Each summer, Stefano Ricci and family escape to Castello di Balbo on Italy’s Tuscan coast. The founder of his eponymous menswear label is joined by wife Claudia, sons Filippo (creative director at the house) and Niccolo (CEO), and their families.
At the castle, the Florentine natives often host lavish dinners overlooking the azure Mediterranean. Guests and VIPs, dressed to the nines, dine on sumptuous local cuisine beneath twinkling stars. The atmosphere is celebratory, almost wedding-like, and the charismatic Stefano regales with stories of meeting the pope in South Africa at lunch with his late friend Nelson Mandela – both men whom he has dressed.
Fashion’s young guns may not have heard of the 46-year-old Florence-based menswear label, but to a certain set of high-flying and very, very wealthy men who like to spend on clothing, it’s the ultimate sartorial power play – unabashedly flashy, ultra-masculine and firmly focused on quality. The brand has clothed Andrea Bocelli and Tom Cruise as well as Mandela – in the famous black shirt he wore to meet Queen Elizabeth, among others – and supplied fabrics for Pope Benedict’s silk robes.
While many other luxury brands are traversing shaky times, Stefano Ricci reported a turnover of €144 million last year, up 13 percent from the previous year. It’s clearly doing something right.
“In menswear, we are the world’s top user of crocodile,” Stefano says, underscoring the brand’s scope and clientele. Indeed, huge colourful skins occupy his leather room and adorn his office and headquarters in the hills of Fiesole. The Ricci family are dedicated hunters and the property is decorated with an eye-watering number of tusks, antlers and horns. Stefano’s personal office is practically a taxidermy zoo – not for the faint of heart, but as proud hunters, the Riccis don’t seem to care if such displays shock visitors.
As we tour the almost 100,000-square-foot property – with workshops for shoemaking, tailoring, leather work, diamond setting, jewellery-making, gold-and silversmithing, and homewares – Filippo explains that the workshops have been set up to train a new generation of Italian craftsmen in traditional skills.
“The products are all 100 percent made in Italy, with a premium put on the best quality materials around,” the creative director says. “Our menswear and kidswear are performing well, but we also want to expand our SR Home line, which is getting more and more attention. We want to tell the world that we provide the whole luxury lifestyle.”
It’s a long way from when Stefano – who bears an uncanny, and ironic, resemblance to Karl Marx – opened for business at 22, making shirts and ties.
“My parents were already in the apparel industry but in ladies’ fashion, and that was not me,” he says. “I wanted to start something by myself.” Stefano showed at Pitti Uomo in 1964, and eventually expanded into a full collection of menswear and now lifestyle lines.
Hailing from Florence, the historical centre of Italian fashion (way before Milan’s recent boom) and home of brands such as Gucci, Emilio Pucci, Roberto Cavalli and Ferragamo, certainly helped.
“You walk around Florence, and every corner is an inspiration. There’s something magic about the city in terms of arts, culture and fashion,” Filippo says. “You see how many famous people in these areas are from Florence, starting from the Medici era to now.”
Stefano Ricci soon became part of the luxury fashion establishment. Unlike others however, it made the curious move of opening its first standalone store not in Italy (or Europe, or even the US) but in Shanghai, in 1993. Stefano witnessed the energy of the city’s youth, and the “fast pace they walked,” and envisioned the future. The market, in turn, has remained loyal to Ricci.
It’s been a family affair growing the label to the far-reaching international business it is today. Expansion has been impressive, especially the attention paid to developing markets – they now operate in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Cambodia, in addition to the likes of Italy, the US, the UK and UAE.
Stefano Ricci now has 62 monobrand stores around the world and 19 shop-in-shops. Its first Hong Kong store opened in February at The Peninsula Arcade, to be followed by openings in Macau, Sanya, Miami, New Delhi and Sochi.
“We’re really excited about the Peninsula store,” Niccolo says, “We were looking for five years for a spot in the city and never really found the right place until now. As for Macau, our Four Seasons shop is maybe the best performing in the world.”
When I talk to a wealthy New York friend who’s partial to Italian bespoke tailoring, he describes Stefano Ricci as popular with “men with private jets and suitcases with combination locks.” He’s not far off the mark. With a powerful clientele, the brand famously serves Russian oligarchs and oil traders, and super-rich Chinese politicians and businessmen.
The Riccis recently redecorated the interiors of the Kremlin with their home and fabric collection (which includes those from the Antico Setificio, a Florence workshop that uses 18th-century looms). For proof, they keep a framed red Kremlin star hanging on a wall. So what does the family make of being dubbed “oligarch chic” by The New York Times?
“Our clients are rich but mostly self-made men, with not so much free time,” Niccolo says.
“We sell products, but we also sell magic,” Filippo adds. “Our customers have everything, so why do they buy our things? Because of the emotion of buying something different, something new, for the quality, story and excitement.”
“You know the secret of being successful? I never run any sales on anything in any of my stores. Even Hermès does it once a year to a very closed group in Paris to sell the slow-moving items. But we never do it. We never discount. I do believe a certain kind of consumer appreciates that. It’s also about respect.”
Stefano goes quiet as we sip the best Bloody Mary I’ve ever had, tasting the salty Mediterranean wind making its way along the Tuscan coast. The island of Montecristo floats above a misty cornflower-blue horizon as engines begin to hum. The elder Ricci turns, cigar in hand, and smiles. “It could be worse, huh?”