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Stefano Ricci, Clothier to the 0.001 Percent

By Alex Williams

Stefano Ricci, the luxury menswear designer, at his castle in the Tuscan hills in Firenzuola, Italy.
 
Majlend Bramo
Stefano Ricci, the luxury menswear designer, at his castle in the Tuscan hills in Firenzuola, Italy.

At the Stefano Ricci boutique on Park Avenue, Filippo Ricci, the brand’s creative director, was recounting a story about one of his clients, a wealthy industrialist.

“He had his first son’s wedding one year, so he bought a pair of 3-carat diamond cuff links that we made in our workshop,” said Filippo, the younger son of the label’s founder.

The cuff links, he added, cost US$100,000.

“A year later,” he continued, “his other son got married. So we presented him with an US$80,000 tie, with 100 diamonds on it. We made six of them. One of them is owned by Elton John. When we went personally to deliver it, we said, ‘Are you happy with the cuff links?'”

The father responded with a shrug. “'You know what?'” he said, according to Filippo, 34. “'I lost them at the wedding. I partied too much.'”

Such mishaps are bound to arise when your client base is the 0.001 percent.

After nearly four decades, the Stefano Ricci label has come to occupy a unique place in the fashion firmament. Makers of hypermasculine, hyperexpensive menswear and accessories, this tightly held family business has outfitted Kremlin power brokers, Middle Eastern oil scions, celebrities (Andrea Bocelli, Tom Cruise) and world leaders (Nelson Mandela, Helmut Kohl).

It is not so well known in the United States as its fellow Florence-based luxury brands Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo, given its focus on emerging markets like Russia, China and the Middle East.

But at a time when the balance of power is tipping eastward, and leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have revived the concept of the unapologetic strongman, the time might be right for Stefano Ricci’s sumptuous brand of oligarch chic.

Consider the eagle: A predator among predators that symbolises not just fierce individualism in the United States, but strength in China, dynastic glory in the Middle East and ruling authority in Russia going back to the czars.

Yana PaskovaFilippo Ricci, the creative director of Stefano Ricci, at the luxury menswear label's store in New York.
Filippo Ricci, the creative director of Stefano Ricci, at the luxury menswear label's store in New York.

Which explains, in a roundabout way, why the eagle is an apt logo for Stefano Ricci, popping up on US$5,000 Stefano Ricci crocodile sneakers, US$1,950 silk-and-crocodile baseball caps and US$2,000 matte crocodile sunglasses. The company even uses bronze eagle heads in place of the standard human ones for its in-store mannequins.

“I’m emotionally tied to the concept of the eagle, with its elegance,” Stefano Ricci, 67, said in an interview. “The eagle stands for a sense of strength, control.”

That matters when you’re selling US$25,000 custom suits to heads of state or US$120,000 crocodile shirts for nightclubbing industrialists. To the Stefano Ricci client, clothing serves a psychological function as much as a sartorial one — it must remind everyone, the wearers most of all, that they stand bestride the world like a colossus.

It is that very swashbuckling sensibility, in fact, that Stefano Ricci himself relied on to build his business.

Since 1972, this Falstaffian Florentine — who hunts buffalo in Tanzania, keeps falcons on his Tuscan country estate and wears a set of ivory cuff links presented to him by a shaman in Africa — has charted his own course, one that seems to cry out for satellite navigation, given that, among its 54 stores worldwide, the company operates boutiques in Yerevan, Armenia; Baku, Azerbaijan; and Astana, Kazakhstan, in addition to those in the standard fashion capitals like Milan and London.

That eastward expansion — a reversal, of sorts, of the Silk Road that once led from Asia to Italy — has been a company strategy since it opened its first outpost in China in 1993, when a Stefano Ricci tie cost about four months’ salary of the average Chinese worker, Stefano said.

“Everybody thought that I was crazy,” he said. “They were not wrong.”

But he said the potential was obvious to him when he walked the streets of Beijing and Shanghai back then.

“I had the opportunity to see all these young people that were just walking faster than how I was used to seeing the people walking,” Stefano said. “When I looked into their eyes, I found an energy. I decided, my God, these people are going to conquer the world.”

