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Stone Island’s guiding light

Stone Island owner Carlo Rivetti on building one of Italy’s most recognisable brands and setting the pace when it comes to innovation.

There are a few things that you discover from a meeting with the owner of Stone Island, Carlo Rivetti: he’s passionate about people, product and protecting the brand he has overseen for the past 30 years. He intrinsically identifies Stone Island with Italy. “You can delocalise Fiat and BMW, but you can’t delocalise Ferrari and you can’t delocalise Stone Island,” he says. Rivetti also loves an analogy. Sitting in the gardens of the brand’s Milan offices, he likens the quality of the students he encounters while teaching at the local university [Politecnico di Milano] to a winery: “You have good years and bad years.”

One thing is certain, 2012 is turning out to be a good year for Stone Island. The premium sports-inspired brand is celebrating its 30th anniversary, with Rivetti declaring that it’s all about looking forward as well as appreciating what has come before. “When we were deciding on the 30th anniversary celebrations, we didn’t want to do a closed event, so we held an exhibition [at men’s trade show Pitti Uomo]. I want to talk to the world,” he says. And it has been Rivetti’s passion, expression and hunger to bring Stone Island to new generations that has kept it contemporary.

In addition to June’s exhibition at Pitti Uomo in Florence, some of the most iconic Stone Island pieces are being celebrated with a book released this September, under the art direction of stylist Simon Foxton and his creative partner Nick Griffiths. These include Tela Stella, the original Stone Island jacket made from military tarpaulin; Thermo Reflective, a light and heat-sensitive jacket that modifies itself according to temperature; and the Ice Jacket, a down jacket where pigment molecules allow it to change colour according to the temperature. The boundary-pushing technical element to what Stone Island does is what makes it such a desirable brand. “Sometimes I go to the store on a Saturday and see people entering and asking the magic question: ‘What do you have that’s new?’ Our customers are collectors as well. It’s a sort of club, they want to own the new thing,” he says.

Rivetti grew up surrounded by fashion. He was the eighth generation to enter the textile business when he joined the family firm, Italian licensing group GFT, which specialised in Italian formalwear. However, in 1981 Rivetti spotted the potential in the luxury sportswear market. He began searching Italy for sportswear manufacturers that he felt would fulfil this niche and as fate would have it he met Massimo Osti, the founder of Stone Island and an innovative garment engineer.

GFT subsequently bought Stone Island in 1983, and over the past 30 years has steered it towards its position as a leader in textile production. “I had a good relationship with Massimo, not easy but it worked. He was a shy guy and didn’t feel like a fashion designer. He felt more like an industrial designer,” says Rivetti.

Rivetti headed Stone Island under the GFT structure until 1993 when the majority of the group’s shares were bought out by a number of shareholders. He then decided to jump ship and start up his own enterprise, with Stone Island as the jewel in the crown. “I knew GFT would want to focus on formalwear and sell the sportswear division, so my sister and I set up Sportswear Company,” he says.

The duo continued to work closely until Osti’s departure in 1994, with Rivetti attributing the workmanship and approach to problem solving as his former partner’s legacy at the brand. “Today at least 70% of the people working in the company work directly on product research and development, a rarity in today’s market,” he says.

With a keen eye for design talent Rivetti then recruited designer Paul Harvey in 1995. “You don’t see the change between Massimo and Paul. Paul evolved the line as he had so much respect for the brand,” he says. After Harvey himself left the company in 2007, Rivetti introduced an international design team to bring a different set of perspectives and experiences to the brand.

Undoubtedly, the most iconic part of the Stone Island brand is the shoulder piece featuring the compass logo, easily recognisable for both positive and negative identities; the latter most notably in relation to the football casuals of the late 1980s and 1990s. “We saw a few newspapers and understood we were associated with hooligans. I was worried at first, but ultimately I can’t choose the final customer. Individually many are fantastic people, but in groups sometimes people do things they shouldn’t,” says Rivetti.

“I think the hooligans have moved on slightly (though not fully) because they struggle to get in bars with the compass logo,” says Gavin Crossland, buyer at Macclesfield menswear indie Woodhouse, a UK stockist of the brand. “The strongest point for me is that it is worn by everyone. I don’t know another brand that is worn by every age,” he says.

Laurence Davis, owner of five-store indie Choice, another UK stockist, echoes this.

“Our Stone Island customer is multicultural and from 15 to 50 years old. The brand just needs to keep on reinventing itself.”

Crossland adds: “The key to the brand’s success is how it has changed its pricing structure and managed its distribution.”

Bringing Stone Island to a younger generation is something Rivetti was keen to address when it expanded into more product categories four years ago, with the introduction of shirts, trousers, shorts and polo shirts. “I understood we weren’t talking to this [younger] generation. This meant looking at our entry price points. We changed our media planning team and through new media we started talking to them. We couldn’t lose the older generation but we needed to change the way we talk to people,” he says.

As well as introducing entry price points, Rivetti unveiled the Shadow Project in 2008, a capsule collection showcasing the latest innovations. “Shadow is my Formula 1. We can do all the experimenting we want,” says Rivetti. “Shadow taught us a lot: new stockists, new consumers and a new form of communication.” These additions are clearly working, as international sales have doubled over the past four years. Turnover at owner Sportswear Company was €51m (£41m) in 2011 – the business declined to provide figures for 2010.

Stone Island has been likened to a religion thanks to its enthusiastic customers. “When we take customers to see the factory in Italy, they enter it like a cathedral. Stone Island is real product, with real stories and there is that passion in passing on knowledge,” he says. Rivetti admits he has a surprise for spring 13 for customers that have inundated him with requests of garment reissues. “I promised them I would do it and I have done it. We’ve taken an old idea with a contemporary point of view.

The interpretation is totally new,” he says.

The brand’s continual striving for originality finds Rivetti in the enviable position of having to rein in its innovations. “Sometimes we move too fast,” he says. “The word impossible is unheard of in the company. Sometimes we do something so new the stockist can’t relate to it. However, when we start something we are not thinking of next season, we are thinking of research.” And in the ever-increasing output of pre-collections, flash collections and injections, it’s refreshing to hear Rivetti placing timeless and pioneering product at the forefront. Amen to that.

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