The smoke is suffocating inside Stefano Ricci’s office, where he puffs away on a cigarette while sitting behind an enormous glass-topped desk. Towering over him is one of his prized hunting trophies: an upright, full-grown polar bear that he bagged during a dogsled expedition through the Northwest Territories.
Ricci’s son Niccolo, a handsome 30-year-old, enters the room and, while opening the windows to allow some cool winter air into the space, reprimands his father for his excessive smoking. Undaunted, Ricci takes another draw and continues discussing his mementos, revealing obsessions more exotic than a two-and-a-half-pack-a-day habit.
Located in a two-story converted apartment building just outside the center of Florence, Italy, Ricci’s office is stockpiled with trophies that the 59-year-old menswear designer has collected over the last five decades while hunting game around the world. Dozens of mounted wild boar tusks, some of which he acquired earlier this year during an outing on a private Italian estate, cover one wall from floor to ceiling. On the floor in the center of the room lies a pair of massive ivory elephant tusks, a gift from Niccolo, who made the kill on an African safari with his father three years ago. (They gave the meat from the animal to local villagers.) A North American mountain goat brought back from a recent outing in the Yukon stares out from a corner of the room.
Ricci’s chair is upholstered with crocodile, which is one of his favorite materials—and favorite prey. He has used the hide to adorn sneakers, cuff links, the interior of a Lamborghini Diablo convertible, and the sofas and chairs he has designed for his 13 stores, including the ones on Park Avenue in Manhattan and on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. (Ricci plans to open seven additional boutiques next year, in, among other locations, Russia, South Korea, Qatar, and Dubai. His collection also is sold at Bergdorf Goodman Men, Mitchells of Westport, and some Neiman Marcus stores.) “I like the masculinity of crocodile,” says Ricci, noting that he enjoys hunting the reptile because it entails some degree of danger. “They are so smart, so keen, and they have an especially acute sense of vibration, which gives them a greater chance of survival.” He adds that he prefers to use wild rather than farmed animal hides for his products. “I like when a crocodile skin shows some signs of fighting—a bad-character crocodile. Those are the kind of skins I like to use on my sofas.”
When the conversation turns from hides to fabrics, Ricci, an exuberant, bear of a man, retreats to a small alcove in his office and returns with one of three dozen archival reference books he has assembled over the past 30 years. As he sifts through the pages mounted with shirt fabrics, he becomes transfixed and explains how a simple change in color on a warp or weft—the vertical and horizontal (respectively) threads of a finished fabric—can significantly alter the appearance of a cloth and, subsequently, a shirt. “It’s the turbo part of my brain,” says Ricci, showing how he can derive eight different shades of blue or green from simply altering a single thread in the weave. “For me, manipulating the warp of the thread is the most spontaneous part of my design. It’s what takes the normalcy out of the shirt.”
Color manipulation is only one aspect of the mastery that a Stefano Ricci shirt embodies. It is like an assembled jigsaw puzzle, with the body, sleeves, collar, yoke, cuffs, pocket, and placket cut individually and then sewn together. The collar, for instance, often is a different shade from the rest of the shirt, but the color of the points matches the shirt body’s dominant color. The collar typically is ornamented with contrast-colored pick stitching similar to the tiny stitches sewn around the edges of a blazer lapel. Cuffs come in a variety of shapes—from standard to barrel to French—and also are pick-stitched at the tips. “The collar and cuffs are the masterpieces,” says Ricci, who spends inordinate amounts of time at Italian textile mills examining the warp and weft of the cloth used to make each collar and cuff, ensuring that they are perfectly matched to the background hue of the shirt material. When the fabric is patterned, each shirt is sewn, by hand, where the sleeves meet the shoulders and the cuffs so that the designs always line up. Ricci also matches the color of each shirt’s buttons with that of the fabric. “Most companies don’t go through these extra steps because they are extremely time-consuming and expensive,” says Ricci, whose cotton dress shirts have prices that start at $650 and can rise as high as $1,400 for versions produced from silk.
Ricci’s neckwear is equally vibrant and, in many cases, even more complex. Seemingly simple designs often incorporate as many as 14 different colors, though the eyes might register only five or six because the additional colors are used as shading around stripes and other patterns to lend a textural or a three-dimensional effect. Many of Ricci’s small, neat prints appear remarkably clear and precise, even under a magnifying glass, because the designer insists on constant cleaning of the silk screens that are used to print them. Ricci says that the frequent cleaning prevents clogging of the flow holes that can cause blurred patterns.
