To celebrate its 10-year anniversary collection, a tribute to the Australian bushfire crisis, Ralph & Russo showcased frothy couture in whimsy pastel hues that pointed to Tamara Ralph and Michael Russo’s ambitious plans for the future
“How a dress looks on the inside is just as important as how it looks on the outside,” is the mantra passed down to Tamara Ralph by her grandmother, who, along with her mother, taught her almost everything she knows about creating the opulent Ralph & Russo gowns worn by Beyoncé, Penélope Cruz, Nadine Labaki, Nancy Ajram, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Angelina Jolie wore Ralph & Russo to receive her honorary damehood from Queen Elizabeth in 2014. “When I made a dress, my grandmother would cut it open to see how it was made on the inside. If it wasn’t perfect, she would take it apart and make me do it again,” Ralph reminisces with a chuckle, her flaxen, mermaid-like hair bouncing along to her laughter. The Sydney native, who admired European masters like Karl Lagerfeld and Jean Paul Gaultier, sewed by hand throughout her childhood and was barred from using a sewing machine until she was 13 years old. Her mother’s vintage Vogue Patterns were also off-limits. “I was a bit naughty and I used to sneak into the sewing room and into the Vogue library of the patterns from the 60s through to the 80s. I used to cut them up and transform them into something contemporary.”
The 38-year-old designer’s rigid training has more than paid off. Ralph is a full-blown couturiere, recognized for her contemporary, aspirational designs today. Her attention to detail and flair for fairytale masterpieces calls to mind the sort of craftsmanship infused into the regalia worn in Imperial China or the frivolous court of Marie Antoinette. This rarity is the major driving force behind the brand she runs with her business partner, fellow Australian, former fiancé, house chairman, and CEO Michael Russo.
In just 10 years, their headquarters grew from a small room with one employee, a seamstress (who now runs their atelier), a sewing machine, and a computer to their new London creative campus that spans 2 700sqm. And with a recent US $50 million investment from the La Perla group, the duo shares they are ready to turn their business – one of the largest couture houses in the world – into a global lifestyle brand, entering into the world of furnishings, cosmetics, and eyewear, while enhancing the ready-to-wear line they began offering in 2018, and the handbags, shoes, and accessories they already make. “We are fortunate we have trust on both sides. It is important for any creative brand,” Russo says as he reflects on their success and their own personal evolution. Despite their recent relationship breakup, they remain “best friends” and are focused more than ever on expanding their global empire, which includes stores in Paris and Monaco and two each in London and the Middle East – Dubai being the flagship. A 420sqm New York City store on Madison Avenue will open its doors in two months.
“With the La Perla investment, we had the desire to become this lifestyle brand with a big, all-encompassing product range,” Russo notes, adding that the Middle East, where many of their VIP clients (princesses and sheikhas reportedly among them) reside, is a key market. Most people aren’t aware of the fact that the majority of the furniture – from the coffee tables to the chairs – in the new boutiques are custom Ralph & Russo.
In their early years, the two worked relentlessly to build their network: Russo used his experience at Deutsche Bank and Barclays to field investors like John Caudwell, the British businessman and philanthropist, Candy Capital, and La Perla Global Management. At the same time, Ralph was busy meeting European textile and component suppliers and employing the kind of creative know-how that is a rare, hot commodity in the luxury world. “We basically came to this country with no contacts. Nobody knew us.” Russo says. The two speak candidly, finishing each others’ sentences while respectfully allowing the other to fully express their point of view, as they plot their future. “In London, the culture and the weather is different, and the jet lag is a killer,” the two agree in unison.
Aside from their business prowess, the turning point for Ralph & Russo was when they became the first British (and Australian) brand in almost a century to be accepted as a member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. “We had a very big clientele around the world that was built by word of mouth. Angelina Jolie was a client from the start of the brand, as well as other high-profile women,” says Ralph. “But Paris couture week took it to a global scale in terms of visibility.”
As the two face the new decade, there is one certainty: couture will remain at the soul of the brand. With gowns priced upwards of $30 000 and well into the six figures for more elaborate items, Ralph & Russo say their contemporary couture pieces require up to 300 hours to craft, some of which are adorned with thousands of crystals, 3D beaded lace flowers, or embellishments of hand-painted accents created by the in-house team of artists, an artisanal unit they are famous for. A 2018 CNN video series showed a craftsman hand-painting birds that were later hand sewn and lined with carefully placed crystals. “We never take anything as it is,” offers Ralph. “It’s always a bespoke color or a bespoke finish.”
The future of their business, which employs 400 people, 250 of them based in the couture atelier where 45 languages are spoken, rests in their in-house apprenticeship programs and fusing older talent with novice creatives. “When we started to recruit young people, we met many who wanted to be designers but didn’t understand how to construct a piece. We also realized that they weren’t interested in working with their hands. We have recently noted an influx of young people who want to learn.” Like her grandmother before her, Ralph, with Russo by her side, is showing the way.
Originally published in the March 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia