Wednesday 3 August 2016

The Rise of Ralph & Russo in the World of Haute Couture

A lavish evening gown at Ralph & Russo's Paris Autumn/Winter 2016-17 collection. Cover picture and all photographs by Elli Ioannou 
One of the highlights of last month's Paris Haute Couture Week was the beautiful collection by London-based Australian duo Ralph & Russo. Just two years ago, they became the first British-based couturiers in a century to show collections in the French capital. Our special correspondent Elli Ioannou looks at Tamara Ralph and Michael Russo's meteoric rise in the world of global high fashion

A finely embroidered dress looking stately in Paris
FANTASY worlds, make believe and daydreams are not realms for children only. Behavioural psychologists from Freud to Jung encourage adults to tap into their inner child, feeding their imagination with play and creativity. Like a modern day Hans Christian Andersen fable, Ralph & Russo's new collection was romantic and full of mystery. A Utopian fantasy, their world of blossoms, butterflies, flora and fauna flourish in harmony. As guests were seated at their latest Paris show, including Lil Kim, Jordan Dunn, Petra Nemcova, Sonam Kapoor and Adriana Lima in the front row, visual hints of what was to come in the collection could be seen in the design of the runway entrance itself. Framed by an Art Deco arch with panels of Midnight Blue floral panels it was completed by an angled mirror ceiling that added a surrealist effect with reflections of the models on the catwalk.

Creative director Tamara Ralph & CEO Michael Russo
Based in London, Ralph & Russo is the only British fashion house to be elected by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to show its collection on the official schedule at Paris Haute Couture Week. Didier Grumbarch, the Chambre Syndicale’s former president, said they have a ‘savoire faire’ which many more established couture houses have lost. It was in January 2014 that Ralph & Russo became the first British-based couture company in 100 years to show its collections on the Paris Couture Week schedule.

One half of the label is Australian-born Creative Director Tamara Ralph while the other is her partner CEO, Michael Russo. Ralph says she always knew that she wanted to be part of the world of haute couture as her mother and grandmother were both couturiers for society ladies in Sydney. When Ralph was 10 years old they began to teach her about sewing, two years later she was making clothes for herself and friends. By the time she was 15 years old, Ralph was selling her designs to private clients and independent boutiques in Australia. She then went on to study at the Whitehouse Institute of Design in Sydney before moving to London and establishing the house of Ralph & Russo. It all started when Tamara Ralph first met Michael Russo by chance in London in 2003 when she was on holiday and he was working as a financial consultant. They fell in love and after a long distance relationship for a year, he bought her a ticket back to London and she began designing and making clothes on a small scale in the British capital.

Jaunty hats are a key part of the A/W16-17 collection
Three years later the pair created Ralph & Russo and in less than 10 years it has grown into a global high fashion brand. Today, their London atelier has a hundred skilled artisans including embroiderers, tailors and designers who work in toile, chiffon, velvet and silk. The size of the atelier is remarkable in Britain and is even larger than one of the world's top haute couture houses: Chanel has an atelier of around seventy artisans. Ralph & Russo have built up a client list with more than 600 London-made haute couture garments that can cost up to $500,000. A large percentage of their work is bridal and Tamara Ralph says many of the gowns are made for royal weddings. Other high profile clients include film stars and famous entertainers: Angelina Jolie met Queen Elizabeth and received her honorary damehood in a custom-made grey Ralph & Russo suit, Beyoncé has worn costumes designed by them on tour and Gwyneth Paltrow wore a slim pink, one-shouldered dress finished with a large rosette for the Oscars.

A fluid Seventies aesthetic ran through the Paris show
Ralph & Russo have presented six shows on the official Paris couture schedule over three years and now could receive an official ­appellation from the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. This would make them Australia's first haute couturiers. Known for their dedication to true couture, Ralph & Russo are gently pushing boundaries in their design direction with innovative new techniques, including a new fabric made by fusing silk and tulle. For their latest collection in Paris, styles, forms and hues are inspired by a distinctly Seventies, British aesthetic but with references to Ralph's favourite1950s silhouette. This was further accentuated by over sized hats from the same period and presented alongside soft, sexy and feline layers of flowing floor-length evening gowns and skirts. A variety of the other dresses also had delicate embroidery on sheer fabric and feathers and lace.

Blossoms & flower motifs on a 70s style coat
One of Tamara Ralph's key inspirations are gardens and the Autumn-Winter 2016-17 collection included peonies, tulips, and roses plus hand-painted blooms, embroidered crystals, glass beads, pearls and appliqués of petal-shaped feathers and mink pompoms. The wilderness part of the garden aesthetic included laser-cut butterflies and metallic embroidered dragonflies. The flower-power theme continued with blossoms and other floral motifs that were rendered via silk 3-D cut outs and beading. The volumes vary from billowing silk chiffon gowns and capes to sheer tulle bodysuits and silk flared skirts to shift dresses. There was an old world Hollywood glamour to it as well with pink tulle gowns with plunging necklines, silk organza skirts and tops embroidered with golden thread. “In general, we wanted a more modern ’70s feel, so we made everything lighter with more of a relaxed vibe, with all of those elements we love from the 70s but done in a very chic way,” Ralph said after the Paris show.

Thigh high slits exposed Ralph & Russo's signature luxe shoes and boots with their fine and intricate detailing. Accessories have become an increasingly important part of the collections and are more accessible than the custom-designed dresses. This season they created hats, including wide-brimmed styles and helmet styles that clung close to the head. The hats along with the collection of shoes and handbag gives everyone the chance to have a piece of Ralph & Russo, Michael Russo said after the runway collection.

Shanina Shaik closes the Paris show
The Paris show ended with the haute-couture tradition of the spectacular wedding gown. A long visual pause of darkness with just a shaft of icy blue light was the precursor to the finale. Some guests even stood up to leave, thinking the show was over. Then a dramatic silhouette showing an exquisite bridal gown appeared and Australian model Shanina Shaik closed the show in a dress embroidered with thousands of tiny beads in a floral pattern with a sweetheart neckline. The wedding dress was finished by a flowing cape, also embroidered with organza flowers, and a white floral headpiece. Shaik slowly walked down the runway, pausing and posing.With one last seductive turn, she exited to a cacophony of enthusiastic clapping and shouts of  'Bravo!' ~ an endorsement of Ralph & Russo's graceful aesthetic celebrating beauty and femininity.

Tap photographs for full-screen slideshow
Australian designer Tamara Walsh and Michael Russo after the presentation of their collection in Paris 
 Australian model Shanina Shaik wears the lacy bridal gown at the finale of the Ralph & Russo show
Body-hugging lace and embroidered dresses and capes featured in the collection
Silvery embroidery and hats added a glamourous vibe to the Seventies ethos

 Brilliant floral designs and finely detailed handbags created a feminine collection
Dramatic hats add to Ralph & Russo collection of accessories line
Wide-brimmed hats and full sleeves with cut-outs continued the 1970s theme
 Silvery butterflies add another layer of refined decoration to this flowery dress
Flowers, butterflies, leaves and feathers all show how Tamara Ralph was inspired by a lush garden 
 Hand-painted blooms, crystals and pearls created the richness of the collection
Pith-shaped hats recall Tamara Ralph's signature 1950s silhouettes
Ralph & Russo's London atelier has a hundred artisans that work on their embroidered creations 
 A model leaves the Paris runway framed by lustrous flowers and mirrors above that the reflect the runway

Subscribe to support our independent and original journalism, photography, artwork and film.