Meet Stefano Ricci, designer to the 0.001 per cent

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At the Stefano Ricci boutique on Park Avenue in New York, Filippo Ricci, the brand’s creative director, recounts a story about one of his clients, a wealthy industrialist.

“He had his first son’s wedding one year, so he bought a pair of 3-carat diamond cuff links that we made in our workshop,” says Filippo, the younger son of the label’s founder. The cuff links, he adds, cost $US100,000.

“A year later,” he continues, “his other son got married. So we presented him with an $US80,000 tie, with 100 diamonds on it. We made six of them. One of them is owned by Elton John. When we went personally to deliver it, we said, ‘Are you happy with the cuff links’?”

The father responded with a shrug. “You know what?” he said, according to Filippo, 34. “I lost them at the wedding. I partied too much.”

Such mishaps are bound to arise when your client base is the 0.001 per cent.

After nearly four decades, the Stefano Ricci label has come to occupy a unique place in the fashion firmament. Makers of hyper-masculine, hyper-expensive menswear and accessories, this tightly held family business has outfitted Kremlin power brokers, Middle Eastern oil scions, celebrities (Andrea Bocelli, Tom Cruise) and world leaders (Nelson Mandela, Helmut Kohl).

It is not so well known in Australia (the brand has no flagship store here but is stocked in upmarket department store Harrolds) and the United States as its fellow Florence-based luxury brands Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo, given its focus on emerging markets like Russia, China and the Middle East. 

But at a time when the balance of power is tipping eastward, and leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have revived the concept of the unapologetic strongman, the time might be right for Stefano Ricci’s sumptuous brand of oligarch chic.

Consider the eagle: A predator among predators that symbolises not just fierce individualism in the US, but strength in China, dynastic glory in the Middle East and ruling authority in Russia going back to the czars. Which explains, in a roundabout way, why the eagle is an apt logo for Stefano Ricci, popping up on $US5000 Stefano Ricci crocodile sneakers, $US1950 silk-and-crocodile baseball caps and $US2000 matte crocodile sunglasses. The company even uses bronze eagle heads in place of the standard human ones for its in-store mannequins.

“I’m emotionally tied to the concept of the eagle, with its elegance,” Stefano Ricci, 67, says. “The eagle stands for a sense of strength, control.”

That matters when you’re selling $US25,000 custom suits to heads of state or $US120,000 crocodile shirts for nightclubbing industrialists. To the Stefano Ricci client, clothing serves a psychological function as much as a sartorial one – it must remind everyone, the wearers most of all, that they stand bestride the world like a colossus.

It is that very swashbuckling sensibility, in fact, that Stefano Ricci himself relied on to build his business.

Since 1972, this Falstaffian Florentine – who hunts buffalo in Tanzania, keeps falcons on his Tuscan country estate and wears a set of ivory cuff links presented to him by a shaman in Africa – has charted his own course, one that seems to cry out for satellite navigation, given that, among its 54 stores worldwide, the company operates boutiques in Yerevan, Armenia; Baku, Azerbaijan; and Astana, Kazakhstan, in addition to those in the standard fashion capitals like Milan and London.

That eastward expansion has been a company strategy since it opened its first outpost in China in 1993, when a Stefano Ricci tie cost about four months’ salary of the average Chinese worker, Stefano says.

“Everybody thought that I was crazy,” he says. “They were not wrong.”

But he says the potential was obvious to him when he walked the streets of Beijing and Shanghai back then. “I had the opportunity to see all these young people that were just walking faster than how I was used to seeing the people walking,” Stefano says. “When I looked into their eyes, I found an energy. I decided, my God, these people are going to conquer the world.”

The brand also specialises in the kind of customer service meant to impress its alpha-male clientele.

One client, a “world leader” whom Filippo declined to name, as a matter of company policy, needed a new power suit a few years ago for an important appearance at a conference of the Group of 8 industrialised countries. Stefano Ricci flew a tailor to the G8 meeting, where he produced one in two days.

Another client from East Asia used to send a plane to Florence every month to pick up 100 silk shirts at a cost of about $US1000 apiece. “He only wears silk shirts,” Filippo says. “But a month only has about 30 days; that’s three shirts a day.”

In a sense, you get what you pay for. Stefano still renders the designs by hand, in pencil. “He doesn’t even have an iPhone,” Filippo says. Many suits are made from limited-edition fabrics, “so there might be maybe 10 suits around the world made of that fabric,” Filippo adds.

Adding to the sense of exclusivity, the company chooses to shred thousands of unsold items each year – shirts, jeans, even suits – rather than offer them at reduced prices in sales.

It is interesting, then, that Stefano Ricci’s most famous client, Nelson Mandela, eschewed such attire when he attended a 1996 banquet in his honour at Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth II. The South African president raised eyebrows by greeting the queen in a look that might be described as Stefano Ricci casino casual: a black jacquard silk shirt and slacks. But as he later recounted to the Ricci family, Filippo said, the queen told him, “You have a very nice shirt.”

South African President Nelson Mandela with the Queen in 1996.

South African President Nelson Mandela with the Queen in 1996. Photo: AP

Stefano Ricci the label would be unthinkable without Florence as home, the patriarch said from the family’s 1800-acre country estate, Poggio ai Segugi, nestled in the Tuscan hills north of Florence.

The label’s powerful clientele “is literally connected to the city where I was born,” Stefano says. “If you are in Florence, you get used to excellence. You get used to the emotion of the sculpture, of the paintings, the detail of the roofs. I approach my job from the only side that I was able to approach it. I don’t know any other way.”

Stefano, whose family has roots in the apparel industry (his mother made silk sleepwear for ladies), tends to dress the part of the country squire, padding around his refurbished 17th-century castle, outside of which he keeps 22 hunting dogs and bags wild boar, in earth-tone jackets and gentlemanly hunting attire.

Given the brand’s easy relationship with capitalism, it is no wonder the Ricci family loves to joke about how the bearded patriarch is a dead ringer for Karl Marx.

Humour is hardly the only thing that binds the Ricci family, which also includes Stefano’s wife, Claudia, and the eldest son, Niccolo, 40, who serve as the company’s co-chief executives. “Like all Italian families, the boss is mama,” Filippo says.

The family races together, driving museum-quality automobiles like an Aston Martin Le Mans from 1933, or a Jaguar XK120 from 1952, in the Mille Miglia vintage car race.

The family also hunts together, stalking moose on horseback in the Canadian Rockies, or the elusive bongo, a species of antelope, on journeys down the Congo River with Pygmy guides. Donald Trump jnr tagged along on a family hunt in Namibia some 15 years ago, Filippo says, although back then, “he was just a developer’s son.”

New York Times

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