In a plushly carpeted room in Ralph & Russo’s Mayfair atelier stands a sumptuous wedding dress for which the term “meringue” would be a woeful understatement. The ivory gown, with its crystal beaded sweetheart bodice, veil and train, and huge, ruched silk soufflé of a skirt, closed their SS18 couture show and costs around £250,000. Could this frou-frou fairytale frock be . . . the dress?
The designers Tamara Ralph and Michael Russo (partners in life and business) are among a sprinkling of names rumoured to be creating a wedding gown for Meghan Markle. On March 20, bookmakers Ladbrokes announced that they had suspended bets on who would be designing the dress after a deluge of wagers on Ralph & Russo. Before bets were halted, the designers were the favourites at odds of 1/3, followed by British-based designer Erdem at 3/1, then Roland Mouret and Victoria Beckham. Speculation has been fuelled by the fact that Markle wore the brand’s black couture gown with daringly sheer beaded bodice for her engagement photos. The dress was from a previous couture show, rather than made specially for Markle, and afterwards the phone was ringing off the hook.
“So, Tamara and Michael, are you designing Meghan Markle’s wedding dress?” Seated across from me on a silvery satin chaise longue, the pair “politely decline” to comment, and I’m forced to draw my conclusions from their body language. Russo crosses his arms defensively and grits his teeth, while Ralph gives a nervous laugh and awkwardly swishes her long, treacle-coloured ponytail. I have no industry intelligence about it, but based on their reactions, if Ladbrokes hadn’t closed bets then mine would be on this duo.
The rumours are based on the fact that the pair couldn’t be more suited to the job, being both a British business (they are both Australian-born) and experienced in making dramatic occasion-wear for wealthy private clients: royals such as Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the wife of the former Qatari emir whose family owns Valentino, and celebrities including Angelina Jolie, Beyoncé and Rihanna. Established in 2010, in 2014 Ralph & Russo became the first British fashion house in a century to be accredited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the French body that regulates haute couture.
Having made their name as a couture house specialising in ultra-feminine, decorative and lavish gowns, Ralph & Russo are on the brink of a new era on their path to becoming a “a global luxury superbrand”, as Russo puts it. They launched shoes and accessories two years ago, and now their ready-to-wear is going on sale for the first time, for Spring/Summer 2018, with Net-a-Porter as the exclusive online stockist.
Russo, who is smartly dressed in a Dior blazer, says: “We launched ready-to-wear partly because there is a misconception that we are an haute couture house. We are, but it’s just one of the many products we now have. We have moved into shoes, ready-to-wear, leather goods, and we are in discussions for cosmetics, fragrance, eyewear . . . we have a lot coming up in the next 18 months.”
The label has followed the traditional path of a classic couture house such as Chanel or Dior, and, Russo says, “to go into these categories we had to start with the haute couture and create the vision and the aspiration, and the DNA of the brand. It’s better to start from the top.” He adds: “We have fans who have been following us for years and aspiring to buy something but never really had a product to buy in to. On an average day we get hundreds of inquiries (our busiest day was 700 inquiries). It might be a girl who saw [the garment] in a shoot, via social media, or on a celebrity; she’ll call up for a dress but she only has a budget of £2,000. And now we have something to offer her.”
The new SS18 collection has a slick, overtly glamorous feel. Ralph, who is wearing a put-together, 50 shades of cream ensemble of fine wool polo neck, sand-coloured leather trousers with gold python pockets, and gold stilettos, describes it as “much more of a day offering: a lot more outerwear, a little more edge, with all the DNA of the house”. But it’s not jeans-and-a-sweater daywear. Dress coats and trenches feature strongly, coming in metallic blue and rose-gold leather, as well as a floral-printed blue silk coat with balloon sleeves that Ralph recommends for a guest at a summer wedding. Dresses include a fluid silk one-shoulder style in sunflower-yellow satin, and a pale pink gown with bell sleeves and tiny diamanté beads.
