The unlikely dressmaker
Long-admired for her lean dresses and off-kilter glamour, Alessandra Rich, whose designs are coming to Australia for the first time, was a late starter in the world of fashion. By Alice Birrell.
The last person to realise how unusual Alessandra Rich is might just be herself. The Italian-born designer is thoroughly surprised when it’s suggested she might not have been your average teenager in the 1980s, buying her own fabrics and sending them to a dressmaker in a small town in Veneto, along with her own drawings to be whipped into outfits. “Maybe!” she says, laughing through the phone from her newly opened headquarters in Milan, to which she commutes regularly from her home in London. “Friends in my group were not having things made. But they were very simple things and very 80s-teenager things,” she protests in her Italian accent smattered with drawn-out British vowels – an aural melding of her main geographical haunts.
It’s also why, now that a wash of 80s bravado is colouring the runways of late, she can lay claim to the era with authenticity. It was then that, somewhat unofficially, her design career took root before she made a prolonged detour via the art world, then real estate and interior design. Her next creation was her wedding dress when she was 27, though Alessandra Rich the label was yet to materialise. “Then I was not confident in fashion for more than 10 years. When I was about 40, I thought: ‘Maybe, I always liked fashion …’” she recalls, trailing off. “Maybe it was a frame of mind. And then I thought: ‘Let me try.’”
A willingness to take risks like that and a guiding spirit of assuredness threads through everything she does and is a fitting match for her 80s roots, an era she’s mined more heavily in recent collections. Pluck a single piece from her collections and you can trace the direct line back to the era of her adolescence: colour-saturated fil coupé lace, apricot tea dresses, a slit-to-the-hip satin sheath or a LBD festooned with dinner-plate sized bows. “It was my era, totally. I easily recognise something that I have worn and there is a connection there for sure. It is personal.”
Self-assured but with a sensitivity, sometimes rolling words around aloud before landing on her chosen meaning, Rich has been pitching onward with the momentum generated by her first collections, launched in 2009 and immediately picked up by Harrods. When she slowed down on her third offering – the ins and outs of the business and production, including “where to find the button people, where to do the packaging” was a steep learning curve – a chance encounter with Natalie Massenet, then at Net-APorter, was the accelerant she needed. In the Ritz Hotel in Paris for a showing, Massenet happened upon a model in one of Rich’s creations and followed her back to the designer’s suite, and proceeded to buy the collection for the website (after Rich told a white lie, assuring the e-tailing pioneer she was up to managing a full production run).
On an emotional and creative level, Rich puts her success down to that push, coupled with continued encouragement from other women. “That gave me the strength and willingness to carry on and to do more and to do better and to improve my collections,” she says. “I was lucky.” Lucky, maybe; determined, certainly. It takes mettle to shrug off the expectations and traditions of your roots, up sticks and move from a small town outside Venice to Milan. “I don’t think my family was prepared for that. I come from a much more traditional background,” she says.
A move to London cemented her fate, a city she found open-minded and one of the only places she says she thinks she could have launched with no formal training. “There is so much diversity of people and they are very open to new things … I don’t have any fashion background, I have never studied fashion: I think that is what I mean when I say London is open to anything.”
With a whole cadre of society women, It girls off to the races and career women to dress, she settled into a pace and established herself with her signature attenuated long dresses. With a potent mix of influences – rich textures, oftentimes a hint of 40s, lush draped silks, peignoir-esque wraps and cocktail dresses paired with wiry stilettos, finest-spun hosiery, crystal belts and deliberately paste-like jewellery – the effect is a visual onslaught, testing the boundaries of good and bad taste. “That is what I like in my clothes. It is like the irony of beauty,” Rich says knowingly. She often plays off a muse, a woman she described as a “hot mess” one season. Another she called her Miss Take, a whole collection based on bad choices. “Something wrong in something that is beautiful is always interesting, otherwise it becomes boring. Add that twist and it makes it interesting.”
With a glut of ruffles on tiered evening dresses and discordant blending of materials like tweed with diamantés, and patent leather with cotton, she gleefully toys with that line and hovers between categories, pointing out that for all the va-va-voom she doesn’t actually do ballgowns, rather dresses for “cocktails, dinner, parties. I think it’s more between categories that I like. You can be more creative with that.” Many refer to her dresses as evening wear, but she likes them worn for day, say at the races, the extra length adding an unexpected element, delineating the wearer from the usual.
Rich wants her women to feel “feminine, and that they’re dressed correctly for the occasion”, she muses. To this end she’s added trousers and jackets alongside her core dresses to create “a complete wardrobe”, which will surely see her expand beyond her existing 70-plus global stockists (one recent addition being Harrolds, the exclusive stockist of Alessandra Rich in Australia).
One continual theme will be another 80s favourite: lace. Although Rich has everything else made in Italy from Italian fabrics, she makes an exception for French lace. “You can create beautiful things with every fabric, but lace has that sort of sexiness that is difficult to compare, because it’s see-through,” she says, “and it’s precious. It doesn’t come in big rolls like fabric.” While she finds it difficult to pinpoint where her appreciation for finer details like this came from, she can trace it all back to those early years. “I always see how a dress is made inside out, even before I had my brand. I remember looking inside a dress when I was a teenager, to appreciate beautiful things.” Thank goodness for the different among us.
“Something wrong in something that is beautiful is always interesting, otherwise it becomes boring”