As China’s cities grew into forests of gleaming skyscrapers over the next quarter-century, the company opened another 11 boutiques there, including the 22,000-square-foot “mansion” in Shanghai that features an upstairs private club available to clients who spend more than US$100,000 a year, offering Cohiba cigars and white truffle ravioli courtesy of Florentine chefs, among other amenities.

Yana PaskovaAn alligator-skin bag in an eagle’s clutches at the Stefano Ricci boutique in New York.
An alligator-skin bag in an eagle’s clutches at the Stefano Ricci boutique in New York.

Stefano also jumped in early on the Russian market, forging ties with its emergent industrialist class in the 1990s and opening a Moscow boutique in 2004. Seven years later, the company celebrated the opening of its second Moscow boutique, a short stroll from the Kremlin, with a lavish fashion show for 5,000.

The interior of the Kremlin, in fact, already featured sumptuous silk curtains and upholstery from the Antico Setificio Fiorentino, an 18th-century silk factory purchased by Stefano Ricci in 2009. It still uses a warping machine designed by Leonardo da Vinci and has become a popular stop for vacationing plutocrats like Jeff Bezos. Last year, the company presented a silk damask casula made of fabric from this artisanal workshop to Pope Francis on a visit to Florence.

The historic mill also supplies the company’s Stefano Ricci Home division with exquisite fabrics like Ermisino — a shimmering silk taffeta woven from different color threads that has been a favorite of the aristocracy since the Renaissance. Customers use it to decorate the interiors of their 20,000-square-foot pleasure domes, as well as their 230-foot yachts.

“How do you say, ‘maximise’?” said Filippo, explaining the company’s business in yacht interiors. “What is the most luxurious thing that you can buy for yourself? It’s the megayacht. It’s more than a plane, more than a car. You use it, what, two or three weeks a year? And it can be US$100 million. It’s over-the-top luxury.”

The brand also specialises in the kind of customer service meant to impress its alpha-male clientele.

One client, a “world leader” whom Filippo declined to name, as a matter of company policy, needed a new power suit a few years ago for an important appearance at a conference of the Group of 8 industrialised countries. Stefano Ricci flew a tailor to the G8 meeting, where he produced one in two days.

Another client from East Asia used to send a plane to Florence every month to pick up 100 silk shirts at a cost of about US$1,000 apiece. “He only wears silk shirts,” Filippo said. “But a month only has about 30 days; that’s three shirts a day.”

Even when client requests push the boundaries of good taste, the company is happy to satisfy them — up to a point.

One well-heeled Ukrainian client, for example, asked the label to design a crocodile trench coat with a mink collar in a custom shade of lemon yellow to match his Harley-Davidson. “We convinced him, and he got it in black,” Filippo said.

Yana PaskovaThe eagle has always been a potent symbol for Ricci, who thought of it as a guardian angel during his travels.
The eagle has always been a potent symbol for Ricci, who thought of it as a guardian angel during his travels.

With clients like these, it is little wonder that the typical Stefano Ricci boutique looks more like a genteel private club than a selling floor.

The two-story Park Avenue store in New York, which opened in 2004, features gleaming brown walnut paneling, travertine floors and a staircase featuring banisters lined with crocodile skin. There are also US$60,000 chairs — “thrones” is probably a more apt term — upholstered in crocodile for lounging clients. (Given the annual demand of 20,000 crocodile skins, the company recently started its own crocodile farm in Darwin, Australia.)

“There is a magic about the crocodile, being one of those very strong predators,” Filippo explained. “People are afraid but very fascinated by them.”

While some may consider such design flourishes overkill (of more than just swamp-dwelling reptiles), this no-expense-spared mentality is appropriate to a brand whose custom suits start around US$8,000 and can quickly climb past US$25,000.

In a sense, you get what you pay for. Stefano still renders the designs by hand, in pencil. “He doesn’t even have an iPhone,” Filippo said. Many suits are made from limited-edition fabrics, “so there might be maybe 10 suits around the world made of that fabric,” Filippo added.

