Angelina Jolie gliding down the red carpet and Beyoncé shaking her sequins on stage have one thing in common – London-based couturiers Ralph & Russo. Creative director Tamara Ralph tells Laura Archer why exclusivity is everything
It is a wild and wet day when I arrive at the London atelier of couture house Ralph & Russo. The blustery winds sweep me along Knightsbridge, up Sloane Street and through the polished brass doors, depositing me, rather unceremoniously, in the sleek lobby. I am still battling to tame my hair when the lift doors open and I find myself face to face with Ralph & Russo’s perfectly coiffed co-founder and creative director, Tamara Ralph, who appears effortlessly chic in her pale pink cashmere jumper, leather trousers and studded black suede stilettos.
I suspect I am the least glamorous person to have ever sat in the elegant grey and cream room into which I am ushered, but Ralph’s warm, friendly manner puts me instantly at ease. Coffee is poured, scented Roja candles are lit and the rain outside is soon forgotten.
“Clients like visiting us here because they feel comfortable and it’s very discreet,” Ralph comments as she joins me on the velvet sofa. “They can totally relax and spend as much time as they like talking through their requirements.”
By “clients”, she means people such as Angelina Jolie, Beyoncé, Eva Longoria and HRH Sheikha Mozah of Qatar, who have all become fans of Ralph & Russo’s signature show-stopping gowns. Being couture, everything is entirely bespoke so there’s never any danger of that most feared of social faux pas – turning up to an event in the same outfit as someone else. “We design for each and every client,” Ralph explains. “We create everything from daywear and suiting to cocktail and bridal. Some ladies come to us for a one-off dress for a special occasion and some want an entire year’s wardrobe. We put together a collection for that person based on who they are, what suits their lifestyle and what events they have coming up, whether they’re political visits or red carpet appearances.”
Such personalization has been a key factor in Ralph & Russo’s success so far, an attainment that has been measured at an astonishing 400 per cent a year according to Fortune magazine, which included Ralph and Russo in its prestigious ‘40 under 40’ list of rising stars in business for 2013. This is no small feat: they were the only fashion names to be included and featured alongside, among others, Mark Zuckerberg and Marissa Mayer. “We started with just one client so we are very flattered and honoured to be on that list,” Ralph says.
Despite this very public endorsement, Ralph & Russo have remained something of an insider secret. Discretion is a guiding principle for the house – visits to the atelier are by appointment only, there are no retail stores bar a small concession in Harrods. When Angelina Jolie appeared at a film premiere in a white Ralph & Russo gown with a dramatic rosette on the shoulder, the atelier’s phone rang off the hook with would-be customers prepared to pay the requisite tens of thousands of pounds for the same design. They were politely refused. “It’s important that we keep exclusivity on the pieces,” Ralph explains. “Our clients love working with us because everything is exclusive to them. And once you’ve experienced how incredible that feels, there’s no going back.”
This approach has enabled Ralph & Russo to build a business almost entirely by word of mouth, its reputation for privacy and exclusivity making it highly recommended among the rich and famous. Even Beyoncé came through a personal referral, with the singer appointing Ralph & Russo to create the silver satin gown she wore to perform at President Obama’s inauguration ball and the stage outfits for her recent ‘Mrs Carter’ world tour. Not bad for a brand founded just six years ago, during a recession, after a chance meeting on a street in London.
“I met Michael [Russo] within the first couple of hours of landing in London,” says Sydney-born Ralph. “We literally bumped into each other on the street.” Discovering that they were both from Australia, they started talking and Ralph’s holiday proved to be the catalyst for a major life change: “I decided then that London was where I wanted to be”.
Ralph comes from a family of couturiers and was already working in fashion back in Sydney. “My grandmother was one of Australia’s top couturiers,” she recalls. “She taught me how to sew, drape, and pattern-cut. I started really getting involved with it from the age of about 10 – I was always sketching or making dresses.”
Ralph cemented the skills passed down to her by studying at the prestigious Whitehouse Institute of Design in Sydney, and by the time she booked that fateful trip to London she was already dressing some of Australia’s highest profile women.
In Russo she found not only a business partner – he looks after the operational side of things while she focuses on design – but a romantic partner, too. The couple had been together for four years before founding their eponymous label in 2007 and today a large diamond solitaire sparkles on her left hand as she talks. “We work really well together and we have a great understanding of what we want,” she says, explaining the secret to their successful partnership. “We’re both entrepreneurial and we constantly bounce ideas off each other.” The couple travel the world together, visiting clients, gathering ideas and flying the flag for their brand, including Baku for the opening of Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Centre. Does it not get too much being together all day, every day, I wonder? “We really like it,” she says. “It’s a lot of work so it’s nice to have someone there who you can do it with and who you can grow the company with.”
After all that growth, surely they have booked in some time to pause and reflect on all that they have achieved? She looks completely bemused by the question. “No – we want to keep growing!” she says, laughing (to date, the brand has expanded to include accessories, including handbags and shoes). In fact, in 2013 they were also invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to show on the 2014 schedule alongside Chanel, Dior and Valentino, making them the first British couture house to do so in 100 years.
Indeed, the atelier is humming with energy as the team prepares for a forthcoming show. In the workshop, couturiers are bustling around mannequins, pinning and tacking and measuring. Others are bent over half-finished gowns, needles flying as they painstakingly sew thousands of shining beads and Swarovski crystals onto the bodices. Michael Russo shows me around, bounding between the workbenches, holding up embellished jackets and folds of delicate lace for me to inspect.
Craftsmanship is integral to the brand, with the best couturiers selected to maintain strict quality standards. Ralph worries, however, that such skills are dying out so she has set up an in-house training programme to ensure the skills are passed down, just as they were to her.
“The attention to detail that we offer is what people are looking for today,” Ralph says. “Our ladies are busy and with us they don’t need to rush around. It’s not just about a beautiful gown, it’s everything that makes their lives a little easier – we take care of everything.” With a philosophy like that, it’s no wonder that Ralph & Russo’s A-list client base keeps on growing.
Photography by Natavan Vahabova
A version of this story first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Baku magazine.