In 2007, fashion insiders – perched in their seats at the tail end of New York Fashion Week – were reeling that Marc Jacobs had the gall to start his Spring/Summer show a whopping two hours late. Meanwhile, ahead of the start of London and Paris Fashion Weeks, the British and French Fashion Councils were making headlines and raising eyebrows for failing to follow in the footsteps of their Milanese counterpart, which had opted to enact a ban on putting size zero models on the runway.
Still yet, the industry’s profit-happy luxury conglomerates were carefully plotting their next moves in a marked lull from their usual aggressive acquisition modes, which had seen them snapping up high fashion brands left and right in years prior resulting in a large-scale corporatization of the upper echelon of the fashion industry.
It was against this background, and in the midst of cries of an impending “Great Recession,” that Tamara Ralph, now 36, and Michael Russo, 37, were busy dreaming up their brand. After identifying a void for truly custom, one-of-a-kind couture creations, the Australian duo – a couple in both a professional and romantic capacity after a chance meeting on the street in London – quietly set up their small atelier in London. Their offerings: Custom garments that can set clients back over $50,000.
Even if you do not know them by name, which is becoming increasingly more unlikely by the day, chances are, you have seen their work. It hits the runway several times per year in Paris, can be spotted on the red carpet at the world’s most prestigious film festivals and awards ceremonies, and was front and center in Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s engagement photos. Now, the duo is being slated as the chosen ones, the brand entrusted with the opportunity to dress the future royal for her wedding to the British prince.
But before Ralph & Russo became a well-known name in the fashion industry and beyond, the duo got their start with a sewing machine and a few hundred dollars. In furtherance of their two-man operation, Ms. Ralph, a graduate of the Whitehouse Institute of Design in Melbourne, headed up design, while Mr. Russo, a former banker, took on the role of CEO; they hold the same positions over 10 years later.
In lieu of outside funding to splash out on large-scale advertising or a brick-and-mortar footprint, their business – which emphasized expert craftsmanship, exquisite textiles, and otherworldly embroidery – grew exclusively through word-of-mouth marketing.
“We had a few very high-profile private clients right from the start and these few ladies spoke very highly of the work to their friends and it grew very quickly,” Mr. Ralph told Blouin ArtInfo in 2015. One such early supporter: Actress Angelina Jolie, who “started to wear some of their designs at important events, including her visit to Buckingham Palace to receive an honorary damehood from the Queen."
In what could be categorized as the mere blink of an eye, Ralph & Russo has grown from its humble founding as a two-person-shop without so much as a brick-and-mortar outpost to a global powerhouse with a roster of private clients, two appointment-only maisons, one in London, the other in Paris (with retail stores to come in Doha, Miami, New York, Monte Carlo, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and Dubai), and a design and artisanal staff that exceeds the capacity of two of fashion’s most storied couture houses: Chanel and Christian Dior.
Their rise continued in 2014, when the brand made headlines as the first British fashion house to be invited to take part in the Paris couture shows in a century. Ms. Russo, then just 33 years old, was the first female creative from the United Kingdom in nearly 100 years eligible to show during Paris Haute Couture Week. For the uninitiated, a spot on the official French couture calendar is the equivalent of membership in a “club so exclusive you can’t ask to join; the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture [must] reach out to you,” as the Evening Standard put it.
That same year, John Caudwell, the British billionaire behind mobile phone retailer Phones 4U, took a 7 percent stake in the company, giving Ralph & Russo a nine-figure valuation.
On the couture runway, the label has been hailed for showing some of the world’s most exclusive dresses, and in no shortage of cases, their finest creations go completely unseen by the general public, appearing behind the closed doors of many of society’s esteemed private events and then finding a home in the clients’ temperature-controlled archives.
“Constructed entirely by hand over thousands of hours, using techniques that are centuries old, with sublimely feminine silhouettes crafted around corsetry and then embroidered or otherwise extravagantly decorated, this is truly the best that money can buy,” Harper’s Bazaar declared of the brand’s creations. And, of course, they are highly limited: To preserve the brand’s exclusivity, Ralph & Russo sells only one version of each garment per country.
Maybe most striking of all Ralph & Russo’s laundry list of designations, however, is the fact that the label has long been profitable from the sale of its garments. In fact, as Mr. Russo told the FT in 2016, Ralph & Russo has been "a profitable business from the start,” which was critical, as they did not have external funding to help them stay afloat.
This is noteworthy in large part because money is a funny thing, especially in fashion. For brands that do not boast lucrative license deals for eyewear or fragrances; a whole slew of accessible products made in-house, such as small leather goods or logo-print t-shirts; or third-party collaborations to boost their bottom lines, any sizable amount of profit can almost impossible to come by.
As of now, “The money is coming from the business. We’ve been very successful in haute couture, in building a really profitable, large business organically,” Mr. Russo told WWD in September. He and Ms. Ralph continue to hold the majority stake, and thus, are devoid of some of the pressures that come in the age of overly-corporatized fashion with profit-happy luxury conglomerates snapping up high fashion brands left and right, profiting most significantly from sales of logo-laden accessories (as distinct from runway garments).
Nowadays, those garments consist quite extensively of wedding attire, which “makes up 30 percent of the house's revenue, largely because of the cost of individual gowns rather than the number that are sold,” according to the New York Times, but Ralph is quick to note that the brand is not “just a couture house,” but instead, “a luxury brand.” This, he told Harper’s Bazaar, “is an important distinction,” and an ode, of course, to the brand’s ability to fiercely serve its clients in a modern – or as Ms. Ralph and Mr. Russo say, “approachable” – way.
Russo further noted that the company – which was recently estimated to have a $270+ million valuation – is witnessing triple-digit revenue growth year-over-year with revenues expected to be “in the billions” over the next five years in large part thanks to its expansion into some of the more traditional money-making product categories. “The shoes and leather goods have become so popular. They get coverage on the couture runway and are now the biggest source of revenue for the business,” he told WWD.
In terms of its public-facing persona, not too much has changed over the years. While the brand has expanded into some measured advertising efforts, including runway shows and seasonal ad campaigns for its ready-to-wear line, it still “receives a huge number of word-of-mouth recommendations every week,” and no shortage of clients champing at the bit to pre-order looks even before they kit the runway each season.
“Often we get orders via WhatsApp before models have even left the [couture] catwalk,” Ms. Ralph, told the Times. “We cater for clients who travel constantly, know exactly what they want and rarely think twice about making a purchase.”
Ahead of the brand’s Spring/Summer 2017 couture show, Mr. Ralph told Harper's Bazaar that half of the dresses set to appear on the runway had already been pre-sold. And as is customary, “My phone will start buzzing during the show as clients claim their looks,” he says. Most of the clients on the line has her own mannequin in the Ralph & Russo atelier – sculpted exactly to her body thanks to 35 different measurements – so that garments can be tailored to her body perfectly without her having to attend a handful of fittings.
In short: The story of the dizzyingly swift rise of Ms. Ralph and Mr. Russo’s eponymous label is a truly striking one that speaks not only to the breadth of the modern-day couture customer but also the ability of a brand to work outside of the most traditional parameters of how to achieve success within the fashion industry. That, in fact, might be the most interesting takeaway of all.