Tamara Ralph: the client in the Middle East really understands luxury

The creative director of Ralph & Russo, talks to us about the sophistication of clients in the Arab world, and what she learnt from her couturier grandmother

Tamara Ralph, left, is one half of the design duo Ralph & Russo, known for their romantic, maximalist designs, right. Photos: Supplied
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“I think the client in the [Middle East] region really understands luxury, and has a big appreciation for detail, beauty and design,” says Tamara Ralph, the Australia-born co-founder and creative director of Ralph & Russo. Talking on the phone from her London atelier, she is full of praise for her customers in this part of the world.

“They love getting dressed up, and they have the events for it. They love celebrating and really make the most of their couture pieces, which is something I love. Dubai and the region has always been critical for the brand, right from the very start, and we have a lot of very loyal clients.”

We have a refreshing femininity and we are not ashamed of that

In something akin to a modern-day fairytale, Ralph & Russo has risen from being a small London atelier to one of the most notable houses on Paris’s illustrious haute couture circuit, in just nine short years.

The brand has earned a reputation for weaving romance and femininity through its collections, and its handmade gowns are beloved by A-listers and royalty alike. Gwyneth Paltrow and Rihanna are fans, Angelina Jolie donned Ralph & Russo to receive an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth in 2014, and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, wore the brand in her official engagement photos.

In this photo released by Kensington Palace on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017, Britain's Prince Harry and Meghan Markle pose an official engagement photo, at Frogmore House, in Windsor, England. (Alexi Lubomirski via AP)

Ahead of the recent opening of her label’s first stand-alone store in the The Dubai Mall, Ralph is in an expansive mood. The new retail space, filled with ready-to-wear, is calm and elegant, in tones of grey and copper. It quietly whispers of beautiful things, made well. Responsible for designing both ready-to-wear and intricate haute couture collections, Ralph already has plenty on her plate but, nonetheless, she designed the store interiors herself.

Ralph & Russo Dubai Boutique. Courtesy Ralph & Russo

“Doing interiors is something I really love; it is an extension of the house and I think it is important to create emotion, feeling and set the tone of who we are as a house,” she explains. “I come from a design-based family. My mother, after working in fashion, went into interior design, and when I was young, I used to work in her store and help. So interiors is not alien to me; it came very naturally.”

Fittingly for a brand that started in haute couture, the new store is a tasteful conversation about contrast and restraint. “The craftsmanship is something that we really took from the house codes,” Ralph says. “When we were looking at the interior design as a concept, we didn’t just take existing materials; we really developed them, and had textures and special finishes made, and everything was completely bespoke. It was really about craft.”

London lacked a couture industry 

This adherence to craft lies at the heart of the label, which was founded in London in 2010 when Ralph met fellow antipodean Michael Russo (“Michael was already living here, and I was just visiting for a holiday that never ended,” she explains). The pair soon realised that they shared a vision of luxury fashion. Drawn to the exclusive niche of handmade clothing, they took the daring decision to launch their label in London, rather than Paris, the traditional stronghold of haute couture.

“We really noticed that there was a gap in the market in London – there was a big international clientele coming through London, having homes here, sending their kids to school here, but there wasn’t much on offer in terms of those exclusive product categories. We fell in love with London and everything it had to offer; it just felt like home. It was something that came naturally,” Ralph notes.

Ralph & Russo Autumn/Winter 2019/20. Courtesy Ralph & Russo

Despite its international flavour, London lacked a couture industry, with the once thriving market for high-end, one-off, handcrafted designs having all but disappeared. For the fledgling brand, however, this allowed the quality and inventiveness of its designs to stand out, and in 2014, France’s illustrious Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (then called Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture) came calling, inviting the duo to join its coveted ranks.

A term as misunderstood as it is overused, haute couture is the highest accolade a fashion house can achieve. A legally binding definition, it lays down strict criteria that only a handful of houses can achieve, for clothes that are made entirely by hand and take hundreds of hours to complete. Silk, tulle, beading, crystals, feathers and seed pearls are transformed into breathtaking creations that few can afford, but all can admire. To be invited into this fabled institution so soon after opening was astonishing.

