The label taking the world of couture by storm
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.
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