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Tamara Ralph on her Couture Comeback

Tamara Ralph on her Couture Comeback

As one half of Ralph & Russo, Tamara Ralph was once one of the most feted names in haute couture, until the pandemic caused the label’s collapse. Now she’s back with her own namesake brand and a new vision of bold femininity.

Staying in Australia was never part of the plan for Tamara Ralph. The fourth generation in a family of couturiers, she was making bespoke clothing for clients as a teenager. Later, while studying fashion at Melbourne’s Whitehouse Institute of Design, Ralph wasn’t for a moment tempted by the ordinary realm of ready-to-wear. 

“I always knew I wanted to establish couture as the starting point of my work,” she reflects from her home in Monaco. “What’s beautiful about couture is that it’s a product category where you can really let your design fantasy run wild and the elevated price point gives you the flexibility to push boundaries and create pieces of art. I knew I couldn’t have that base in Australia because the market at that time was incredibly small.”

Although the ambitious couturier initially set her sights on Paris, she fell for London instead. “I just loved how international it was; it felt like a hub of so many different things and opportunities. So, I ended up staying,” she explains, traces of her Australian accent still present but unmistakably dimmed after nearly two decades away.

Speaking just months after the sensational launch of Tamara Ralph Couture, off schedule at Paris Haute Couture week in July, her elegant and calm voice belies her reality. As well as frequent travel between Monaco and her London atelier, and to Paris, where a showroom is in the works, Ralph also travels around the world for fittings with her high-profile clients.

For someone who’s worked for herself since adolescence, to eventually establish her own brand at 41 is surely a triumph. “It’s very exciting to be launching under my own name: it’s been incredibly busy since, but it’s been wonderful,” says Ralph.

Ralph first caught the attention of the fashion world with Ralph & Russo, the couture brand she founded in 2006, with her partner, the London-based Australian financier Michael Russo, with Ralph as creative director and Russo managing the business side. Demand for which “spread organically” from their first client, who spotted Ralph fashioning her own designs at an event.

In 2013, the couple made history when they were the first British brand in 100 years invited by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (FHCM) to show as guest members of the Chambre Syndicale during Paris Haute Couture Week.

Their arrival on the schedule signalled a changing image of fashion’s most selective club, which was becoming less Paris-centric and embracing international designers. Suddenly, the most anticipated name was in couture wasn’t a white-coated Parisian, but instead a glamorous, sun-kissed Aussie. Not only was Ralph the first Australian designer ever to show as a guest member but she was also one of only three female creative directors at the time. “It was quite an achievement” she recalls.

Looks from Tamara Ralph Couture autumn/winter ’23

For a woman who’d spent her life creating fairy-tale gowns, it all seemed like a fairy tale come true. Ralph & Russo increasingly became a red-carpet fixture, dressing A-listers such as Angelina Jolie and Priyanka Chopra. Cementing their status as a fashion power couple, in 2017, Ralph and her partner were named in Fortune’s 40 under 40 list of the most successful people in business.

But it wasn’t until Meghan Markle chose Ralph & Russo for her engagement photo that they became a global phenomenon. Ralph describes the all-black gown, which was estimated to have cost £56,000, as “a bold choice”. Aside from the colour, the bodice was fully sheer, save for some gold feather thread work.

Whether the public deemed it appropriate or not, it was invariably “a lot of exposure for the brand and for me as a designer, much more than we thought it might be,” explains Ralph. To add to the publicity, media outlets began circulating rumours that Ralph would design Markle’s dress for the big day.

However, cracks began to show when the couple split romantically in 2018. At first, they put on a united front and were likened to other fashion duos, such as Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana or Yves Saint Lauren and Pierre Bergé, who continued as business partners after breaking up.

But it wasn’t to be. In early 2021, the business announced it’d been placed into administration, citing difficulties from the pandemic and the obvious lack of demand for blockbuster garms. But to make things worse, allegations of financial mismanagement started to emerge, and legal proceedings on the matter are still ongoing.

But the dispute left no bitter feeling among the moneyed couture clientele. Although Ralph says there was “no question” that she’d start again and continue designing as she’s always done, her return to couture a mere two years later seemed somewhat hasty, given the fact that she’d just given birth to a daughter with her new partner, the Indian billionaire Bhanu Choudhrie.

