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- 5 Mar 2014
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Reinventing Haute Couture For A Global Consumer: Ralph & Russo


Tamara Ralph and Michael Russo

Tamara Ralph and Michael Russo are looking beyond ball gowns to create a truly global brand of haute couture

“We had purposely chosen not to show until we were personally invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to show in Paris,” explains Michael Russo, CEO and co-founder of London-based couture house Ralph & Russo.

“We didn’t want to just show at London Fashion Week with countless other brands where the meaning of who we are, might be lost. We didn’t even want to show in Paris if we weren’t on the official schedule – so we waited until we were formally invited. For us, that was the right thing to do. It was the right moment, as it gave us credibility.”

Credibility is a word that the Australian-born executive uses frequently, alongside co-founder and creative director Tamara Ralph. It is clearly a priority, alongside anticipating the he needs of the ultra-high-net-worth buyer of couture and building a business and experience that caters to their lifestyles.

The duo launched their eponymous atelier in 2007 with a stubborn focus on the highest-end of the market and has since become one of the world’s most desired couturiers. Case in point, the business has grown up to 400% year-on-year and the entrepreneurs were ranked #39 in Fortune magazine’s 40 under 40.

Between ateliers and showrooms in London and Paris, the young brand is producing between twenty and forty pieces of couture per month. “Anything from beautiful daywear, tailoring and suiting to stunning ball gowns and bridal” reveals Tamara.

We caught sat down up with the entrepreneurs in Paris, the day after their first on-schedule runway show during Haute Couture, to discuss who and what is driving their success.

 I think people generally associate couture with just a big ball gown but there are so many different combinations 

What opportunities drew you to the Haute Couture segment?

Tamara: “I think there is an incredible market for couture. Ladies are ultimately after that special piece, no matter what their lifestyle or occasion; whether or not their lifestyle is casual, work-orientated or if they need more elaborate pieces.”

Michael: “And their lifestyles are so fast paced. People are going to more and more events and they are all in the same circles so there is a need for something exclusive and more importantly, unique."

“The real trick is to adapt each piece to the lifestyle of the client and make it work for them. It could be a high profile business woman who travels constantly for meetings and needs a beautifully tailored suit that she can simply pull out of her suitcase without needing to steam it”

“I think people generally associate couture with a big ball gown but for us there are so many different combinations.”

How do you feel about the growth prospects of the segment?

Tamara: “There has definitely been a lot of growth recently and as people’s needs and lifestyles evolve and the world’s wealth continues to grow, there’s going to be an increasing need for exclusive products and services – products that are not only unique but also adapt to their lifestyle and make their lives easier.”


How difficult was it to launch a new couture business? Particularly based in London, rather than Paris?

Michael: “When you are setting up a business it is so important to have the right base, especially with couture. For the travelling Haute Couture buyers, London was the perfect base and hub for such an international clientele.”

“London has such a great throughput with so many different people coming through the city on a day-to-day basis and they come here to shop. We see this in Paris as well but with our clients, they tend to go to Paris for two to three days, whereas they will stay in London for one or two months at a time. They have homes here in London so it really is an international base.

“It was a challenge to find the right location and to get the right level of awareness and right kind of credibility. Trust is so important. I think it comes down to the service you provide and the relationship you build with each and every client.”

“We were definitely fortunate to be able to build that trust and credibility without having to do a show first though like so many other houses but having done a show at Paris Haute Couture week I can definitely see that it has given us the right kind of exposure and the right name.”

 As the world’s wealth grows, there will be an increasing need for exclusive products & services 

Will the showing of a runway ‘collection’ change your business model process?

Michael: “We traditionally have a small collection of garments to show our clients – to inspire them, show them that the sky really is the limit and to show them the sheer quality of each and every piece we create. As for the collection, ladies can and have bought pieces directly from the collection but for us it’s still a very unique experience despite us staging a runway show.”

“It’s still a very personal service. The show really just said to the world ‘this is what we do’. You can come to us with any request no matter how simple or elaborate but this is the quality and the craftsmanship that we put in to everything we create. It gave us more visibility.”

Tamara: “We have always run a very exclusive service where we design specifically for each lady and they each have collections that were sketched especially for them – that won’t ever change as this is where the uniqueness, exclusivity and magic of what we do lies.”


