There’s an opportunity that comes with a new generation,” says fashion mogul Stefano Ricci, waving a hand across his two sons, Niccolo and Filippo. “They bring a certain passion. But then we also share a lot of passions too – old cars, big game hunting – so it made sense to add business to that list as well. Fortunately, we’ve never actually talked about work at home, which has helped. And I really think, as head of the company, I’d have hired them both even if they weren’t family. Not that it was necessarily my decision. The big boss is their mama.”
It’s a quintessentially Italian scenario: the patriarch passing the family firm – and a fashion firm, no less – onto his male offspring, overseen in the background by the real heart of matters, the matriarch. But Stefano Ricci’s is not some kitchen-table company: less well known than contemporaries – the likes of Armani and Versace – it is nevertheless 45 years old this year, and turns over US$117m. It has recently opened a $7m flagship in Mayfair, and has another one lined up for Istanbul later this year. Make a note of that destination: it’s where the new money will be next.
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For if Ricci – with his Father Christmas bonhomie and portliness, and Karl Marx beard and hair – has excelled in one thing, it is in knowing his market: oligarchs, the billionaire class – Russians, Indians and Chinese rather than those from the Middle East these days – and the occasional “world leader”. It’s an extremely small but extremely well-off market he is surprisingly candid about.
“There’s a point where menswear becomes too ostentatious,” admits Ricci, a man known to occasionally make belt buckles out of solid platinum, cufflinks encrusted with diamonds and sneakers out of crocodile skin. “But the fact is that people who are successful through the new economy want to express through their clothing that they’re winners. And that can lead to ostentation.”
Much of what the company sells, however, is entirely accessible – in style, at least – exactingly finished classic menswear of a Florentine flavour, after Ricci’s home town. That makes it soft and cocooning rather than bullet-proof – as some of his clients might require – and entirely made in Italy (“not made outside of Italy and then having the last few stitches done here,” he stresses, somewhat disgruntled with the flexibility of EU regulations on the matter). That, and the fact that the brand name has become something of a nod between those who move in such circles, has made Ricci’s clientele extremely loyal.
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 offering 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 $10,000 a pop. It’s a loyalty that’s mutual.
“It’s about building a relationship with your client,” Ricci explains. “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 bit further, in the materials, in the finishing. After all, our clients don’t actually need any more suits, or any more pairs of jeans, or any more anything. And the brand alone could never justify the prices. You have to be able to feel it in the products.”
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
Making that connection with the men with serious money, however, has taken some gumption. For a while Stefano Ricci made products for other brands too, and it was good business. But he knew if the brand was to make the right impression on the big oligarchy, then its know-how had to be exclusive: it cancelled the contracts and saw sales drop 85% overnight. “It was tough, but it was a decision that had to be made,” Ricci says.
Then, back in 1991, and way ahead of the curve, Stefano Ricci opened its first store in China. “And this was when there were no clothes shops, when there was barely even lighting in the streets in China,” laughs 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.”
This is why, Turkey’s slide into dictatorship notwithstanding, you might keep an eye on Istanbul. The company also launched its first boys’ collection, too – scaled-down tailoring that will have five-year-olds putting much of Savile Row to shame. This is not to cash in on the nouveau love of creating mini-mes, but because Ricci sees a desire among his customers to pass on their newly acquired appreciation for fine clothing. It’s insightful stuff, likewise his decision, over the years, to avoid both rapid increases in volumes – “because with what we do you can’t jump with the quantities without damaging the quality,” he notes – or putting his name on all and sundry. Yes, there’s a homewares line now, and the company does operate a restaurant above one of its shops where those clients who spend upwards of $100,000 a year are hosted, and the kitchens are kept busy. But it has declined the opportunity, unlike Armani or Versace, to open, say, a hotel, despite offers to do so.
“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. That’s very hard to do. You can’t control it all. And quality is what we’re all about,” explains the man who once turned down a short-notice request to outfit a visiting head of state because he knew they wouldn’t have enough time to offer the quality they typically aspire to. “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.”
Ricci certainly exudes a certain satisfaction with his lot. He speaks of having had a lot of fun along the way, of how much he’s enjoyed seeing his kids grow up inside the business. It’s an acknowledgment that the company he initially launched just as a tie-maker – Ricci loves his ties, although, a sign of the times, both sons go tieless, “because,” Ricci jokes, “they can’t afford the ones we make” – has done somewhat better than initially planned, and that as a result he should not push his luck. And there has, he concedes, certainly been luck along the way.
“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 them from in the past. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Business is, he adds, all about people – the people you sell to, the people who work for you. It’s human, not mechanical; physical, not puff. “Everything comes from the human element,” says Stefano Ricci, “and that’s not something that is easy to replicate. I’m very proud to say that in our 45 years we’ve never had a day of strikes. We’ve never had to be bailed out. We grow slowly, but well.”