Stone Island was established back in 1982, but it didn't reach mainstream popularity in North America until recent years. Esquire Magazine's Nick Sullivan interviewed Stone Island's CEO, Carlo Rivetti about how the brand burst onto the North American streetwear scene, securing a place in the hiphop/rap scene and every streetwear enthusiast's wardrobe.
Carlo, Stone Island has been a household name for three decades in Europe but suddenly it just blew up in America. What do you put it down to?
America is different from our other markets—we’ve been active in America for many years, but we’re not known here like we are everywhere else. One day, pretty much five years ago, we got a call from our NY team and they were all excited because James Jebbia had called. “Who is James Jebbia?” I asked. And, of course, they explained “James Jebbia, he’s Supreme." Then—it seemed in the same couple of weeks—we got calls from other brands in the US who out of nowhere wanted to collaborate with us. So I figured well, if two or three different brands are asking us at the same time to do collaborations, something is clearly happening there.
Do you think it clicked here because you changed something in the collection?
No. The crazy thing is we’ve always gone straight ahead with our research, our designs, in a very single-minded way, and the market has always just caught up with us. The market shifted and everyone found us. It’s really moving now, and largely by word of mouth. It’s not that we changed our way of working at all; we’ve always done it this way.
So we came to America find out what was going on. And in a short time we made collaborations with James at Supreme and Nike, made friends with Drake who—in fact—had known the brand since he was a kid. His mother wore Stone Island sweaters. Pretty quickly we knew with all this going on, we needed to open stores—first in L.A., then New York—to take advantage of this. We’re still a small company but America quickly became our fifth-largest market. Online, it’s already our second and growing fast.
It’s a whole new generation of customers, too. What connects these passionate young kids now with those customers who bought into Stone Island in the '80s and '90s?
Its more than a brand; there’s a mythology. It was amazing in London last night for the event we held there to see the usual hardcore fans who we love, and there were my old panzoni—those old fat guys—the British fans from thirty years ago, all proudly still wearing their now ancient—and very rare—Stone Island jackets. And they were talking with the 18-year-old kids. And the kids knew all about the jackets!
Having followed Stone Island all my career, it seems to me it has had several tipping points: times when it seems like the whole world wanted Stone Island. It’s not the normal narrative for a fashion brand.
It’s because we always do what we do. Did we spend a fortune on advertising? No. Did we add to, or change, the collection to suit the market? No. Did we try to position ourselves for a younger customer? No. It’s like surfing: You have to wait for the wave. We’ve had those waves several times, so when it started here in America I recognized the sound of it. I could feel it coming. The secret is to be in the right place for it when it comes, to be ready.
Stone Island is definitely unlike any other fashion brands in its design, too. Why is that?
Research. Research. Research. The strength of the company is the factory. The people who work there represent the power of the brand. We are more organized now as a company—we couldn’t continue to function if we had stayed the way we did in the '90s. But it’s the research that is the real power.
And the research is constant.
Totally. Research doesn’t pay you back quickly. We don’t research for next season, we research for several seasons down the line. We research to research. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, we learn something from it. So we have a stock of research that is very strong. Honestly, if I went nuts tomorrow and closed our research department, we’d still have enough new ideas to keep the brand going another 10 years. I’m not going to close it, mind you—our fans wouldn’t allow it!
Nearly 40 years of consistent production. What were your most memorable moments?
Six years ago in Ravarino, where our headquarters are, there was an earthquake. The factory was destroyed. We didn’t stop a minute; we rebuilt it immediately because we realized how much people needed it to continue. It was a very important moment. The other great milestone for us, just a year later, was the 30-year retrospective show we did in 2012 in Florence*; oddly none of us had ever seen all the stuff we had made over all those years all together in one place. It gave all of us a blast of energy and enthusiasm.
And enthusiasm is the driving force for all of you.
Every year there are new possibilities. There are things that we can do now thanks to new technologies, things we wanted to do, that we tried to do, even 30 years ago, but couldn’t. Like this [he points to the nylon parka jacket he’s wearing, covered in microscopic gray dots] is a reflective jacket, and it’s garment dyed. First we print these tiny one-millimeter beads of reflective paint all over the nylon, and then we make up the jacket, and then we dye it. We thought about it ages ago, but back then we could never achieve it with the machines we had. If you can imagine it, you can do it...eventually.
It looks like this season.
Oh no, it's already old!
So where are the new frontiers in research?
There’s always a new frontier, but you don’t know what the frontier is until you get to it. There’s a treatment we’ve been researching for two years, that actually comes from the '90s—and we did it then, but now there’s new technologies that I know mean we can make it even better, and exactly the way we imagined it back then. We will get there I am sure.
We’re also working right now with some very old wool textile companies in Scotland and looking at ways to transform traditional wools. I come from an old weaving family; it’s in my blood. Wool is an emotional thing to work with—it’s the most noble cloth you can have. Italy’s in a bit of a mess at the moment: politically, economically. Everything’s a mess frankly, and people are scared. Fear makes you close up, stops you taking risks. So right now, it’s more fulfilling to work with these old Scottish weavers. Because they know that they can’t stay doing the same things—they are willing to take risks. It’s a real joy to work with them.
A word about the iconic badges:
When we started, right at the beginning when Massimo Osti set the tone of Stone Island it was very much inspired by vintage military uniforms. In the Italian army they had things called Mostrine – badges – on the collars of every uniform to show which division of the army you belonged to – whether it was Parachutists or Bersaglieri or Alpini or whatever. We wanted to to pay a tribute to uniforms but not in an obvious way. So we made the badge detachable because the Mostrine too were detachable. At the beginning the badge moved around; I think we were four seasons in before it settled for good on the left arm. Even now you can button it inside your jacket if you don’t want it on your sleeve. You shouldn’t leave it at home, it should stay with the jacket.
(Interview courtesy of Esquire Magazine; image courtesy of Stone Island.)
Shop the Stone Island Fall 2018 Collection at all Boys'Co Retail Stores!