocative drama of a Richard Avedon image – but it comes at a rather more accessible price point. ‘Not everybody can afford our dresses,’ says Ralph, gently. ‘But we still receive a huge number of enquiries through social media and word-of-mouth recommendations every week. When these requests became overwhelming, we knew it was time to take note and listen to what our audience wanted.’ Russo is more emphatic. ‘We’ve achieved everything we want with couture,’ he says, ‘so this is the next challenge for us. It’s about creating the Ralph & Russo universe.’
A refreshingly modern mix of style and accessibility – Ralph & Russo has 1.4 million followers on Instagram and uses social media to communicate with prospective buyers (‘My phone will start buzzing during a show as clients claim their looks,’ says Ralph) – combined with a profound respect for tradition and legacy has helped shape the brand into the phenomenon it is today. A part of their strategy has been to shake up the process of couture. ‘Our women have such busy lifestyles that we’ve tried to make things really easy for them,’ says Ralph, who likes to see clients personally. The aim is to do the same with ready-to-wear.
‘It’s about keeping our core values – the femininity, the modernity, the creativity – and translating it into an accessible product,’ says Russo. ‘It’s also about taking away… I don’t want to use the phrase “arrogant luxury” but we are all about being approachable. A lot of brands seem to enjoy putting a wall up between them and clients, but we want to be seen as available. Couture will always be at the heart of Ralph & Russo – but now we are ready to reach a wider audience. Our ambitions really have no limits.’ A starring role at Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral seems an inevitability. Meghan, if you’re reading, we’ve got their number.
‘We’ve achieved everything we want with couture. This is the next challenge
for us. It’s about creating the Ralph & Russo universe’
Tamara Ralph and Michael Russo in the label’s London maison
Couture dresses in the atelier. Below: detail on a couture gown