Lisa Arm­strong

The la­bel tak­ing the world of cou­ture by storm

The Daily Telegraph - - News Review & Features -

Out­side a soap, Ta­mara Ralph and Michael Russo don’t make any sense. Two Aus­tralians with no top­i­cal fashion con­nec­tions set up a cou­ture busi­ness in Lon­don us­ing their own money, turn a profit from day one

and within a decade have the big­gest

ate­lier in the world.

Last night they fi­nally un­leashed a ready to wear col­lec­tion with a show in Lon­don, fea­tur­ing, in­ter alia, reimag­ined denim (ie silk) and what they be­lieve to be the big­gest cat­walk ever. This is a punc­til­iously en­gi­neered, lux­u­ri­ous coali­tion of “re-ap­pro­pri­ated clas­sics, Ralph and Russo style,” says Ta­mara. “Think luxxed-up tuxedo jack­ets, LBDS and LWDS and the oc­ca­sional jump­suit.” With prices start­ing around £4,000, they will not be caus­ing Zara sleep­less nights, but they will prob­a­bly make Har­rods, which will stock them, very happy. I need to stop with the ital­ics. But no

one achieves what they’ve achieved. OK, the sis­ter act in House of Eliott sort of did, but that was on planet BBC in the early Nineties. It’s no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to spin a vi­able busi­ness out of cou­ture in 2017. Chanel, Ar­mani, Valentino and Dior can be­cause they’re borne aloft on vast com­fort-clouds of per­fume sales and other li­cences.

In two decades, the num­ber of big Parisian cou­ture houses has quar­tered. You would have to be in­sane to launch into this world, and par­tic­u­larly delu­sional to do it in May­fair rather than on Av­enue Mon­taigne, not least be­cause there sim­ply isn’t the ex­per­tise in the UK to staff your work rooms

Ex­cept… “what we found was that there were a lot of in­ter­na­tional crafts­peo­ple who’d worked for the grand houses in Paris and wanted the Lon­don life­style,” says Michael, an open man­nered Bris­ba­nian with hy­per­ac­tive dark eyes and a shock of black hair that tes­tify to his Si­cil­ian an­ces­tors. “But be­fore we launched, there re­ally was nowhere for them to go.”

Ralph and Russo (what were the chances of them hav­ing such mel­liflu­ously com­pat­i­ble sur­names?) now num­ber al­most 300 em­ploy­ees sewing and tai­lor­ing in their Lon­don ate­liers and sell “in the high hun­dreds” of cou­ture dresses a year (priced from £25,000 to more than £500,000).

And the clients… from three months old (yes re­ally, R&R do a roar­ing trade in chil­dren’s cou­ture) to 93 years old, they are a global soror­ity: not just idle rich oil-wives with more money than they know what to do with, but sci­en­tists, en­gi­neers and a ros­ter of celebri­ties other brands would pay for, in­clud­ing Gwyneth Pal­trow, Jes­sica Alba, Jen­nifer Lopez, Mon­ica Bellucci, Brie Lar­son and An­gelina Jolie.

The lat­ter came to them af­ter a friend’s rec­om­men­da­tion.

This is some­thing of a R&R leit­mo­tif. Their first ever cus­tomer ap­proached them af­ter she ad­mired Ta­mara’s out­fit at a party, then told all her friends.

“I think women like us be­cause we’re very fem­i­nine yet mod­ern,” says Ta­mara. “We’re not try­ing to be edgy.” The tai­lor­ing is lin­ear, curvy and flat­ter­ing. These are clothes in which to col­lect a dame­hood – as Dames Natalie Massenet and An­gelina Jolie can tes­tify.

So how did they do it?

Phase one: Think Pos­i­tive. When, four hours af­ter land­ing in Lon­don, a then 23-year-old Ta­mara Ralph bumped into a man who told her he liked her jacket (she had sketched and de­signed it her­self, nat­u­rally), she did not look at him askance and run.

She talked to him for hours, mainly about fashion. Sev­eral months later, af­ter she’d re­turned to Syd­ney, Michael emailed her to say that he had bought her a one-way plane ticket back to Lon­don. Talk about ro­man­tic. They re­main a cou­ple, as well as a busi­ness part­ner­ship – although to date, they haven’t had time to marry.

Not ro­man­tic.

Phase two: Think Big. “Right from the start we had a vi­sion of what we wanted to do,” says

Michael. “Our first stu­dio was the size of this ta­ble (ges­tures to a quite-large­for-a-ta­ble ta­ble on the first floor sa­lon of their gilt-and­cream May­fair man­sion.) “It was lit­er­ally one com­puter, one sewing ma­chine, one iron­ing board. But we made it look nice.”

Phase three: Think Pas­tel.

Gwyn­nie wore pink R&R to the Os­cars. An­gelina wore pale blue to Buck­ing­ham Palace. Kate Bos­worth wore li­lac to the Van­ity Fair Os­car party. Add feath­ers, frills and capes. These clothes are more like flut­ter­ing, gauzy in­stal­la­tions. We’re talking hand­painted and then em­broi­dered pat­terns (some­times by four dif­fer­ent artists), ruf­fles, or­ganza, Swarovski bead­ing on Chan­tilly lace (that’s the kind that rips if you look at it ag­gres­sively). There are skirts with 50 me­tres of silk, and gowns that take six months to com­plete. An­other is a strap­less stream of marabou feath­ers, each at­tached with a crys­tal bead.

Phase four: Be a Tiny Bit Ob­ses­sive.

From the age of eight, Ta­mara was sketch­ing and sewing. Her mother was an in­te­rior de­signer. Her grand­mother and great­grand­mother worked for cou­turi­ers. Ta­mara be­gan sell­ing clothes she’d made in her teens. At 15, she was suf­fi­ciently es­tab­lished for her mother to tell her, “this is not a hobby any­more”. But still, her par­ents weren’t con­vinced when she told them she wanted to study fashion at Syd­ney’s White­house In­sti­tute of De­sign. “I had to fight tooth and nail with my fa­ther who wanted me to study eco­nomics”.

Phase five: Be Eco­nom­i­cally Lit­er­ate.

Michael was a banker, al­beit a dis­af­fected one. Ta­mara learned about money along with the pat­tern cut­ting and sketch­ing. They took some ex­ter­nal in­vest­ment three years ago in or­der to ex­pand: there are 12 shops in the pipe­line, plus per­fumes which, along­side their shoes and jewel-like evening bags, will add con­sid­er­ably to their turnover. They still own 93 per cent of their com­pany, which was re­cently val­ued at sev­eral hun­dred mil­lion.

Fi­nal phase: Have a Vi­sion and Be a Vi­sion.

We’ve al­ready dis­cussed Michael’s dark good looks. Ta­mara is paler, from her pel­lu­cid com­plex­ion and straw­berry blonde hair to her ivory satin palazzo pants and creamy stilet­tos, the whole shim­mery sor­bet off­set with crim­son nails. Who wouldn’t want to be tended to by her? And they are – she per­son­ally pre­sides over many of her clients’ fit­tings. See ob­ses­sive notes, above. Then there’s their fo­cused de­ter­mi­na­tion, which meant she and Michael re­fused to show dur­ing Paris cou­ture week un­til they were of­fi­cially ac­cepted on to the sched­ule. Which they were three years ago. Ob­vi­ously.

A de­ter­mined pair: Ta­mara Ralph and Michael Russo, far right; be­low R&R cus­tomers Blake Lively, Natalie Massenet and An­gelina Jolie, be­low right, in a dress from the cou­ple’s first ready-to-wear col­lec­tion

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