‘Do you know Hello Kitty?” asked Alessandra Rich in her lilting Italian purr to explain the title of her fall collection, “(Bye Bye) Kitty,” a play on the Japanese children’s cartoon. “For me, it’s ‘Good bye, Kitty,’ because I’m growing from an innocent girl to a woman.”
This story first appeared in the March 16, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
By “I” she meant the series of made-up characters on which she bases her small, delightfully peculiar collection of mostly dresses. She has a new one every season, concocting a story line delivered in show notes that have the rare distinction of being amusing and well-written, done in the teasing tone of a Harlequin romance novel cover blurb.
Kitty’s “dream is to have a dolphin in the pool and to always sleep on black silk sheets,” read Rich’s fall collection notes. “She wears thigh-highs, tangerine lace, fake furs and a pink topaz ring.…She has no talent, except her beauty. She is the kind of girl you mustn’t get too close to or you’ll risk getting burnt. She is a hot mess, but such a beautiful one.”
A name is carefully chosen for each of Rich’s muses. Before Kitty, there was spring 2016’s Dolores, a rough but romantic runaway teen bride with cheap flowers in her hair. Spring 2015’s Jessica, an Eighties baby, lounged by the pool in Southampton in her high-waisted skinny jeans, while fall 2015’s Molly was from Detroit. “When she walked, she made a lot of noise,” said Rich, who dressed Molly in heavy chain embroideries and gangster pinstripes. They’re all strong, individual personalities with a few things in common — they’re young, growing up a little too fast, and having a ball with their questionable taste in life and wardrobe decisions.
Like her imaginary friends, Rich, who’s based in London, lives in her own happy fashion world, which she keeps at a safe distance from the industry epicenter. You have to go looking for it, but it’s worth the trip. If not exactly under the radar, Rich still feels like a discovery. She launched the collection in 2009 and has been showing it off-calendar during Paris Fashion Week since 2010, by appointment, usually in a hotel, such as The Ritz or Hotel Marquis, with two or three models. Fall was held at the famous 18th-century restaurant Lapérouse, with its grand, clubby interiors. “I’m Italian and considered a British designer but I show in Paris,” said Rich. “I think it fits here.”
According to the old department store caste system, the collection is eveningwear, the majority of it made up of cocktail dresses that come alive in their modern, oddball balance of old-fashioned party regalia from your grandmother’s day — silk Moiré and lace are two of Rich’s favorite fabrics — and timeless, cleverly executed tackiness. “It’s very feminine,” said Rich of her aesthetic. “I know some pieces are full-on, so they have to be ironic in a way. It’s for someone that pleases herself more than a man, probably. But once you have that sexiness inside of you, you can wear whatever you want and feel good.”
Wear one of Rich’s dresses to a wedding and risk upstaging the bride. Some of the strongest looks in the fall collection were a scarlet lace dress with a mandarin collar, black braided chinoiserie trim and a black lace hem; a fuchsia panné velvet micro-mini worn with Lurex thigh-highs, and a range of retro faux-fur coats, “just to have something trashy,” said Rich. “But it’s a nice trashy.”
There’s nothing cheap about the clothes. Everything is produced in Italy. The silk comes from Como; the lace, velvet and tweeds, from France. Rich found the improbably real-looking faux furs in Japan. Prices range from $1,500 to $5,000. She has small but elite retail distribution with Harrods, Selfridges and Browns in London; Tsum in Moscow; Joyce in Hong Kong; Net-a-porter; Harvey Nichols in Dubai; Opening Ceremony in New York and Los Angeles; Forward by Elyse Walker in Los Angeles; Fivestory in New York and The Room, Toronto. The big American department stores have been elusive, but Rich knows that her enchantingly left-of-center look can be challenging for big retailers to place.
“It’s all a learning curve and I’m still learning,” said Rich, 49, who got into fashion by way of little more than curiosity and intuition — and has done well for it. She grew up north of Venice in Italy, studied foreign languages and literature at IULM University of Milan. On a trip to the Netherlands, she met her husband of 20 years, Steven Rich, at the TEFAF Maastricht art fair, where he was an exhibitor. She moved to London, where he had an art gallery and did interior design work for a spell before deciding, in her 40s, that she was interested in fashion. “I went to a textile fair in Milan just to look at fabrics, and I said to Steven, ‘I would really like to do a small collection.’ That is how I started,” said Rich. “The first two collections were completely unnoticed because I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know the right time to present a collection.”
Asked if she had any friends in fashion to advise her, Rich said, “Nobody, absolutely, nobody.” But a cold call to Harrods got her an exclusive for two seasons. Step by step, things grew. By the third collection, she realized a little exposure would go a long way, so she joined a group show at a hotel in Paris. Natalie Massenet, then at Net-a-porter, spotted one of her models in the lobby, asked whose dress she was wearing and Rich got another order. Net-a-porter is still one of Rich’s biggest accounts. “Alessandra Rich has a very feminized ability to create standout pieces that mixes romanticism with sensuality,” said Sarah Rutson, the e-tailer’s vice president of global buying. “There is an air of sophistication to her work and her sensitivity to fabrics and how they work with a woman’s body.”
In October, Kendall Jenner was photographed wearing Rich’s silk Moiré jumpsuit and bra top, leaving the Chanel show hand-in-hand with Cara Delevingne. Beyoncé wore a spring 2016 dress in her “Formation” video, released in February. Her stylist has since put in more requests with Rich. Celebrity pickup doesn’t get bigger than that.
Yet Rich is content with the niche world she runs with her team of six employees, including her husband, who closed his gallery and is now her full-time ceo. They’re building on a gradual curve, opening a Milan office last season to help with production, and launching a small range of evening bags. There’s no talk of a fashion show in the future. Rich likes the intimate thing she has going. “I’m very practical in a way,” she said. “I know that it won’t work on a big scale. You have to be happy with what you have, otherwise you’ll never be happy. I think this is working well.”