“The brand was quite well-known, and we had worked with high-profile clients on really beautiful archive collections and very exclusive pieces – but [we] had never actually done a fashion show or collection before. So, to be invited on to the schedule, without ever having done a show, was an achievement, and something we were really proud of. As a young girl growing up, I wanted to be a designer, and because my grandmother was a couturier, that was the world I looked up to the most. That was the dream, the pinnacle. It is as if you are an actress winning an Oscar,” Ralph says.

“I think there is a modern elegance to what we are as a house; we have a refreshing femininity and we are not ashamed of that. There is a romance about the brand that everyone loves [and] we love to make women feel beautiful. Clients tell us time and time again they feel special in our pieces, so that is something that I think made us stand out. It’s what we love designing for.”

For its recent autumn/winter 2019 haute couture show, held in the garden of the British Embassy in Paris, Ralph again proved herself adept at weaving romance and dreams through her parade of red carpet-worthy gowns. There were the languid, fluid looks the house excels at, here in delicate pastel shades. In between, however, came chic tweed-y peplum jackets with nipped waists and patch pockets that one could easily picture worn with jeans, tipped, presumably, towards a younger customer.

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 04:  (L-R) Designers Tamara Ralph and Michael Russo walk the runway during the Ralph & Russo Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2016-2017 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on July 4, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Richard Bord/Getty Images)

'I had a mini atelier when I was young'

“There is a young client in couture now and I think that it’s really important to realise that, and have that youthful modernism in the pieces. As a young house, we really see the trends and we wanted to develop ease in the couture side of things – to make it easy for our clients and make it a beautiful experience. Something that is going to fit into their lifestyle, with pieces that they can actually wear.”

As the third generation of a couturier family, Ralph grew up surrounded by a love of technique, design and dedication – and her first real foray into fashion came when she was just a teenager. “They could see from a really young age that I was interested in fashion and designing, [but] I don’t know how serious they thought I was about it until I turned 15 and basically set up my first fashion business,” she reveals.

“My mother comes from a design-based background, and my grandmother is from a couture craftsmanship background, so having both of those women in my life from a young age made me realise the importance of both. I had a mini atelier when I was young; I had a sewing machine and mannequins and I would spend all night after school draping my mannequins and understanding fabrics and being creative.”

Ralph & Russo. Courtesy Ralph & Russo

Under the watchful eye of her grandmother, the young Ralph learnt to understand how fabric behaved, and how to create intricate handmade clothes to the high standard of couture. “She used to make me unpick every stitch that wasn’t perfect, over and over again, so it’s in my blood now. That training she provided when I was young is ingrained, and is instilled throughout the atelier.”

Nowadays the biggest luxury is time. People don't have enough time, so if you can enhance someone's life and make it more beautiful, and easier, then that is the ultimate luxury

On the cusp of Ralph & Russo's 10-year anniversary, and with haute couture, ready-to-wear and luxury accessories already under their belt, the duo could be forgiven for sitting back and enjoying the fruits of their labour. But Ralph doesn't seem to be the type. "We feel like we are just getting started, we really do," she laughs. "There are a lot of things that we are working on, which are going to be announced. It is a very exciting step for the brand and we can't wait to build into the next phase."

Being in a position to build the brand is something she credits to the strength of her relationship with Russo, who is her life, as well as business, partner. “We both have strengths, and we both know what they are, which is amazing. We think the same, we both have the same aesthetic and the same taste, so we are very fortunate to have each other, because we trust each other implicitly. We complement each other well and have respect for each other, and that trust is very important. There are some challenges, but it’s fun.”

Ralph & Russo Autumn/Winter 2019/20. Courtesy Ralph & Russo

As the creative force behind a house infused with romance, I wonder who it is that Ralph designs for? Who is the archetypal Ralph & Russo woman? There is a small pause before she laughingly replies that people always ask this of the wrong person.

"Michael has the best answer for this. When people ask who the Ralph & Russo woman is, he always says me. I guess that I like elegance, I love to have fun with fashion and like to mix it up. I like to play with clothes and I do not like to stay with one style.

“I know who our clients are, who our women are and what I want for the brand. I design for that, and what I feel women will love. People want the appreciation of luxury, but luxury is different to what it was a while ago,” Ralph explains. “Now it should enhance somebody’s life. Nowadays the biggest luxury is time. People don’t have enough time, so if you can enhance someone’s life and make it more beautiful, and easier, then that is the ultimate luxury.”