The Suit Maker To Billionaires

store

The US$7 million Stefano Ricci flagship in London’s Mayfair.

After a 45-year career in fashion, suit maker Stefano Ricci “sells emotion” to his ultra-wealthy clients.

Stefano Ricci has to play the long game with his customers, few though they are, although dedicated. Take, for instance, one businessman, who one of Ricci’s tailors followed around the world to give fittings and show fabrics for various suits; without, that is, any definite order. All went quiet. Then, out of the blue, announcing that he was satisfied with the product and the service, said gentleman placed an order for 50 suits — at more than US$10,000 each.

“It’s about building a relationship with your client,” explains Ricci. He celebrates 45 years in the fashion business this year, his eponymous label starting out as a more humble tie-maker, and now turning over some US$117 million a year. “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 further, in the materials, in the finishing. After all, our clients don’t actually need more suits, more jeans, or more anything. And the brand alone could never justify the prices. You have to be able to feel it in the products.”

Most of Stefano Ricci’s products are simple, wearable and exactingly made: suits with that enveloping Florentine flavour; cashmere sweaters; and crisp shirting. They all fit the Italian ‘bella figura’ sassy classicism; so exactly, in fact, then when the company was contacted by the assistant of one nameless head of state to outfit him for a black-tie function a few days hence, it declined the business on the grounds that it could in no way provide a suit to its usual standards in the time allowed. Ricci is big on every last element of his products being made in Italy and expresses some disgruntlement at how the ‘made-in-Italy’ brand has been gradually watered down over recent years, such that its real meaning is hard to fathom.

But some of Stefano Ricci’s products certainly lean towards the flashy: platinum belt buckles; jewel-encrusted cufflinks; crocodile sneakers and the like. But that’s because Ricci is acutely aware of his customer. Yes, he outfits Hollywood royalty and heads of business dynasties, but also the new, very big money makers of, for example, Russia, India and the Far East.

“There’s a point where menswear becomes too ostentatious,” says Ricci. “But the fact is that people successful through the new economy want to express through their clothing that they’re winners. And that can lead to ostentation.”

Tapping the new economies around the world ahead of the pack has been one reason for Ricci’s success. This year he opened a US$7 million flagship in London’s Mayfair. But, notwithstanding Turkey’s business-unfriendly slide into dictatorship, his company is opening its first shop in Istanbul this year. It opened his first store in China back in 1991, back when many of his competitors were failing to see the potential for value in the nation’s growing wealth and were still chasing customers in the Middle East.

“And this was when there were no clothes shops; when there was barely even lighting in the streets in China,” laughs Ricci. “Okay, 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.”

But there is also Stefano Ricci’s insistence on staying at the top of that pack. Ricci shapes his hands into a pyramid while explaining that, come hell or high water, in terms of product, pricing and make, his company has sat on the peak while brands that could now be offering tough competition chased the short-term money through diffusion lines and a more trend-conscious style. He mentions some names — off the record — with a sigh: how the great have fallen.

“The fact is that we haven’t always been alone [in this market]. One of the reasons for our success is that our competition didn’t believe in the power of this niche. These other companies had their hands on the prize,” says Ricci, his pyramid crumpling into a fist. “But then they twisted themselves into fashion brands and lost their position. They lost the quality and service that people would have got in the past. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. When you dress world leaders it’s important not to be a phenomenon, but just to do your duty, and do it professionally.”

This is one reason why he has resisted increasing production. It’s also why he has resisted spinning his company name off into other products, although it does operate a restaurant above one of its shops, just in order to entertain those clients who spend US$100,000 or more a year with him. He has recently launched a clothing line for boys, having intuited that the Stefano Ricci name is now sufficiently established within his customer base that they’re now ready and keen to pass on a love of fine clothing to the next generation.

Ricci himself wants to pass on so much more. He’s keen not to sell the business, or to go public, but to see it pass down through the family line. His two sons, Niccolo and Filippo, have recently taken on CEO and creative director roles respectively. “But,” Ricci adds, “as head of the company, I really think 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.”

Recommended For You

Related Articles