Ricci has had plenty of time to refine his techniques: Neckwear and shirts have been his core products since 1972, when he established his company with a collection of ties depicting what he describes as “naive pictures of little houses, cows, and farmers.” Such designs were in sharp contrast to the elaborate paisleys and heavy florals that his peers preferred. Today, Ricci also produces tailored clothing, outerwear, suits, formal wear, footwear, small leather goods, and cuff links.
For spring, he introduced a new collection of limited-edition crocodile luggage, handbags, and briefcases, each of which is handmade from three pieces of New Guinea crocodile, an animal with a smaller and finer-scaled pelt than that of a Nile crocodile. A young Florentine craftsman produces the pieces, which are limited to 36 of each style, and appoints them with 18-karat gold clasps, some pavéed with diamonds, that are crafted by jewelers in Ricci’s cuff link atelier. The prices of the crocodile pieces start at $24,000. Still, neckties and shirts were Ricci’s first loves, and they continue to bring him the greatest pleasure.
As an 18-year-old accounting student at the University of Pisa during the 1960s, Ricci masked his boredom in class by doodling abstract chairs, eyewear, lamps, and sports cars in the margins of his notebooks. His mother, who owned a women’s clothing factory, saw his drawings and envisioned them as intriguing fashion prints. She then suggested Ricci’s time might be better spent designing neckwear patterns instead of crunching numbers.
Franco Ugolini, who owns an eponymous men’s store that is Florence’s most prestigious, eventually discovered Ricci’s tie collection and encouraged him to create more sophisticated prints at some of the finest silk mills in Como, where Ricci’s mother had connections through her clothing business.
Ricci acted upon Ugolini’s advice and began producing original, high-quality, albeit sometimes flashy, luxury fashions for a small but elite clientele. “When I design a tie, I’m always challenging myself to come up with something that hasn’t been done before,” he says. In the early 1980s, while designing his first collection of formal shirts, Ricci adopted the folding technique used to create a shirt’s pleated bib to produce a tie. Originally a novelty item, fully pleated neckwear has since become one of his hallmarks. In 1997, he made a patchwork pleated tie from 280 squares of multicolored silk and priced it at $1,000. Four years later, he teamed with the English textile mill Moxon and created his Solo Una collection of limited-edition neckties made of Super 210 wool and cashmere. Each tie was signed, numbered, and packaged in its own wooden box inlaid with crocodile skin.
Last spring, Ricci introduced a solid-colored silk tie that was hand-set with 10,400 tiny Swarovski crystals. That design inspired the $35,000 formal neckties Ricci created for Neiman Marcus’ 100th anniversary this fall. Each tie’s face is embellished with 99 diamonds, totaling about 18 carats and set in 18-karat gold, and the 100th diamond is set on the tail. A new line of tuxedo shirts includes one style covered in embroidered polka dots. “Niccolo says it’s so rock star, we should sell it with a microphone,” jokes Ricci, who is pleased that the shirt might appeal to a younger, though still affluent, guy.
Even more distinctive are Ricci’s cuff links, which he introduced in 2000 as part of a limited-edition Luxury Millennium collection. Over the ensuing seven years, the cuff links, which can be priced as high as $130,000 a pair, have become a substantial part of Ricci’s collection. About a year ago, he purchased a separate building in Florence to accommodate the machinery and artisan goldsmiths needed to produce them. All of his cuff link designs are made from 18-karat gold; Ricci plans to introduce platinum styles next spring. Many of the motifs have some personal significance for the designer. He conceived a pair depicting hedgehogs because ricci is the Italian word for hedgehog. Another favorite motif is birds of prey, including falcons and bald eagles. Ricci believes these animals are majestic, and so he does not hunt them.
The lowlier, or at least less fortunate, creatures that adorn Ricci’s office share the space with an oversize watercolor family portrait by Italian artist Mario Ciampolini, which hangs on the wall behind his desk. Ciampolini has juxtaposed a dominant image of the designer’s face in profile with smaller portrayals of his sons, Niccolo and Filippo, looking outward “at the future of Stefano Ricci,” Ricci explains. A lioness lurks in the shadows, a symbolic stand-in for Claudia, his wife of 31 years, who is an equally avid hunter.
When he hunts, says Ricci, his imagination takes flight. “Hunting is typically done early in the morning or late in the afternoon, so I have eight hours during the day to design in complete silence, away from people and telephones,” he says. “There’s also an adrenaline rush in hunting that makes you think deeper. That’s when I put my pen on paper.”
Stefano Ricci, 212.371.3901, www.stefanoricci.com