The dresses they create look straight out of a fairy tale, and the story behind Ralph & Russo reads rather like one too. Once upon a time, in 2004, a just-graduated Sydneysider named Tamara Ralph took her first trip to Europe and landed in London. A few hours later, dazed by jetlag, she was strolling through Fulham when she met a young man.
“He walked past and said ‘I really love your jacket’,” recalls Ralph, now 35. “It was this white tailored trench that I had made myself. I said ‘Oh…thank you’ – because women might compliment you on a piece often enough, but for a guy to, well I thought, ‘Okay, mmm’.” So she stopped to talk to the young man, who was not in fact a prince, but an Australian employee of Deutsche Bank named Michael Russo.
Fulham cast its spell. “We got together,” says Ralph. “And when I went back to Australia we spoke on the phone all the time. One day, after eight months, he said, ‘I’m sick of you living over there – I think you should get on a plane and move.’ He sent me a one-way ticket.”
From this romance was born a bouncing baby, Ralph & Russo, which in the seven years since delivering its first dress has achieved a rate of growth so speedy and seamless it might have been conjured by the wave of a wand. In 2010 the young entrepreneurs started up in a small room in Barnes with no clients, no contacts, one seamstress and a sewing machine. Within two years, they were making tour outfits for Beyoncé and cutting dresses for Angelina Jolie. Today there are 250 couture craftspeople of 38 different nationalities employed in their Chelsea atelier, making couture dresses costing from £25,000 up to £750,000. Their fitting rooms are booked to capacity and their clientele of couture customers – “well into the thousands” – is one of the largest (they reckon the largest) in the world. As well as a Mayfair showroom – cannily sited within walking distance of the Park Lane hotels beloved of the transient global super-rich – they have another in Paris, along with a rapidly expanding retail network. “We are trying to put down a global footprint very quickly,” says Russo. “In November we’re opening in Doha, Dubai and Miami. Then Hong Kong, New York and LA… ”
In 2013 Ralph & Russo became the first London-based house since 1915 to be invited to show a collection at the Paris couture collections, where it is now established alongside Chanel, Valentino, Versace and Dior on the schedule. They have since introduced handbag and shoe collections: as we went to press, they were due to show their first ever ready-to-wear collection. There are plans for eyewear, cosmetics and eventually menswear too.
There is nothing romantic about the scale of their ambition. “We have always wanted to become a luxury super-brand,” says Russo. “Right from day one. We want to take on the powerhouses of luxury. First we had to build the couture business...and now we are laying out the pieces below.”
Fashion is full of smoke and mirrors, all designed to flatter. That’s its point. Behind the charm of the Ralph & Russo narrative lie some hard-nosed assets: supercharged ambition, years of training and a family background steeped in the business of making beautiful clothes.
Ralph grew up in Cronulla, a beachside suburb where her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were dressmakers to the swells of Sydney. There was an archive of vintage patterns at her home which Ralph studied obsessively, before she began, at the age of ten, to master the art of cutting, sewing and draping fabrics into designs of her own. At school she wore clothes of her own design, and when she was 13 began supplying her classmates. “Every spare minute I would be at home in the sewing room creating stuff. It got to the point where my mother said, ‘this is not a hobby any more, I think you should do something with this’.” When Ralph stepped off that plane in 2004 she had just graduated from fashion school.
Brisbane-born Russo consulted for PWC after his stint with Deutsche Bank, then, in the early years of his romance with Ralph, turned around a near-bankrupt music-video business. It was during this time that they first thought of pairing up to build a luxury brand.
The first step was to use Ralph’s fourth-generation expertise to build a profile as couturiers. The vast majority of couture houses are located in Paris, but London is the key international hub for the world’s shifting shoals of the ultra rich.
Their first client was a European woman with houses in several cities – one of them, naturally, in London – who met Ralph at a party, ordered a single dress, then some more, and then told her friends. “At the upper echelons it is a very small world,” says Ralph. “Everyone knows someone who knows someone else.” Both Jolie and Beyoncé came to them through recommendations from existing clients.
Ralph & Russo have an unusual advantage: neither is afflicted by the delusion, common at the upper levels of fashion, that exclusivity entails snootiness. Thanks both to their natural Australian affability and to their perception that nobody wants to be patronised when they are spending tens of thousands of pounds, they are intent on making their customers comfortable. “We see all of our clients. We know all of our clients,” says Ralph. “The thing that they continually say when they come back is that they feel comfortable and well treated…the way you look after people is, in some respects, as important as the product,” says Russo. “Gone are the days of arrogant luxury,” adds Ralph.
The clothes – for those who can afford them – are similarly inclusive. “There is always something in the collection for the woman who is 16 to 25, and there is always something for the girl who is 40 plus,” says Russo. “And there is something there for clients from every region.” Depending on the piece, you might see echoes of Edith Head’s cinematic decadence, Hubert de Givenchy’s exuberant classicism or Cristóbal Balenciaga’s sculptural flourish. Ralph describes the house style as “always very feminine. With a simplicity to the design, even when they’re definitely not simple. And a timeless element too.”
In 2014 the company was valued, they say, at more than £200m shortly before they sold a minority stake (said to be 7%) to John Caudwell, a British telecoms entrepreneur, to fuel growth. And if the next seven years look like the last seven, Ralph & Russo will indeed become the luxury powerhouse Russo wants to create. But however many fairy-tale dresses Ralph conjures, one garment will remain more significant than any other. “I still have that white trench,” says Ralph. “Of course I do!”
WHAT’S IN A DRESS?
The closing dress from this summer’s couture show in Paris, a bridal look (Main image and above), contains around 100,000 Swarovski crystals, each hand stitched into the bustier. Gold satin heart-shaped sequins, pearlescent micro-beads, metallic threadwork in gold and silver plus silk threadwork flowers are all delicately insinuated within the dress’s folds of champagne chantilly lace. Around 100 members of the Ralph & Russo atelier spent more than 8,000 hours pinning, stitching and hand-embroidering the dress before it was ready for the catwalk, where it was worn by the Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor. Bridal pieces tend to be the most labour-intensive (and thus expensive) Ralph & Russo commissions.