When you think of couture, you most likely think of Paris. That’s where all the historic ateliers are located and where the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture—the organization tasked with determining who is truly an haute couture house—operates.
When they founded Ralph & Russo in 2007, Tamara Ralph and Michael Russo decided instead that London was a better fit. The city was a hub for their current and soon-to-be international customers (for business, for boarding school, etc.). Plus, it had its own kind of handmade artisan traditions.
That choice proved not to be a misstep, and several years later, the Chambre Syndicale invited the brand to show in Paris for Haute Couture Week. Ralph and Russo continue to operate a little differently from the crowd—giving clients lots of face time, engagement, and space for direct input.
Clearly, their approach is working. The luxury brand has expanded to ready-to-wear and is rolling out an international retail plan. Whitewall spoke with Ralph and Russo about broadening their reach while maintaining their customer-comes-first focus.
WHITEWALL: Tamara, you grew up surrounded by generations of couturiers. Was it ever a question for you that you’d be a couturier yourself?
TAMARA RALPH: Fashion and design have been prominent influences on my life from a very young age, particularly in a couture sense, as I was always surrounded by it. I explored my mother’s pattern archive and began creating pieces when I was still at school, so I don’t think that it was ever really a question for me!
WHITEWALL: When the two of you launched the brand in 2007, why did couture make the most sense for you (versus ready-to-wear)?
TR: I was already creating bespoke gowns for clients in Australia and wanted to take my expertise to a new level, incorporating the core qualities of quality and craftsmanship that couture is founded upon. I’ve always found the creative boundaries of couture to be limitless; having that freedom with my creative vision has been a true driving force.
WW: Why did you want to be London-based?
MICHAEL RUSSO: It’s where the inception of the brand took place. Whilst Paris will always be at the heart of couture, we wanted to acknowledge the history of excellence in design and craft that lies within London and present an offering which had not previously been accessible here.
WW: How do you think your being based in London has affected the success of the brand?
MR: Launching in London was a challenge at first, though as one of the world’s fashion capitals and a cosmopolitan hub for travel and creativity, it allowed us to address the market’s demands and engage an audience who frequently travel to London.
WW: How have you seen it affect the fashion world in London, being that you were the first British brand in a century to be invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to show in Paris?
MR: Being invited by the Chambre Syndicale will always be one of our greatest accolades, and we are proud to be the only luxury brand with its roots in London representing couture in Paris.
WW: You’ve described Ralph & Russo as not just a couture house, but a luxury brand. Why make that distinction? And what does that mean for you?
MR: A luxury brand incorporates a variety of product categories, and that has always been our goal. Ultimately, we are looking to provide a lifestyle—a world of Ralph & Russo that our customer base can always rely upon for consistent quality and attention to detail.
WW: How are you different from what you’ve described as “arrogant luxury” brands?
MR: Our approach is, and always has been, that the customer comes first. Each piece that we create is completely unique and tailored to our client demand, across all product categories. Their input is paramount to us and this approach ensures that we are creating product that we believe in, as do they.
WW: Why is it so important for you to be—while also being exclusive—accessible and relatable to your clients? How do you ensure that?
MR: The level of personal interaction we maintain with our clients is a fundamental aspect of our business and one that we thoroughly enjoy. We view our clients as extended family and always position their needs at the forefront of any new concept. Introducing additional product categories has allowed us to offer an alternative and more accessible price point, providing opportunity for us to engage and welcome a more varied audience across multiple continents.
WW: Can you tell us about your Mayfair townhouse, where you receive clients? What is that space like? What kind of environment did you want to set up for fittings?
MR: Our London maison epitomizes tranquility. It is a minimalistic yet luxurious space, and the doors are always open to our clientele. We want to ensure that they feel at home with us, to provide them with a peaceful haven in which they never feel rushed or under pressure. It is first and foremost about the experience they have when visiting us.
WW: Can you walk us through the process for a couture client?
TR: Every creation begins with a meeting in which we will discuss the client’s preferences, take their measurements, and talk them through possible designs. This meeting will ultimately result in a sketch, which will be sent to our atelier and, once finalized, will be created in a calico toile. We then look to hold a fitting with the client to assess the fit and make initial changes ahead of selecting materials and passing the toile to our skilled team of couturiers and embroiders, who will delicately assemble the final design. Another fitting is then held with the client to ensure that the final creation is perfect and that they are truly happy with it. Of course, this process varies with each creation and some designs can take longer than others, but ultimately it results in bringing both the client’s vision and my own creative vision to life.
WW: Tamara, you’ve described what you do as making clients’ dreams and making your own creative vision come true. What is it like to create a piece a client could only dream of?
TR: It’s hard to pinpoint the exact emotions, as each experience is so unique! Working in an industry that is constantly evolving and demanding innovation is so exciting; the opportunities for creativity are endless and every new client has their own vision and a diverse source of inspiration.
WW: Where do you typically start with a collection? Is it inspiration, is it color, is it materials?
TR: The design process is never uniform. It varies from season to season with each new source of inspiration and purpose, but ultimately each process is defined by our brand pillars of innovation, craftsmanship, and quality.
WW: Where does your inspiration often come from—travel, art, architecture?
TR: Travel plays a vital role in this. Exploring other cultures and innovative places allows me to absorb new information, which consequently means new inspiration. Also, being mindful of the world around me—current news and events often influence new trends.
WW: How did you arrive at Jacqueline de Ribes as inspiration for your Fall/Winter 2018–2019 couture collection?
TR: This season was the first to position a collection through the eyes of an individual muse, and I have always been fascinated by Jacqueline de Ribes. In my opinion, she is the embodiment of grace and vivacity, a real femme du monde who advocates style in relation to personality.
WW: How did that translate into the array of rich colors we saw in the collection?
TR: The Fall/Winter 2018–2019 collection married the vigor of Jacqueline de Ribes with the zeitgeist of the eighties, resulting in vibrant tones which mirrored the palette of the era.
WW: What about fabric and texture?
TR: The fluid fabrics used throughout the collection perfectly complement movement and rhythm. In the words of Jacqueline de Ribes, “Clothes, like good architecture, have to respond to a rhythm of life. You can’t be elegant without being graceful and you can’t be graceful if you’re not at ease.”
WW: We also loved the set design for the show in early July. Can you tell us about your thought process there?
TR: In keeping with the spirit of the eighties, the set reflected the frivolity of the era through color blocking and neon lights.
WW: Ralph & Russo has expanded beyond couture to ready-to-wear, leather goods, et cetera. How does being a couture house at the heart of it all influence your approach to these other collections?
MR: Everything relates back to the core values of quality, craftsmanship, and service, which our brand was founded upon; we look to incorporate these elements into all of our product categories. For example, our ready-to-wear and accessory lines are still within the highest echelon of luxury, as each collection uses high-quality materials, though the creative techniques have been innovatively adapted for production purposes.
WW: When thinking about Ralph & Russo boutiques, how will your approach to retail reflect the personal connection you so value with clients?
TR: As with our London maison, we want our boutiques to focus on the overall client experience. I designed all of the retail concepts myself, ensuring that that same attention to detail is consistently present in order to deliver a personal touch and moment of calm in each and every boutique.
WW: Where do you see Ralph & Russo headed next?
MR: We will continue taking strides toward building a global luxury brand. We have multiple stores opening by the end of the year and have already increased our ready-to-wear offering to four collections a year. In terms of the immediate future, there are many exciting projects ahead!