But taking maternity leave isn’t exactly a possibility when you’re the go-to dressmaker for the world’s 0.001 percent. “I was getting inundated with phone calls from clients saying, ‘We miss you. When are you launching? I’ve got absolutely nothing to wear!’”, says Ralph, explaining the reason why she launched sooner than anticipated. “I thought I had to do something because they weren’t going to stop calling me.”

Despite still caring for her baby, Ralph was touched by the support. “It’s a very personal process when you design specifically for clients. Doing what I do, I’ve been involved with so many major moments of their lives, from weddings to their most important events –  and to have that loyalty is lovely.”

Ralph sees each of her designs through from start to finish

Aside from a base of steadfast brand acolytes, what also speaks volumes is that Ralph’s former team is back working with her, some of whom she’s been with for more than 10 years. “We’re very much an extended family and they know my work well, so it’s wonderful to be working together again – and creatively, they love the new vision,” she says. 

In January, Ralph held a private dinner for a select group of clients as a thank you for their loyalty and to showcase a small 10-piece collection – “a preview of what was to come”. Even before the official debut in July, Ralph’s designs were already popping up on some of the world’s most recognisable women: Fan Bing Bing, Kate Hudson and Lilly James, for example. But her biggest coup was dressing Queen Rania of Jordan in a custom lemon-yellow dress for Charles III’s coronation in May.

Her secret? “I think clients love my work because they’re so feminine and they really have that detail of elegance and sophistication but modernity as well. I think that’s part of my ingrained design aesthetic that won’t change and will always be there.”

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Jordan’s Queen Rania wears Tamara Ralph Couture to the coronation of King Charles III (image: Getty)

Showcased in the ballroom of the Shangri-La hotel in Paris, the debut, 27-piece Tamara Ralph Couture collection did, however, signal a departure from previous work. Though “romantic and ethereal”, with showstopping gowns in soft pink, mint green, raspberry and white, the sumptuous fabrics contrasted with harder details such as metal rose breastplates, and dresses shielded by cage-like structures in pearl and crystal.

The fact that these elements took inspiration from armour was no coincidence. Ralph explains they were “very much a representation of some of the difficult experiences I’ve had in the last few years, going through them and coming out a stronger person, and I definitely think that comes through in my work. I feel the new direction is much stronger, bolder and has a more unapologetic sense of femininity.”

A direction that’s already chimed with the likes of Beyoncé, who immediately snapped up two runway gowns for her Renaissance World Tour wardrobe.

Beyonce performing in Tamara Ralph Couture in September

Now she’s fully back in business, demand’s so high that several of Ralph’s team are “flying almost on a constant basis” for fittings with their clients, but Ralph still sketches personally for each customer: “I’m heavily involved in the process and see every detail of the design through from start to finish,” she says.

Although she can’t put an exact number of hours spent on each item, given the collaborations with specialist artisans in Paris on certain elements, she does settle ambiguously on “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds”. Adding some heavily embroidered wedding dresses can take up to a year.

If this seems fanciful or even removed from today’s world, in which luxury e-tailers are offering same-day delivery for designer clothes, Ralph maintains that the couture market –estimated at just 4,000 customers globally– is evolving. “In recent years, the couture client has become younger,” she says. “There’s a lot of young women buying for themselves, wanting to invest in quality pieces that last.” No longer European only, many of Ralph’s clients now come from Asia and the Middle East, a trend that’s also reflected in the international mix of designers at Haute Couture week, such as Rahul Mishra and Guo Pei.

There’s also demand from clients for bespoke suits, resortwear and even children’s couture. “Couture is now very much an entire wardrobe – it’s become more of a lifestyle product than it was before,” says Ralph.

It’s something she’s taken into account for her long-term vision. Plans are in the works to expand her offerings and create “more accessible and commercial products,” as well as collaborations with other luxury brands in different categories. But for now, at least, her team is focusing on the next show in January. “It’ll be quite a special one, because we’ll have a big announcement,” says Ralph. Could she be hinting at a possible nod from the Chambre Syndicale? We’ll have to wait and see.

Source: Prestige Online

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