Stefano Ricci was one of the first high-end tailors to break into the Asian market and now counts Russian oligarchs, Chinese billionaires and Indian steel magnates among his clients. Josh Sims finds out more about his focus on quality and customer service.
There’s a point where menswear becomes too ostentatious,” admits Stefano Ricci, a man known to occasionally make belt buckles out of solid platinum, cuff-links encrusted with diamonds and trainers out of crocodile skin. “But the fact is that people successful through the new economy want to express through their clothing that they’re winners. And that can lead to ostentation.”
It’s not a look Ricci, who started designing menswear under his own name 45 years ago this year, espouses himself. With his Karl Marx hair and beard and his soft, elegantly-crumpled suit, his own style is more classically Florentine, a nod to his home town. And, indeed, for all that he may be the go to dresser of Russian oligarchs, Chinese billionaires and Indian steel magnates – not to mention various heads of state – the bulk of his collections is focused around perfectly-finished tailoring and shirting that, seeking reassurance in their purchasing, chime with the tastes of the suddenly very rich.
Without the cultural import of Armani or the flash of Versace, the comparatively niche Ricci may be less well known and have fewer customers – but they’re customers that count. Take, for example, the businessman who last year was followed around the world by a Stefano Ricci tailor for six months, being shown fine fabrics and giving measurements without actually giving any commitment to buy anything. Then who, one day, announced that he was satisfied with the product and service and placed an order for 50 suits. At over US$10,000 a pop.
“It’s about building a relationship with your client,” Ricci suggests. “It’s about respecting them. So, we don’t do the usual marketing – people like this aren’t impressed by ads or celebrity testimonials any more. You won’t see our products in outlets. We don’t ever do sales. We’ll even destroy products at the end of a season to protect the brand’s image.
“The idea of luxury ended with 9/11,” he adds. “That’s when everything was suddenly ‘luxury’ and things became very confused. What we sell now is emotion – a connection. They trust us to only offer the very best. That means there’s something of an arms race going on and every season we have to push ourselves a little further, in the materials, in the finishing. After all, our clients don’t actually need more suits, or more jeans, or more anything. And the brand alone could never justify the prices. You have to be able to feel it in the products.”
Ricci – whose sons, Nicolo and Filippo, also work for the family firm, having recently taken up senior positions as chief executive and creative director respectively, and with whom he shares a love of old cars and big game hunting – has had an uncanny ability to connect with his customer too. He used to be a major player in the Middle East, then home to the world’s big luxury shoppers. Then, in 1991, and much to the bemusement of many in the luxury goods sector, Ricci opened a flagship shop in China, way ahead of the curve.
“This was when there were no clothes shops, when there was barely even lighting in the streets in China,” says Ricci. “OK, so in every family there’s someone who’s not right in the head. But I could sense that China was going to conquer the world. All the young people were running. And people moving fast is always a good sign.”
He has just launched a line for boys too: not children’s clothes with Stefano Ricci branding, but proper, serious clothes – at serious prices – scaled down to fit. Why? Because he predicts that men who have grown up enjoying clothes are looking for a way of sharing that interest with their sons. Stefano Ricci’s is, if it’s not already clear, a very male world, although Nicolo points out that, to say his father goes big game hunting, would be an exaggeration: “He spends most of the time on safari staring out across the valley and sketching his designs.”
These days they include designs for homewares too, and the interiors of yachts and shops – last year the company opened a shop in Mayfair, London, and this year comes one in Istanbul, so expect Turkey to be the next big luxury hotspot. They’re all part of the mix that makes Stefano Ricci’s a US$100m turnover business. Yet don’t expect the brand, as particular as it is, to stretch to hotels, for example, as both Armani and Versace’s have done, and as Stefano Ricci was asked to do. It declined.
Yes, it has a small restaurant above a shop – that’s just to host those customers that spend US$100,000 a year or more down below. And its kitchens are busy.
“But it’s one thing being consistent in clothing, or in the shop you sell it from, and maintaining that service at the level of something like a hotel,” says Ricci. “That’s very hard to do. You can’t control it all. And quality is what we’re all about.
“If you trust any company – it could be one that makes pasta, anything – then you’re reassured by its consistency. That goes beyond the product. It means we can stretch a little, because if your customer likes what you do in one area, they’re prepared to give you a chance in another – if the quality and the price is right. Sure, some customers get really attached to a brand and want that designer label in all aspects of their life. But there are limits.”
Though not, it seems, too many, and especially for a company that has long gone its own way. Or, rather, perhaps just stuck to its guns, both literal and metaphoric. That has included making all its products in Italy – and, Ricci stresses, whether “made in Italy” still has the cachet it once did or not, that means really made in Italy, not abusing lax European Union regulations that allow the claim to be made without actually utilising any of the nation’s craft skills. It’s included refusing to diffuse or dumb down.
“The fact is that we haven’t always been alone,” says Ricci. “One of the reasons for our success is that our competition – and there were several companies operating right at the top, quality-wise, without mentioning them by name – didn’t believe in the power of this niche. These other companies had their hands on the prize. But then they twisted themselves into fashion brands and lost their position. They lost the quality and service that people would have got from them in the past. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
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