Tamara Ralph on handling Covid-19, managing a brand during the pandemic and sketching for the future
Tamara Ralph, the designer half of Ralph & Russo, is an Australian couturier based in London, who is currently spending the great European lockdown far from her UK base. Sydney-born Ralph and her three dogs have found refuge in another port city: they are all at her home in Cannes.
Back in January 2014, Ralph & Russo – birthed by Tamara Ralph and business partner Michael Russo - became the first British-based couturier to be invited to show on the official Paris haute couture calendar in over a century. Her blend of high glam, rigorous technique and classy proportions mixed with gutsy decoration have won Ralph & Russo a truly global cult status among the super well-heeled.
Since their Paris debut, the house has gone from strength to strength, building a global high-end brand based on talent, drive and an enormous amount of hard work.
In 2015, they opened their first retail boutique in Harrods – 150 square-meters in the department store’s Superbrands area. That positioned them alongside the likes of Valentino and Christian Dior, as well as Gucci and Prada.
Latterly, the company moved into new headquarters in White City, within the hip new development project that also includes the latest Soho House. Their front office is a seven-story townhouse where they meet and greet and fit and dress their clients - Middle Eastern princesses, major league actresses, international socialites and the girlfriends of London’s Hedgerati.
In the past decade, Tamara has also managed to dress Gwyneth Paltrow, who donned a one-shoulder pink gown by Ralph & Russo to the 2015 Oscars, Kate Bosworth and Beyoncé, dressed by the brand for her world tour. As for Angelina Jolie, she wore a dove-grey wool-crepe skirt suit when she was made Dame Angelina in Buckingham Palace. Meghan Markle wore Ralph & Russo for her official engagement photos.
So, we caught up with Tamara to hear her take on handling Covid-19, managing a brand during the pandemic, sketching for the future and using e-fittings for couture clients.
FashionNetwork.com: Good morning Tamara, where are you now?
Tamara Ralph: Good day Godfrey, I’m in Cannes. Where, I must say, I have been very impressed by the way France is handle this pandemic. The rules are very strict, only supermarket and pharmacies are open. Most people are in gloves and masks, and the French people respect the rules, which is very good. All my dogs are here. I have three chow-chows and they adore the outdoor space, much better than London. It’s been lovely weather and I even managed to go for a swim at the weekend.
But it’s also have been super busy! You have 10 times the amount of e-mails. I have been working about 10 hours a day on average. I like to sketch at night and at the weekends and being able to take time to be creative while being here is really nice.
I believe it is a time when companies and brands need to rethink their strategy and how to move forward after this. There’s been a lot of reflection about how things could be make more efficient and more sustainable. Like in terms of travel, which I used to do a lot for work. Obviously, we all realize now that all those trips can been done over a Zoom conference. It’s an eye opener in how things can be improved and that is good thing.
FN: When you are in London, where do you work?
TR: We have headquarters in Mayfair, on Park Street, for private clients as well as our couture studio and our archives. As for our head office, it is in White City – one big floor. We'd moved several times, before we were in Victoria, but our atelier kept growing. Now, we have lots of room (30,000 square-feet) for everyone: ready-to-wear, product development, couture atelier and finance and marketing. On average, we have a staff of about 250, but that can grow to 350 during Fashion Week.
FN: Did you have to furlough anyone?
TR: Yes, I am afraid we did. We looked at who could work from home and who could not. So, for those things that couldn't be done at home, we had to look into.
FN: Where is Michael right now?
TR: In Dubai, where he flew to just prior to all the borders closing. He then decided to stay as it was easier since we were reopening our Dubai store. It is in Dubai Mall, which opened last week, the latter being enforced with social distancing measures and the required precautions. Our Monte Carlo store opened yesterday. Even if the border with France is, I think, still closed. But, still, I am not expecting a fast recovery.
FN: How are all your team?
TR: We use Zoom and Microsoft teams to work. It’s important to keep everyone motivated and keep the design team inspired. Because everyone needs to think differently. We have lot of calls all day, every day. On the hour – every hour. And, Michael and I are constantly in touch.
FN: How has all this pandemic affected your creative ideas?
TR: It’s been very good being in Cannes. I love the energy of this house and I find I am very creative here as it’s very relaxing. Taking a step back from our busy schedule allows me to be more creative. I put aside a couple of hours every day to sketch. And my team ships me fabrics and swatches regularly. Things obviously take longer without a face-to-face. And, although Italy has been on lockdown, they still have been moving and shipping fabrics, and their factories reopened on Monday.
