On this week’s Walk The Talk, Shekhar Gupta converses with Italian fashion designers.
Shekhar Gupta: Hello and welcome to Walk the Talk. I am Shekhar Gupta with two very unusual guests — Stefano Ricci and Niccolo Ricci and what am I doing with you guys? I am trying to have some fun and learn about brands and fashion from you, something I know nothing about. If you want to know something about politics, I shall do so.
Stefano Ricci: If you can give the key to understand politics in Italy because we are completely lost.
SG: Don’t say that in New Delhi because somebody will tell you, you Italians are partly to be blamed for our politics as well. You know the Italian connection to Indian politics?
SG: The opposition party in India is lead by somebody from Italian origin.
SR: Oh yes…you took one of the most beautiful women from Italy, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. Italy is not the same anymore but we are proud of her.
SG: Have you met her?
SR: Yes, in some party many years ago.
SG: And Niccolo, have you met Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi?
Niccolo Ricci: I didn’t get a chance.
SR: And he is very young.
SG: But Stefano, if I may call you that, he almost didn’t get this chance in Delhi, on a plane.
SR: Yes, I remember. There are some dates you will never forget. One such date is the birth of the mother-in-law.
SG: That too Italian mother-in-law’s birthday.
SR: Yes. 29 September, 1979 during a storm, we were coming from Hong Kong.
SG: Yes, I remember that flight, Hong-Kong -Delhi-Rome. In fact, I have taken it from Hong Kong to Delhi a few times.
SR: It was 27 hours from Hong-Kong to Italy during that time. But we went through an emergency shoots. But you know I was here (India) for a week. In those days, Iran had an idea of making a revolution. So nobody could refuel the aircraft from Italy. So, we were here. But I enjoyed myself. My luggage was in the airport and my passport was held by your security. So, I landed in Italy after a week, looking exactly like an Indian wearing your white clothing.
SG: That was India’s revenge. Now, you are taking Italian revenge by fitting India into your clothing.
SR: Yes, we are trying hard, because Indians know a lot about clothing.
SG: I am the wrong person to talk about this.
SR: Yes, but we’ll educate you too. It should not be that difficult. But I and my son are proud of ourselves that we are not like all the Italians. Both of us have not watched a single football in our life.
SG: I can call you traitors to Italian football.
NR: If our team wins, we are very happy.
SR: We have nothing against the sport but I prefer a Sunday in our house in the country with my grandchildren instead of being with thousands of people around us.
SG: But your team is not that great these days…
NR: Yes, we are going to come back.
SG: So, Niccolo, you are trying to sell a very high fashioned and very expensive clothing in India. Do you think India is ready for such market?
NR: I came to India for the first time for a wedding 10 years ago and I met lots of people interested in fashion.
SG: What wedding was this?
NR: It was a Mehta wedding.
SG: It must be diamond Mehtas.
NR: Yes, there were lots of diamonds around the party. But lots of people around the party were already our clients from London, Paris and New York. There was lots of enthusiasm around the brand and questions. So we thought of opening a shop in Mumbai inside the Taj hotel would be a good move and today, opening our second store in Delhi at the Oberoi Hotel. We are very proud.
SG: So, is there something you will do for your Indian customers that you don’t do elsewhere?
SR: Yes, absolutely
SG: What is that?
SR: Same thing what your wearing right now…(pointing at his jacket)
SG: So coming to India. India has many difficulties for your kind of business, isn’t it? There is customs, there are imports
SR: For a foreign company to establish in India, the bureaucracy makes things quite difficult.
NR: We have had some sleepless nights as well.
SG: Can you give us some examples?
NR: It took us very long time to get the licence in order to do retail operations. When we were ready, the merchandise and everything, we did not have the original documents to start. But, at the end they arrived and even if we’ve had some sleepless nights. Now, we are pleased running both the operations.
SG: And some of the merchandise you have, how do you get around those very strong Indian laws on leather, etc?
NR: We have CITES. We have few people working on CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] certification.
SG: Can you please explain what CITES is exactly for our viewers?
NR: CITES is a document that international government needs in order to export merchandise on the appendix of CITES. There are some quotas for states. Mainly for us, is crocodile.
SG: So this is legally and legitimately produced animal product that can be imported.
SR: There are different kinds of crocodiles. Also, we are shareholder of a company in Australia that is breeding most expensive and most beautiful type of crocodiles.
SG: And those are used for farming and even for meat?
SR: The meat of the crocodile needs to feed the other crocodile.
NR: It is kind of a complicated process.
SG: So how big is this farm?
SR: We produce some 3,000 crocodiles a year but many of them we keep for production
SG: But this means that the crocodiles are maintained…
NR: There are millions of crocodiles around the world. Every state generates its own quota and the rest is controlled by the government.
SG: How difficult was it to explain this to Indian authority?
NR: They knew about it. There is always a process when the CITES is longer. Our government will talk to your government and then there is a lot of paper work. But in the end we can deliver, we can deliver our crocodile shoes or briefcase or belt.
SG: So, what is distinctive about your clothing? I am asking this because I have no knowledge about clothing.
SR: It’s so difficult to answer how good we are because I am not used to lying.
SG: No Italian ever tells a lie.
