A global pandemic prompting a set-in-stone fashion calendar to be in a constant state of flux has caused leading couturiers to rethink the ways in which they present their upcoming seasons. For British label Ralph & Russo, this crossroad opened up a unique opportunity to completely turn the runway model on its head and foray into a digitally-focused future. Choosing to unveil its Fall-Winter 20/21 collection via video for the first time in the brand’s milestone-packed history on July 6, the contemporary atelier is venturing into new territory in collaboration with the Chambre Syndicale without a second glance.
A longtime favorite of red-carpet regulars and the Paris Couture Week lineup, Ralph & Russo’s artisanal masterpieces are the epitome of creative ingenuity. Channeling that spirit of innovation into this newfound digital sphere, the storied maison also plans to breathe new life into the pending collection with an unexpected muse: an avatar named Hauli. Foreshadowing a dynamic synergy to come between artificial intelligence and fashion, Hauli represents “a positive force for change” in an industry that is primed for progress. In an exclusive sneak peek, Hauli dons a number of the fantastical FW20/21 gowns against virtual backdrops of the Wonders of the World—a striking reflection of the wondrous nature of couture.
Ahead of the groundbreaking live debut on Monday, we spoke to co-founder Tamara Ralph about the importance of creating Hauli at this watershed moment in time, which parts of the show she’s most excited for audiences to experience, and how self-isolation inspired a new creative process that aligns with her predictions for what this unknown future holds.
What does this first-ever, digital-only presentation signify for the future of the brand? Do you see this becoming a norm not only for Ralph & Russo but also for the couture industry overall?
The current climate has cemented the importance of digital as a channel, and how critical it is for a brand to regularly be activating digitally with unique content to keep their audience engaged, which also includes finding new ways to speak to our clients. This was, of course, always crucial for us, but its true value has really come into view in these past few months. I’ve also really enjoyed and embraced this as a learning experience; the opportunities within this space are truly limitless and allow for so much creativity.
Making digital a priority will absolutely be our new norm, and I do think this will extend across the entire industry, even beyond couture and into other product categories. I still believe, however, that there is incredible value and a place for engaging with your audience, clients, and friends of the brand in real life as well, so I think the future will be about trying to strike that ideal balance of both worlds and doing so more responsibly.
Do you think there are more benefits or consequences in a wholly digital show? What are you most excited for the audience to see and what is the one aspect of a live show you will sorely miss?
I think presenting an entirely digital presentation presents both unique opportunities as well as challenges. In terms of benefits, as I touched on before, it allows you to be as creative as you want to be, the options are endless. As well, you are able to reach so many more people on a global scale a result of the exposure digital offers, whereas a physical show is limited to those in attendance or those who make it a point to watch the show as soon as it is shared online. I’m most excited to see (or I suppose, read!) the reaction to our collection this season, and how we have chosen to unveil it to the world.
With the challenges it presents, really the biggest thing is the lack of physical interaction, and that experience of all being in the same room together as the show unfolds. There is really nothing like it—it’s such a special feeling and emotion. While I think digital can certainly capture many of the elements that make a show so experiential, there is of course no way to replicate this in its totality, and I will really miss that. With all that being said, I am a firm believer in change being a good thing, and think it’s so important to innovate and embrace new ways of presenting collections. You simply cannot know what the result will be if you don’t try.
How was designing the FW20/21 collection different compared to past seasons? Are there any lessons or takeaways you see becoming permanent fixtures in future creative processes?
Interestingly, before self-isolation went into effect in the UK, I was working with an entirely different concept in mind as my inspiration, but the current state of the world really pushed me to slow down and to reflect, which then led me to think about the far-reaching beauty of our natural world. I wanted to create a collection that would allow people to take refuge in fantasy, and encourage them to keep dreaming of beautiful things. At a time such as this, I think the beauty and wonder of couture could not be needed more.
The design process has certainly evolved whilst working remotely, as our many in-person meetings that take place in the lead up to couture now take place via video—and there is no shortage of calls! The biggest limitation, really, has been not being able to see and feel each and every fabric and drape the gowns on the mannequins as they come alive. However, we’ve adapted to the new way of working as best we can, and tried to retain this element by sharing designs with one another over video calls, and mailing out swatches to one another wherever possible.
One of the biggest challenges has been finding ways to keep the team motivated, as it’s so easy during a time like this to be consumed by what’s going on in the world. Having this very new and exciting venture to work on has helped to keep the team inspired and thinking ahead, myself included. In terms of the creative process moving forward, we have had to shift our thinking to be more flexible as well as digitally-focused and this is a lesson that will not only stay with us, but has really been much needed. Our industry moves so quickly, and if there is any silver lining to all of this, it’s that it has forced us to re-evaluate our way of working.
Where did the idea for this avatar come from and who was the inspiration for this muse?
I have always been fascinated by the digital sphere, and specifically by artificial intelligence and its potential place in the fashion world. While AI as a medium is something I have long wanted to explore, really it’s the recent developments in the world, and subsequent limitations, that made me feel now is the time to do so. And while avatars might not be new, I don’t feel it’s something that has been fully realized as of yet within couture as a category, given its inherent nature of old-world craftsmanship, techniques, and incredible attention to detail.
Our avatar, Hauli, serves as both our model and our brand muse. Bearing a traditional Swahili name that is synonymous with strength and power, Hauli was inspired by and is an embodiment of the spirit of beautiful and inspirational women changing lives in all four corners of the world. She represents the brand and all of the values that we stand for. She is the ultimate modern woman; fusing both old and new, elegance and strength, and stands with the brand as a positive force for change.
How has this pandemic shaped the future of the maison? Do you still plan on expanding into a broader lifestyle market or will you be channeling your focus on constructing this new normal for couture?
There have been many key learnings as a result of the pandemic. While the impact on the world has been heart-breaking, I do think it’s equally important to acknowledge the lessons we can take away from this, both personally and professionally. It has pushed us, both as a company and as an industry, to fully understand the impact of our business, and how we can be more socially and environmentally responsible. As I mentioned before, we move so quickly that I think it’s become so important to force ourselves to slow down and re-consider our approach to working. It has begged the questions of whether so much travel is really necessary, if as many pieces or collections to be developed each year is needed, and so on. Our new present, and future, way of thinking will be much more thoughtful, considered and strategic. We still have plans to develop into a luxury lifestyle brand, but will be doing so in a way—and at a pace—that makes sense for the brand and for our renewed industry.
Watch the Ralph & Russo FW 20/21 couture collection presentation live on Monday, July 6 at 5 pm Paris time (7 pm UAE/6 pm KSA) at ralphandrusso.com.