The Stone Island Family | A Conversation with Carlo Rivetti
Interview: Chais Mingo | Photography: Jan Stasiuk
Dialogue | Issue 02 | p.058
About 2 hours east of Milan and 100km north of Florence, lies Ravarino. A small town of only 6000 people, surrounded by farmland and faceless industrial warehouses, it appears an odd place to find the headquarters of one of the most progressive menswear companies in the world. However, a survey of the surrounding Emilia-Romagna region reveals that Stone Island is not so out of place in Ravarino. Founder Massimo Osti’s nearby birthplace of Bologna is considered the countries political and intellectual laboratory and is home to the world’s oldest university. A short drive south is Maranello, the birthplace of Ferrari, while Sant’ Agata, the home of Lamborghini, is a mere 10 minutes away.
In this geographical and cultural context, Stone Island’s unique approach to product development makes perfect sense. Research and experimentation are at the forefront, and much like a performance automobile, every facet of a Stone Island product is obsessively engineered. From the yarn, to the dye, to the final stitch; all decisions take place inside the companies on-site prototyping facilities.
As I arrive in Ravarino, Carlo and Sabina Rivetti and their youngest daughter Camilla greet me. Over a dinner of perfect tortellini en brodo, native Parma ham, and local wine it’s easy to sense the joy Carlo Rivetti takes in being at the helm of Stone Island and rarely a minute goes by without him making a joke causing the whole table to crack up in laughter. After a lifetime in the garment industry and over 30 years with Stone Island, his sense of accomplishment is well deserved. As Owner, President and Creative Director the brand has been able to adapt to the digital marketplace and- through well executed collaborations with the likes of Supreme and Nike- continues to remain relevant with both a new generation of young people and its devoted original fan base. It’s evident that the brand has once again hit its stride and retailers and consumers have taken note, with turnover tripling in five years.
The following morning we begin our tour at the tintoria, or dye laboratory. As pioneers in the process, garment dyeing has been a hallmark of the brand since its creation. The deceptively simple idea of dyeing a fully constructed garment makes every Stone Island item unique, giving them a distinct lived-in look, and- when practiced on two different fabrics at once- allows for a myriad of interesting and unique tone-on-tone effects. The tintoria is, in essence, the heart and soul of the company, where technicians research and formulate a seemingly infinite number of colours by hand. As Carlo points out, it is here where the creative process often begins: “Here we have all the opportunity in the world. I start seeing my garments from here.”
As we watch a pair of dark blue shorts come out of a dye bath, Carlo explains how in many ways the high quality of Stone Island garments is borne out of necessity due to the rigors of the garment dyeing processes, “We are working at 78 degrees centigrade, the dyeing time is around four hours and the garment is constantly moving. Can we use low quality fabrics? Can we use low quality stitching? No way- they would melt. We say that the lifecycle of a Stone Island jacket is 19 years- like a Volvo car. But I’ve met a lot of people still wearing garments from the first season; so more than 33 years, and they are still perfect.”
The machinery and technology in the laboratory is constantly evolving- new machines are added and older hardware is retrofitted with digital technology. Carlo shows me an important machine used to garment dye polyester. Recognized as one of the few companies that could effectively handle such a technology, the machine is actually a prototype that was given to them to test. They have since mastered the process and continue to push the boundaries of synthetic textile dyeing. This in-house control of technology, has allowed Stone Island to stay nimble and manage the problems and failures inherent with experimentation. Carlo is as pleased and motivated by the mistakes as he is by the successes, knowing that with every mistake, they are one step closer to something new. As we continue walking he begins to chuckle, takes something down from a shelf and holds it up for us to see. With a recognizable shape of a parka, the garment has shrunk to a size fit for a toddler and has the texture and feel of a hard sponge. “This used to be a jacket!” Carlo giddily exclaims, “We want to make a museum of the mistakes!” As we look over some samples of a recently double-dyed nylon/cotton sample I can tell that Carlo is proud of the companies prowess and how excited he is for what is to come in the future. “We have no limits, we can do whatever we want, the important thing is to know the technology- to understand the best way to use the technology.”
Despite the vast improvements in digital and mechanical technology the human factor is likely equally important to Stone Islands success. Carlo asks a woman working the dye bath something in Italian, he then smiles and leans over to tell me something , “In two months, it is 30 years that she has been working here." Indeed, many of the staff at Ravarino have been with the company for decades if not from the beginning. Whether they are an original member who recall working side by side with Massimo Osti, or a recently graduated student, all the staff share the same desire to innovate season after season, ensuring that every garment is authentic and exquisitely made.