As more and more big name luxury brands bolster their Couture strategies, what do you feel sets you apart?

Michael: “Definitely our focus on personalized service”
Tamara: “And hopefully the designs!”
Michael: “That is a good point actually as we get a lot of comments about the fact that what we create is very wearable haute couture.”

Tamara: “We built the brand on providing a personal service that was tailored around the client and so we really know what they’re looking for in terms of their lifestyle and their needs – it’s so important for everything we make to not only be beautiful but also that it fits into their lives.”

Michael: “I think the difference is as well that a lot of the bigger brands use haute couture to sell a dream and other lifestyle products whereas we are selling something wearable. It isn’t a crazy, magical, unrealistic product.”

“For some of the bigger houses, personal experiences are obviously also very important to them but they have so many other products to sell, which we don’t. It’s something we have been very cautious not to divert our attention to and I think that this has really given us an advantage and allowed us to attract the right kind of clients.”

“Even our retail concept is clandestine. We remain inaccessible and are always somewhere hidden away. You can never find us unless you know and our customers really love that. They love the fact that we are their hidden secret.”

 We remain inaccessible. You can never find us unless you know and our customers really love that 

Can you tell us some more about this personal experience that you focus on?

Michael: “Again to come back to this whole lifestyle idea, we try and make everything as easy as possible for the client. It’s not just that you come to us and you get a dress and that’s it – it’s about understanding the clients’ life. The people buying our clothes are so busy."

“So when you come for your fitting we will have already arranged the jewellery for you with the houses. The houses will have seen the dress and they will bring a selection along to match the shoes and the accessories. We have our own handbags now as well which we can make especially for each piece and they love that.”

“And though it is not a huge market for us financially, the customer always comes back because we take care of everything for them.”

Tamara: “Also the creative team are really involved from start to finish to make sure the entire look is taken care of. There are a lot of extra services that we do for the client to make things easier for them because they are all such busy women and love couture so much…”

Michael: “But they just don’t have time to go to Harrods for the bag, Selfridges for the shoes and Bond Street for the jewellery. So if you can bring everything to them, they really appreciate that and they get to see everything together in the least possible time – they really respond to that level of service.”

Tamara:“We also do a lot of flying around the world to visit our clients in the places that suit them best, which I think is an important part of our strategy. They don’t always have to come to London or Paris – we are happy to go to them.”


And to further this holistic experience, you recently added bespoke leather accessories to your capabilities?

Michael: "We spent a lot of time on perfecting the leather goods because there was such a demand for it. A lady coming to us for a beautiful piece wants a bag to go with it.”

Tamara: “To be able to have the bag that matches an outfit perfectly, again, helps us take care of the client. Clients receive anywhere between a few designs to up to 80 original sketches that are designed exclusively for them, so to have the extra little details taken care of like beautiful accessories, is something they have really responded to.”

Michael: “I think also with the bags, even though we call them just ‘the bags’ they aren’t necessarily as accessible as the majority on the market. They remain really really high quality."

“For example the finishings we have used are all rose gold instead of metal, we’ve made the handles with jewellers that are fine jewellers and our skins are all bespoke to match the shade of the dress perfectly. It is essentially haute couture for bags.”

 Our clients don’t have time to go to Harrods for the bag & Bond Street for the jewellery 

I noticed you are quite active on social media yet your website is password protected. Can you tell me which channels you are using, in what capacity and to reach what audience?

Michael: “The protected website allows us to maintain the exclusivity, whereas with social media we are sharing information that is already in the public domain. If you are a client, on the website you can manage your own designs and view your own personal archive of sketches that have designed exclusively for you.”

“So again it’s that very unique service which is why we protect the website. We don’t want to give too much away and in the future, in terms of marketing, the focus will be on creating a more and more optimal experience for the client rather chasing hundreds of new clients.”

And when celebrities wear your designs, it certainly results in a lot of column inches, but how does it reflect your bottom line?

Tamara: “We do get enquiries from all around the world after celebrities are seen in something we’ve made. We tend to find though that these potential clients will then come in and we will end up designing something completely different for them because we like to keep all the pieces unique as well."

Michael: “In terms of what it does to the bottom line, when we work with these women, they have such a wide base when you consider the segments that constitute their audience and perhaps, as compared to another bigger luxury brand, we don’t have other products to sell – we don’t have products at a price position like a fragrance for example.”