Adding to the sense of exclusivity, the company chooses to shred thousands of unsold items each year — shirts, jeans, even suits — rather than offer them at reduced prices in sales.

And while other brands’ business suits for the straphanger-class executive are typically made from relatively heavy, durable fabrics like Super 100-grade wool, Stefano Ricci’s suits start at the finer, more delicate Super 150, and go all the way to an ultra-fine Super 240, woven from fibres one-fifth the size of a human hair, creating a fabric that is highly sensitive to humidity and wear.

“They are beautiful to look at,” he said, “but it’s like preserving a fine wine.”

It is interesting, then, that Stefano Ricci’s most famous client, Nelson Mandela, eschewed such attire when attended a 1996 banquet in his honour at Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth II. The South African president raised eyebrows by greeting the queen in a look that might be described as Stefano Ricci casino casual: a black jacquard silk shirt and slacks. But as he later recounted to the Ricci family, Filippo said, the queen told him, “You have a very nice shirt.”

As much as Milan has come to dominate the Italian fashion landscape, locals consider Florence a cradle of Italian fashion, and, in a sense, of capitalism itself, thanks to ruling families of the Renaissance like the Medicis.

Stefano Ricci the label would be unthinkable without Florence as home, the patriarch said in a telephone interview from the family’s 1,800-acre country estate, Poggio ai Segugi, nestled in the Tuscan hills north of Florence.

Majlend BramoStefano Ricci, the luxury menswear designer, at his castle in the Tuscan hills in Firenzuola, Italy.
Stefano Ricci, the luxury menswear designer, at his castle in the Tuscan hills in Firenzuola, Italy.

The label’s powerful clientele “is literally connected to the city where I was born,” Stefano said. “If you are in Florence, you get used to excellence. You get used to the emotion of the sculpture, of the paintings, the detail of the roofs. I approach my job from the only side that I was able to approach it. I don’t know any other way.”

Stefano, whose family has roots in the apparel industry (his mother made silk sleepwear for ladies), tends to dress the part of the country squire, padding around his refurbished 17th-century castle, outside of which he keeps 22 hunting dogs and bags wild boar, in earth-tone jackets and gentlemanly hunting attire.

Given the brand’s easy relationship with capitalism, it is no wonder the Ricci family loves to joke about how the bearded patriarch is a dead ringer for Karl Marx.

Humour is hardly the only thing that binds the Ricci family, which also includes Stefano’s wife, Claudia, and the eldest son, Niccolo, 40, who serve as the company’s co-chief executives. “Like all Italian families, the boss is mama,” Filippo said.

The family races together, driving museum-quality automobiles like an Aston Martin Le Mans from 1933, or a Jaguar XK120 from 1952, in the Mille Miglia vintage car race.

The family also hunts together, stalking moose on horseback in the Canadian Rockies, or the elusive bongo, a species of antelope, on journeys down the Congo River with Pygmy guides. Donald Trump Jr. tagged along on a family hunt in Namibia some 15 years ago, Filippo said, although back then, “he was just a developer’s son.”

Despite his endless world travels, for both fun and business, Stefano hardly considers the United States an afterthought. This year, the company plans to open boutiques in Miami and Las Vegas, bringing the total in this country to five.

The Miami location, in the budding luxury and art enclave of the Design District, will feature a brighter, breezier interior design and an emphasis on sportswear, not just suits, to cater to a younger clientele. The same goes for the second Las Vegas boutique, in Wynn Plaza, where the opportunities are considerable, Filippo said: “If they win, they will spend money to celebrate. If they lose, they will spend money to feel less depressed.”

As with any expansion, this one is not without risks, particularly in a time of great economic uncertainty, with wobbliness in the luxury sector.

If nothing else, however, Stefano always feels as if he can look to the skies for guidance. Throughout his travels, he said, in the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, the Alps, South America, “I always had over my head, an eagle flying,” he said. “And I was always begging the eagle, help me to go home safe.”

So maybe that’s the real meaning of the eagle in his collection — the eagle as guardian angel.

“Maybe I don’t deserve as much an angel,” he said with a hearty smoker’s cough. “But I appreciate the presence.”