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Some Like It Haute: inside couture house Ralph & Russo

British couture house Ralph & Russo has had huge success worldwide in just a decade; founders Tamara Ralph and Michael Russo talk about their brand

In the ferociously competitive, exclusive world of high fashion, it can take brands decades to make serious waves in the market, usually after having spent millions on shows at the carousel of biannual Fashion Weeks, employing the most sought-after designers and establishing boutiques around the globe (unless you’re Victoria Beckham or the Olsen twins; your profile may allow you to bypass a stage or two of the lengthy, expensive process). There’s only room for a handful of brands at the top of this elite food chain and their showcase takes place twice a year in Paris; if you’re invited to take part in Haute Couture Week, welcome to the inner circle.

To get to that stage requires the ticking a lot of boxes. For starters, you’ll need an atelier in Paris, with 20 full-time members of staff. You must design made to order, handmade pieces, for private clients, who’ll attend more than one fitting. You’ll need to get those creative juices flowing too; you’ll be expected to present 50 original designs to the public twice a year. Even the term ‘haute couture’ is protected by law in France and rules state that only “those companies mentioned on the list drawn up each year by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture… are entitled to avail themselves” of it. This January, the runway roll call bestowed just 21 brands with this honour, including established names you’d expect to be old hands at haute couture, such as Chanel, Dior, Valentino, Versace and Elie Saab (younger than the French and Italian houses but still founded an impressive 33 years ago).

However, there’s one inclusion on the list that made its debut only last year and, startlingly, didn’t even exist until 2007. When I speak to Ralph & Russo’s co-founder Michael Russo about this remarkable achievement, he declares being invited to Paris Haute Couture Week as a Guest Member the highlight of 2014: “To show our creations there alongside other iconic couture houses was just incredible.” Ralph & Russo is the first British label in a century to do so; the last was ‘Lucile’ – the early 20th century designer Lady Duff-Gordon – in 1915. Holding back from showing a collection “until the time was right was one of the biggest and hardest decisions we’ve had to make”, Michael explains. “Over the years, we did receive invitations to show our pieces publicly but until January last year, we had only shown them to private clients. But Paris Couture Week was the right time and the right moment to show the world who we are and what our vision is.”

I should point out that Michael has an Australian accent, as does co-founder and creative director Tamara Ralph, despite the brand’s British status; it transpires that although both founders are Australian, the brand was founded in London and so we can be justly proud of it. In fact, it was here that the pair, partners in life as well as business (they’re happily engaged), met through the most serendipitous of circumstances. Tamara, recently landed in London, went out to explore her new home and, quite literally, bumped into Michael on the Fulham Road. They started talking, realising that they shared a home country and, two years later, Ralph & Russo was launched. The showroom and atelier (by appointment only, of course) are discreetly located on Sloane Street – Tamara and Michael have a property nearby – and last year, a Ralph & Russo boutique launched in Harrods (as did its accessories collection).

Having moved from her native Australia a decade ago, Tamara now sounds like a fully-fledged Londoner. “It is one of the greatest cities in the world and I’m constantly inspired. There’s a fantastic collection of impressionist paintings at the National Gallery and Knightsbridge is just such a beautiful area. From Harrods, the florists and CUT at 45 Park Lane to the V&A; it has it all!” Michael is similarly enthusiastic about the fashion – “Londoners can be quite avant-garde with their style choices; they’re fearless and more directional than in other cities” and the V&A too. “It’s such a beautiful institution; the history, beauty and romance behind the art within the museum are elements that are also embodied in every Ralph & Russo creation”.

This mutual appreciation is no doubt why, last autumn, the V&A played host to a rare Ralph & Russo catwalk show as part of its live Fashion in Motion events, designed to bring the excitement and spectacle of the high fashion catwalk to a wider audience. Models wearing a dream-world parade of fairytale gowns swept down the runway, culminating in a finale featuring the most elaborate and time-consuming dress that Ralph & Russo has ever created. Tamara explains:

“With 600 metres of silk tulle, 40 different types of bead and 25 different types of Swarovski crystal, this wedding dress took 3,900 hours to create. Luckily not everyone gets married in the same month!”

This creation is the epitome of what can result from the imagination of someone like Tamara, who comes from three generations of couturiers. “I’ve sketched dresses and clothes for as long as I can remember. I began sewing and creating pieces for myself at the age of 12 and naturally the first thing I made was a dress. It was such a thrilling moment to see one of my sketches come to life and soon I was creating pieces for my girlfriends.” Now it’s women who want to wear the most intricate, extravagant and opulent pieces that money can buy that Tamara is dressing. She describes the definitive Ralph & Russo client as “strong, confident, elegant and wonderfully feminine” and most would agree that one of her most high-profile admirers, Angelina Jolie, could be described as such. In recent months the Hollywood star and humanitarian has worn the label both to receive an honorary Damehood from HM the Queen and to the UK premiere of her film Unbroken. Tamara hand-draws an illustration for every couture design – these encompass eveningwear, bridal, cocktail, tailored or daywear – whether the owner will be Angelina, an international businesswoman or an Arabian princess.

Next, nimble-fingered couturiers will drape, cut and pin the creation to the body before stitching and sewing each panel, crystal and embellishment by hand. As Tamara describes this process, I recall the enchanting scene in Cinderella where her ballgown is made, as if by magic, before her very eyes. Each unique gown can take hundreds, or thousands, of hours (and up to 30 pairs of industrious hands) to create; expect to wait four to five weeks, from illustration to finished product, if you’re in the market for this type of couture piece.

You might think there aren’t many women who are prepared to pay four, five and even six figure sums for couture creations but, judging by the success that Ralph & Russo has enjoyed, you’d be wrong. The images from the latest couture week have just been released and Olivia Palermo praised Ralph & Russo’s S/S15 show as one of the best on her website: “One had the feeling of witnessing the presentation of a collection that surpassed the special and crossed over into the rarified world of collections that are painstakingly crafted with love and a total devotion to beauty.” An haute couture gown may be something that most of us can only dream of owning but if that’s the case, then let us dream on.

Ralph & Russo, 39 Sloane Street, SW1X, 020 8878 5399 (by appointment only), www.ralphandrusso.com