FN: You manufacture and lot in in Italy, right?
TR: Right. We produce ready-to-wear, shoes and leather goods. I do travel to Italy about twice a year. Plus, we have people based in Italy and they come to London. But, while I now think that business meetings are just as efficient in video, product meetings are different. You need face-to-face time with the product and factory and designer. That won’t change in the future.
FN: Has has this affected you personally?
TR: You rethink your values and what is important. I used to be so busy and Michael too, so taking a step back has been good. Your health becomes a priority and so does family. I always ate healthy, but now I will make more time for myself – for more balance. A lot of people will come out with different ways of thinking.
FN: They say that couture has only 4,000 clients worldwide clients. Judging from Ralph & Russo’s shows in Paris, the brand probably has a quarter of them. How have you been able to fulfill orders to major clients?
TR: We did have a few orders that could not postponed, so we kept a very small skeleton team. Some people worked on those pieces that could be made from home. Couture has such a long lead time, clients are already thinking of their events or weddings next January or February. But, of course, we have had to close as much of the office as possible. So, we adopted new ways of working – we do e-fittings, for our international clientele. Which does save travel for clients and our teams. Our online platform is still working, and we are still shipping ready-to-wear, leather goods and accessories. Plus, we have a few personal shoppers working with different apps: they curate styling options for this period, such as loungewear, and then ship to clients.
FN: When do you next expect to show in Paris again?
TR: Obviously, the July couture season is cancelled. So, we are working on our collection and still discussing our direction about a show. We are planning for it, but we take it one day at a time. The next season will probably be different story. A lot of brands will show in their own time, or not at all, or in differing ways. I would not be surprised if the season were cancelled, even if we are still gearing up for it! To me, digital is the most important thing to concentrate on right now. And how that is presented is the way forward.
FN: How will fashion change after Covid-19?
TR: I am sketching with hope and happiness and color. People would think that coming out of this nightmare, we would want a "safer" option, but I think it is more about feeling good again. I believe that family will be more important. And I expect a stronger focus on loungewear.
FN: Do you think that the influence of influencers will wane?
TR: Hmmm. Some have shone through this and some have had a harder time at home. However, I believe that when digital is important, the players in that world will be important. So, I am not sure that will change. As long as digital and social media are important, their representatives will be important.
FN: Many people have talked about a reset button – do you think that is the case?
TR: I hope there is a reset button! Why not reset the whole year! I think that people will give up things that they thought were important. And people will take away from this a newfound respect for their own health and time. So, health and wellness will be important; and home too, as product categories.
At Ralph & Russo, we do in-house retail design for our stores. I lead that. We also make furniture, which we have all designed. Well, we have started to see a lot of momentum and interest in both from the outside world. So, we want to develop them as a product category, and we are working on that. It will be a very nice synergy for the brand. It will bring us more into the world of design – which we love. It’s all about emotion and texture and color, which I enjoy.
FN: You studied fashion in your hometown, Sydney, at Whitehouse, right?
TR: Yes, it’s like the Central St Martins of Australia. It’s a very good college.
FN: Did you graduate?
TR: What do you mean? Of course I graduated, after three years!
FN: You’d be surprised how many famous designers didn’t complete their degrees!
TR: Well, I did! I began fashion as a hobby and always loved it. My mum bought me a sewing machine and grandmother donated a tailored mannequin for me. They were in fashion. My mum was in interior design after having worked in fashion. We had several generations in fashion and mum had a small atelier in a room in our home to create. My grandmother was a couturier and was very particular about quality and finish, so I learned the technical side from her. I always sketched. All the time. When I was about 12, I stitched my first pieces, and when I was 15, I sold my first design to a friend: this then grew into becoming my life.
All the construction technique I got from my grandmother meant that when I opened up our fashion house in London, I personally trained the first staff we hired and they now run my entire atelier.
Where and when do you plan to open more boutiques?
TR: We want to open flagships in key positions in the world. We have a New York store currently on hold. It was meant to open in May, on Madison, but now it will have to be later this year. We opened our first store in Harrods, and have shops in Monte Carlo, Doha and Dubai, alongside other shop-in-shops elsewhere. In Paris, we have a "maison" on rue François Premier, and want to have a flagship too. Plus, we are looking into Asia.
FN: Where do you hope to be in five years?
TR: In lots of interesting directions! Just as we wanted, we plan to build the brand, even if things have already grown very fast. From the beginning, we always wanted all-encompassing categories – from beauty to home. So in September and November, we plan to launch two important brand collaborations, as long as they are not delayed. Though I cannot say more just yet.
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