Elizabeth von der Goltz, Net-a-Porter’s global buying director, says: “When I heard Ralph & Russo were designing a ready-to-wear collection, wheels already started turning in my head. Their first ready-to-wear show was absolutely beautiful and just as strong as their couture. This is the first time customers can buy Ralph & Russo ‘off the rack’, and prices start at £1,250 for a blush pink cashmere sweater, all the way up to a fully embroidered gown at £24,500, so I think our EIPs [extremely important customers] are going to be especially excited.”
Ralph emphasises the importance of fit in the ready-to-wear. “We have become very well known for our cuts, and how they accentuate the female form, so for our ready-to-wear that was always very important. We could do up to seven technical fittings on a piece just to make sure it’s absolutely perfect, and that’s a lot — some brands do one.” She believes that if it works for her, it works for the customer. “We recently spent a year developing a shoe with the highest possible heel that is still elegant and comfortable. I had to be able to wear it for eight hours and dance all night.”
This attention to how the clothes make the Ralph & Russo customer feel has helped their phenomenal growth, and the introduction of ready-to-wear is likely to fuel that. In 2014, when the Phones4U founder and billionaire John Caudwell bought a minority stake of 7 per cent, the company was valued at an undisclosed nine-figure sum. Following this, Ralph & Russo has nearly doubled in revenues year-on-year. They are set to open six stores this year, in destinations including Dubai, Monaco and Cannes.
When their couture dresses glide down the runway, it’s a race among clients to see who can bag the best designs. Only one version of each couture garment is available in each country to ensure exclusivity. A few versions of the wedding gown in the showroom have already been sold, so we probably won’t see Ms Markle in one of those. Could she go modern and get hitched in the gold ready-to-wear trench? And will her dress chime with the more modest mood in bridal? Ralph believes one of the biggest trends at the moment is for gowns with sleeves. “I think it’s much more elegant to have something covering the arm, and necklines are higher, for sure.”
My guess is that Ms Markle is currently being fitted for a couture fairytale. If Ralph & Russo do get the gig, one thing’s for sure: she’ll own that aisle like her very own red carpet.
Four British brands that have felt the Markle bump. By Flora Macdonald Johnston
Strathberry is an Edinburgh-based luxury label, founded in 2013 and best known for its signature geometric-style handbags. When Markle wore a green leather cross-body bag from the brand on a trip to Edinburgh in February (above), the bag sold out within minutes. The company says, “The waiting list is now around 1,000 people long.” Strathberry believes the “Meghan Markle effect” will increase its overall sales in 2018 by up to 20 per cent. Bottle Green East/West Mini, £425, strathberry.com
Cardigan is a small town in Wales with a population of 4,000. An unlikely setting for a luxury brand, it is home to Hiut, a high-end denim company co-owned by Welshman David Hieatt, which was making about 120 pairs of jeans per week until Markle wore a pair of its Dina variety on a visit to Cardiff in January (below). “The website went absolutely crazy,” says Hieatt, “we have a back-order waiting list for three months. The effect has been remarkable.”
The Dina, £175, hiutdenim.co.uk
On the same trip to Cardiff, Markle accessorised her Stella McCartney coat with a green leather bag from the British brand DeMellier (above). It sold out almost instantly on the company’s website. Founded by London-based Mireia Llusia-Lindh, DeMellier has a charitable arm. Three years ago, Llusia-Lindh partnered with “A Bag, A Life” charity, which offers vaccines to children. The bags are now available for pre-order on the company’s website.
The Mini Venice, £295, demellierlondon.com
An immediate sellout when she wore it on a trip to Belfast on March 23, Markle’s chestnut brown leather saddlebag (above) is the creation of British designer Charlotte Elizabeth, whose namesake brand is supported by The Prince’s Trust. Elizabeth secured the trust’s help to get her company started in 2016, having been affected by a series of life-threatening illnesses including paralysis, postural tachycardia syndrome and ME. The Bloomsbury, £175, charlottelizabeth.com
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