When Natalie Ratabesi launched Tre last year for resort 2018, her friend, the luxury consultant Robert Burke, offered his home as a makeshift showroom. She invited a few retailers and fashion directors she had come to know over the years, predicting what they were probably thinking when they got the call: “’There she goes again,’” Ratabesi says.
Tre is the first brand Ratabesi has done on her own, but she has been around, working with the best and biggest — John Galliano at Dior, Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Gucci, Ralph Lauren again, Alberta Ferretti at Philosophy, Vince and Yeezy, in that order — since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2000. When it came to working on her line, she had the experience, she had a vision, she had connections, but she was managing her expectations.
“I was hoping to get in one store, but maybe not even. I was thinking, ‘Probably next season,’” Ratabesi recalls of the launch during an interview Monday in a temporary showroom space in New York’s SoHo. “Because it’s tricky when [the buyers] know you. They could hate you or they could like you. They’re not going to do favors and we’re not necessarily friends.” Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Forward and Net-a-porter picked up the first season.
Spring 2019 is only the second season that Ratabesi has presented to the press in a proper if low-key way, two weeks after the runway season in a hotel room in Manhattan. Displayed with no more fanfare than a few rolling racks and a model, the clothes make a strong impression.
There is a breadth, from denim to sweatshirts to fancy evening gowns, all of it belonging in the same closet. Parts of it are “casual” but none of it is lazy or remotely stooping to loungewear. Ratabesi has found her way into streetwear from a distinctly feminine perspective. Her denim, though destroyed, patchworked and done in exaggerated wide-leg and bell-bottom silhouettes, is not down and dirty. It’s quite chic, and not cheap.
The collection ranges from $240 to $4,500. Spring was partly inspired by Aaliyah with a crop top made out of the top of overalls and high-waisted pants with conductor straps. Ratabesi’s shirting; trenches; crop jackets lined with silk soccer flags; shiny, coated coal miner pants, and silk brocade trousers are all cut for the cool girl who’s nonchalant but still cares and occasionally likes to be pretty. There is color — pink, turquoise, red and silver — to offset the black, white and khaki. Gowns, dresses and evening corset tops come in dense crinkled silk and painstakingly pleated tulle cut for girls who want to have fun but aren’t precious about it.
“Natalie being a woman designing for a woman is really working. She gives you the unexpected,” says Roopal Patel, fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “What’s so interesting is she spent many years at Oscar and Ralph and Alberta Ferretti. There’s the whole tough girl component but her eveningwear is absolutely extraordinary. We’re getting ready to relaunch our eveningwear and she did these incredible evening gowns and dresses and tops that are perfect for people looking for something special.”
Ratabesi grew up in Italy and has lived and worked in London, Paris and New York. She moved to Los Angeles in 2014 to work for Vince and stayed. She says L.A. life influences Tre, and her other job as creative director of Current/Elliott, which she took last year, to some extent, particularly for the denim culture and production. But she’s feeling the fashion headwinds shifting.
“There’s something I want to do for next season,” she says. “Tre has always been a mix of street and chic — I hate that word — but there was something in Paris this season…there was a new energy, an elegance or a need for something a little cleaner, maybe a need to suffer a little sometimes in your heels.”
It will still be very her. After almost two decades interpreting the fashion dreams of some of the greatest, most successful designers in the world, Ratabesi was ready to execute her own vision. “Before Tre, I would say my biggest quality was to get into [other designer’s] brains and do what they wanted,” she says. “After that I was like, I know how to do everything. I learned the craft. I’ve been in the ateliers from Paris to Italy to even China. I know how to make clothes.” She was ready to start Tre after the birth of her second child in 2016 when she decided not to return to Vince, then Shirley Cook, the former chief executive officer of Proenza Schouler, put Kanye West in touch with Ratabesi.
Ratabesi put her own project on hold to consult on Yeezy Season 4 (yes, the one with the disastrous Roosevelt Island show). “I’m so glad I did because I think Tre would be completely different,” she says, crediting West with “rebooting” her design process with his insistence on questioning status quo practices and creating a very eclectic studio environment.
“There were so many kids in that studio from Berlin and all over,” says Ratabesi, noting she couldn’t disclose too much due to signed NDAs. “It was like the old days when the poets got together and you sat around the table for hours talking about politics, movies, music. You don’t realize how stifling offices and studios, even with creative people, can be at times.”
Instead of doing a merchandising plan and working according to the calendar she had followed during the span of her career, Ratabesi, said, “OK, what do I want? What do I really like? What do I live in? My whole life, I lived in denim. What denim do I want right now?”
Instead of making it skinnier, smaller, more commercial, she did rigid jeans with a 13-inch crotch and wide legs. She did pleated dresses and bustier tops to wear with jeans. Her sweaters were so oversize, the buyers asked if they were dresses. “I was like, ‘It doesn’t matter,’” she says. “I had a lot of pushback from people, who were like, ‘You can’t do everything. You have to pick a lane.’ I’m not going to pick a lane because that’s not how I dress.”
Tre is a very small operation at the moment. Ratabesi herself is the entire staff, sketching the collection on her bed, sending it to Italy, where 80 percent of the collection is made — the other 20 percent, in Los Angeles. “I don’t even have an intern,” she says.
Between fall 2019 and resort, sales grew 67 percent. The collection is currently carried in Saks, Bergdorf Goodman, Net-a-porter, Lane Crawford, Forward, Shopbop, Harvey Nichols and Moda Operandi. Tre is growing, but it’s still very under-the-radar, which Ratabesi considers a good thing for now. “Whoever is buying Tre doesn’t know who Tre is,” she says. “I’m 100 percent sure they don’t. I’m trying to do the right product and to reach people who will eventually become loyal customers. Slowly. Now, I’m cooking with simple ingredients but if I travel and get some spices and stuff, I know I can do a phenomenal job.”
If West inspired Ratabesi to abandon the rulebook, Ralph Lauren is the one who taught her to trust her gut. “We would be in a room and he would be like, ‘I don’t like that dress that much.’ And I would be like, ‘Oh, my god, I love that dress.’ If it’s not his vision, it’s not his world, if it doesn’t speak to his heart, then it wasn’t in,” she says. “There would be something he would absolutely love and I would be like [raises eyebrows] and it would be a bestseller. He has a vision. It’s like a movie in your head and if it fits, the movie, it’s in.”
Ratabesi is taking it step by step but she has a full vision for Tre. She chose the collection’s name and designed its logo with longevity in mind. “It’s a lifestyle,” she says. The logo was designed for something timeless — not too street, not too this, too that. “I took my time to make sure it’s not going to be something I hate, and I can’t wait to put it on accessories, bags, shoes, makeup, which is a long conversation.”
It’s all about doing the right things at the right time with the right financial structure. Tre is completely self-financed. Ratabesi has met with investors but, as with her logo, she wants to make sure she doesn’t end up hating them. “With investors, you have to make the right choice,” she says, noting that for now the business is breaking even. “But I want this to grow. I have to feed this machine for sure.”