“So yes we certainly see sales and awareness as a result of celebrity appearances but there are only so many buyers at our end of the market. We are not necessarily going to see a huge spike in sales.”

Ralph & Russo Spring Summer 2014 Haute Couture Show

I read that the business is growing up to 400% year-on-year. In which geographical markets are you experiencing the strongest growth?

Tamara: “It’s really quite mixed actually. The Middle East is a very important region for us but this year China and Brazil are growing very strongly.”

Michael: “And the last few years before that, perhaps 2010 to the end of 2012, everyone was talking about China and we weren’t seeing anything and we were asking ourselves, “what are we doing wrong?”

“But what I think has happened is that now that the bigger houses have become so prominent in that market – at the top end – these clients are looking for what is next, what is unique and what most people don’t have – and in 2013 it really picked up the pace for us.”

Tamara: “I think China also quickly became a very flooded market and now Chinese clientele are after the special and the unique – on the couture side it is really beginning to grow. But also in Brazil.”

Michael: “That said I still think South America for us remains a challenge for a number of reasons. Not just the taxes and the duties but also the accessibility to that market. South American consumers don’t seem to be flying as regularly to the U.K. and Europe as much as many of our clients from the Middle East or Asia."

“They tend to shop more in New York or Miami. So for us, we have just opened our showroom in Paris, we already have one in London, and I think the next needs to facilitate the same experience in New York. We’ve also seen a lot of growth coming from Russia and also Nigeria – we have had a lot of new Nigerian customers recently.”

 We certainly raise awareness with celebrities but there are only so many buyers at our end of the market 

Which markets do you feel will present the biggest opportunities in the coming years?

Michael: “South America definitely holds a lot of potential, I think also Asia – for what we do – will continue to grow. Africa definitely. I think in a lot of markets like Africa, China, India – markets that were or are important source markets – we are going to witness more and more creation of wealth and ultra high net worth individuals which will in turn drive the demand for products like this."

And how will this affect your distribution strategy? Will you be opening your own retail destinations?

Michael: "We have a great relationship with Bergdorf Goodman already in New York, but I think the natural progression for us is to open a standalone showroom and atelier in Hong Kong. They are our next two key focuses for opening showrooms, which would be by appointment only showrooms and not boutiques or shops.”


Is the dream to remain a strictly couture brand or to build Ralph & Russo into a more diversified luxury business?

Michael: “Certainly the plan for the next five to ten years is to continue to build something so exclusive and so high end luxury, and keep the quality and the craftsmanship at the core by creating really elegant, wearable, feminine designs."

“I just think there is such a need and there is going to be an increasing need for it and there is no one really still focusing on this niche.”

Would you consider conglomerate ownership/private equity investment or will you remain an independent brand?

Michael: “They are already knocking on our door and we never close doors. It is always an interesting conversation but at the moment there is so much that we want to do."

“I think what has been great for us is having the freedom to really just focus on high-end luxury and what we don’t want is for someone to be involved who wants to dilute that vision or force us to start selling cheaper products."

“We always entertain the conversations and are happy to have them but at the moment we seem to be going in the right direction and we just want to continue doing that.”

 I think what has been great for us is having the freedom to really just focus on high-end luxury 

Finally, what is the biggest challenge the brand will face in the coming years?

Michael: “I think the biggest challenge we face is to replicate what we have done in London so well, internationally and seamlessly, and to create that experience on a global scale."

“To use the New York example, at the moment we get a lot of requests and we still facilitate them – our clients receive the same outstanding experience – but for us it can be quite difficult without a showroom like in London and Paris.”

“So I think the real challenge is to find the right people, the right location, to make sure that our experience in the U.S. is perfect and then roll it out in Hong Kong at the same level to begin to really be a global couture brand.”

To further investigate independent luxury brands on Luxury Society, we invite your to explore the related materials as follows:

- Sustainable South African Luxury: Hanneli Rupert, Founder, Okapi
- Hand Crafted in America: Luxury Leathergoods by Fischer Voyage
- Luxury Without Limitation or Compromise: Steven Grotell


Ralph & Russo specialises in bespoke evening, cocktail, bridal and red carpet wear. Each gown is made-to-measure and can take hundreds of hours and up to 30 pairs of hands to create.