NR: Let’s start with the raw material. So whatever you touch, you’ll feel there is a big research behind it. We use the finest cloth that is the wool or the silk. We always try and research something new that gives an emotion to our clients.
SG: So this is a brand built in one generation. You built it (pointing at Stefano)
SR: But they are developing it.
SG: Yes..But you founded it. So take us back to 1970s. How do think of brand? And there was always a famous Ricci brand, ‘Nina Ricci’.
SR: Initially a lot of people did ask me if I was related to Nina Ricci. She moved to France, some place close to Florence and she was a real talented lady. But she is famous for ladies’ garments and we never touched ladies’ collections. So there is a block in my head that we only have to serve only gentlemen and we don’t want to mix up with the ladies’ collection. We would like to focus only on men’s clothing.
SG: So how big or how small were you when you started?
SR: Oh so we started with 18 people. Actually, 18 ladies that I got from my father’s factory that was ladies’ clothing business. He was very angry with that, I am not into taking over his company. So, I suggested that I could move some of the people for men’s clothing from his company. I started with ties and then with shirts and today we have 600 people.
SG: So when he (Stefano) started, he did not carry forward his father’s women collection and would you (Niccolo) now think about shifting to women’s fashion or at least add it?
NR: I think our mission is into men’s clothing and it’s always better to be good at one thing than do multiple things.
SR: But we devote it to ladies.
SG: Yes, that I can see it your eyes…anyway, why are you fixated on men’s fashion? You could do a lot more business if you add women’s fashion.
SR: Yes, but I will not enjoy life with my family. You know we have a hobby that is racing vintage cars. The pleasure is, the entire family needs to be involved in the same interest. There is one thing about our family, when we are having dinner, we never speak about business. We talk about our grandchildren. And for a grandfather to see two sons working in a company started by us and are carrying family name forward is a great feeling. I hope it will continue.
NR: From our side, of course, we’ll continue with the men’s clothing, but we have also entered into interior designing. Nine years ago we found a company, founded in 1786, which is producing amazing fabrics for interiors. We have looms from 1700, 1800 and we have a war pair design by Leonardo da Vinci.
SG: So why are there yurts?
NR: The yurts became famous because of our clients. You see our brand extension is unbelievable. Every time we are loyal to the brand, they always ask us to provide something more. Now, we are working on a big villa for a friend, which is a great opportunity.
SG: Is it going to be Stefano Ricci villa?
SG: And what all will you do that reflects your brand?
SR: Lifestyle of a rich.
NR: There are guidelines and details about our brand repeated all over the villa. It is going to be very discrete.
SG: Has your yurt business benefitted from Donald Trump’s tax cuts?
SR: Who is Donald Trump? We thought we will not talk about politics?
SG: No, this is not about politics.
SR: Did you see the news this afternoon?
SG: No, I haven’t.
SR: Ah there is some major issue.
SG: But he must be sleeping, he can’t even tweet at this hour.
SR: America is now frankly in situation where Europe is in the middle. We don’t feel very comfortable. Italy is receiving thousands of immigrants from north of Africa. Considering that we come from a European community, we should help those poor people by giving assistance to them by sharing between all the countries. And some countries in Europe are ready to receive the contribution but they don’t want to share this problem. This moment is a serious issue in Italy. We have no Idea for how many people we have given aid to.
SG: So do you blame Donald Trump for this?
SR: No, no; I was just joking.
SG: Have these tax cuts helped you?
SR: Ah…not really.
SG: So, Niccolo, the world is getting more informal now; younger people are becoming leaders; younger people are becoming rich; you can call them millennials. But, how do you deal with them because your clothing is formal.
NR: Before we were formal, but now the collection goes from formals to extremely casual. We sell snickers, jeans, jumpsuits.
SG: But are young people willing to spend so much?
NR: We have some young generation buying it, but when we talk about millennials, they are a little bit too young. But our point is to teach millennials what is behind the scenes. We also make videos where we explain what goes behind the scenes. Within our factories we have tailoring schools. The master tailor teaches the younger ones how to sue and he is a very important for us for the heritage and tradition of artisans.
SR: You were talking about the millennials, we live in the phenomena of two economies, the Chinese, where we opened our first overseas store in Shanghai 26 years ago and our clients were young entrepreneurs who were just wanted to be self-sufficient and successful with their own brain and energy…. the rich generation in China is something that is building China. Russia is a little different but also Russia supported men’s clothing a lot. 15 years ago everybody wanted to walk out of the black leather coat with a pullover but, today the Russian men are wearing clothes like Italians or Swiss but not like the French men. French men are not elegant as you know well.
SG: Where is it easier or tougher to do business? India or China?
NR: Actually it’s easier in China.
SG: On a scale of 10 how much is it easier in China?
NR: China is much better than India in business.
SG: So, India is much worse.
NR: But we always enjoy doing business in India. We have good clients.
SR: But Indians know how to enjoy life. Their beautiful elegance of Indian ladies in parties or wedding. There is no comparison.
SG: Any Indian clothing you like?
SR: It’s so chic in India. Ladies and gentlemen are very elegant. If there is a country that is elegant, that is India. I always say this.
SG: I’ll accept it on behalf of my fellow Indians.