The story of Ralph & Russo has it all — it’s a romance, it’s a “rags to riches” success story, it’s a story filled with the joys and passions of thousands of characters.
Tamara Ralph and Michael Russo are two Australians who met on a London avenue. “It was 2004, and I was visiting Europe for the first time,” Ralph recalls. “I was strolling around London one afternoon when Michael walked past me and commented on my jacket.”
That he noticed her jacket was portentous, since the two would become not only partners in life but also partners in an immensely successful fashion business, which has grown at a rate of about 400 percent per year.
Their business venture isn’t the only thing that progressed quickly. Several months after their chance encounter, Russo bought Ralph a one-way plane ticket to London — his way of asking her to stay. He was working as a banker in London at the time. He would become the business mastermind behind Ralph & Russo.
Ralph was a fourth-generation couturier. By the time she was 15, she was not only designing clothes for her friends, but also for Sydney socialites. She is the creative genius behind Ralph & Russo.
“We’ve found that having separate areas to manage has created a perfect balance for us, both professionally and personally,” Russo says.
They started out with little more than a sewing machine and a few hundred pounds, and launched their label in 2010. Now Ralph & Russo’s designs are favoured by stars such as, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, and Kate Bosworth.
Many muses, many characters
Ralph & Russo has dressed actresses for the red carpet. It has dressed Beyoncé for a world tour. It has also dressed all kinds of women who are “stars” in everyday life — and each has helped shape Ralph & Russo’s work by bringing her own ideas and inspirations to the design.
“One day we’ll be designing for an international businesswoman and philanthropist who is flying between three continents in the next week,” Ralph says. “[Next we’ll be designing for] a mother of four who cherishes art and spending her weekends in the countryside. As a designer, it is important for me to have a real sense of my muse.”
Each woman who wears one of Ralph’s designs is her muse. She is also a character in the story of the dress. That story could be about a special moment — a wedding, a graduation, a reunion with an old friend. It could be a tale of romance, adventure, or magic, depending on the personality and lifestyle of the wearer. “What I love about couture is that every look is different and has a story with a real-life character behind it,” she says.
Ralph adds to each client’s “story” her own style and inspirations.
Bursts of innovative inspiration, classical style
“I’m constantly being inspired by everything around me; my iPhone is full of images from daily encounters that have struck me with inspiration,” Ralph says. “And at my home, each room features a sketchbook poised for any flash of creativity.”
Images in her iPhone might include the décor of a restaurant, a painting in a museum, a page in a magazine, a quote in a book, or the pattern of a chaise lounge. “Each of these details can come together to bring a design or a collection to life,” she says.
In the world of haute couture, some designers have emphasized novelty. They go for the surprising — even the shocking — while moving away from classical beauty.
But Ralph & Russo has maintained a femininity and classical style while creatively innovating. Ralph’s designs are harmonious. The inspiration for her Spring/Summer 2018 designs came from Asia, where principles of balance — such as yin-yang and feng shui — have long been central to many of the cultures and their aesthetics.
“I travelled through Asia extensively in the past year and was just spellbound by the culture,” Ralph says. “Some key elements that really stood out to me were the exotic colouring of traditional dancheong, the intricacy of Kachô-e, and the form of the local architecture; all of which are present in the collection through colour, silhouette and embellishment.”
Dancheong literally translates in Korean as “cinnabar and blue-green.” It is a traditional decorative colouring on wooden buildings and artifacts in Korea. Kachô-e are Japanese prints depicting birds and flowers.
The international flavour of her recent designs fits the essence of the label as Ralph describes it: “The spirit of Ralph & Russo is synonymous with the muses that continue to wear the brand. They are modern and international women that exude femininity, confidence, and are leaders in their field. They hold value in craftsmanship, quality, and partaking in innovation.”
Counting their blessings
The craftsmanship and quality of each garment is quantifiable. A single dress is worked on by as many as 30 pairs of hands; it can require some 6,000 hours of labour.
Ralph & Russo’s atelier also employs some 300 skilled artisans — that’s more than many long-established fashion brands, such as Chanel or Dior.
It produces about 600 couture dresses per year, but this year it has also expanded considerably, with a ready-to-wear collection. It is opening 12 new stores next year, including stores in Dubai, New York City, and Miami.
While the company has grown rapidly and steadily, a single moment stands out to Ralph and Russo as one in which they knew they had achieved success. In 2014, theirs was the first British fashion house in almost a century to be accepted by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, a regulating commission in France that determines which fashion houses are considered true haute couture houses.
“It served as a real acknowledgement that we were being perceived as leaders in our field,” Ralph says.
While various business strategies helped Ralph & Russo thrive, Russo says, it is the dedication of their team in the atelier that has made the company a success.
“What stands out to us about our team is how the family ethos that we endorsed at the inception of the brand has been maintained,” Ralph says. “Despite the expansion and meteoric growth, the team manage a very balanced and supportive environment.”
Russo adds that he and Ralph have helped foster this environment by always being approachable. “It’s important for your team to feel they can come to you,” he says. “We pride ourselves in knowing every member of our team and playing a key role in problem solving.”
Tamara Ralph’s Favourite Things:
A vision of refined femininity, Tamara Ralph embodies her brand’s exquisitely dainty aesthetic. With access to an infinite wardrobe of Ralph & Russo ensembles, everything from romantic dresses to an elegant yet relaxed cashmere tracksuit for travel are in her rotation. Accessories, too, are on the list: Ralph & Russo Empire Pumps on her feet, a funky take on the classic; and a rose-gold Ralph & Russo Mini Vault Bag in hand. She looks to Dior for its signature sunnies and makeup must-haves, alongside favourites from Huda Beauty, and luxurious Alexandria II perfume by Xerjoff. Louis Vuitton luggage accompanies her on travels — exotic Asia, such as Taiwan, is a source of constant inspiration; though NYC takes “top accommodation choice” with its iconic The Mark Hotel. Ralph’s tastes, too, lean toward the Far East: from a love of Japanese cuisine to her favourite lush white orchids. She loves to dine in elegance with Christofle dinnerware. And with her fast-paced lifestyle, the designer makes sure to pencil in self-care: pampering with a weekly spa is an essential treat.
Text by Tara dos Santos