The importance of relationships, family and good business runs beyond the company itself. For Stone Island to turn their intricate prototypes into market production goods they must rely on a small team of subcontractors. Many of these contractors are in the surrounding region and, as Carlo describes, maintain close ties with Stone Island, “Quality is made by the hand of the people working, so we have a very long term relationship with our subcontractors” Carlo explains, "I don’t like to change subcontractors!” These relationships allow the company to quickly nip any production issues in the bud. Production planning is done hand in hand and any issues discovered on the production line can often be solved with a simple phone call to the sewing department at Ravarino. If the subcontractor doesn’t posses the machinery to produce a specific seam or stitch, Stone Island will go as far to lend them their machine from Ravarino during the time of production. The mutual respect and compassion between the partners runs deep. In 2012 the region was struck by a series of earthquakes that left thousands homeless and the entire region reeling. Despite extensive damage to company buildings and the homes of their employees, Carlo decided to endure, remaining in business without insurance money or government assistance. He solemnly recalls a story that illustrates the solidarity between business partners even under these devastating circumstances; “One of our most important subcontractors is in this area, he makes 30% of our knitwear. His building totally collapsed. So against police orders, in the middle of the night with his workers, they entered the building and took the machines out and started working in the parking lot. They made a perfect delivery- unbelievable”.
After visiting the immense fabric archive and state of the art sewing and pattern making departments we fittingly end our tour at the archives. A massive building, akin to a museum, filled with every Stone Island collection from 1982 to present; a building where you can see and feel how significantly Stone Island changed the face of modern garment design. The brand ushered in a new way of thinking about clothing. Today, more than ever, we take functionality and comfort as a given in our garments, however in the early 80’s and 90’s this was a radical thought. Stone Island eschewed traditional European garments, exorbitant high fashion and mainstream labels that were more concerned with selling an image rather than a product. Stone Island did the opposite and placed a sharp focus on the product with astonishing results—jackets that change colour, fully reflective garments covered in tiny pieces of glass, garments woven with metal and Kevlar®, and recently, knitwear that glows in the dark.
Along with textile and dye innovations, at the heart of Stone Island was functionality. Therefore it comes as little surprise that Massimo Osti was so pre-occupied with military garments in which functionality was often a matter of life and death. The debut collection in 1982 was an ode to the Italian military uniform, and this inspiration set the course for the distinct utilitarian aesthetic for which the brand is known and the influence of military garments has continued to be evident every Stone Island collection since. Alongside the archives of over 40,000 garments which catalogue every collection ever produced is a lesser-known collection of over 4000 military and workwear garments. Collected from years of travelling, research trips, and generous donations, this immense resource has informed the iconic aesthetic of Stone Island, and allowed it to remain an authentic and original brand since its founding over 30 years ago. As President and Creative Director Carlo Rivetti explains: “For us it’s really like a coal mine. A single garment, we go inside and we get a lot of inspiration."
However Mr. Rivetti is not interested in vintage. The military inspiration has never been a one-to-one copy, to reproduce the whole of the garment. Even describing Stone Island as a modern day interpretation of military garments would be missing the mark. A constant focus on research and development has pushed the brand so far into the future that it makes comparisons to any other contemporary label virtually impossible. The inspiration ranges from obscure to outright; the shape of a pocket, the way a hood is concealed in a collar, the industrial feel of a workwear garment or construction textile. All facets are fair game and every experiment and re-interpretation deepens the knowledge base, history, and scope of the brand.
I set my sights on a red Stone Island piece that I instantly recognize as resembling a Vietnam-era jungle jacket. However, as I get closer and touch the garment, the familiar becomes un-familiar. Deep reddish black, with a textured appearance yet smooth to the touch, the piece feels both precious and durable at once. I struggle to comprehend as I’m told more about the textile— a lightweight, paper like nylon, applied with geometric rip-stop mesh typically used in construction, topped with a translucent polyurethane film and finally garment dyed. As we look through the other pieces I am consistently surprised and perplexed, first by the vintage garments and then by the corresponding Stone Island piece: a bee keeper suit, a translucent parka, a military poncho that turns into a tent, military issue flak jackets and a Cold War era Russian Anti-G pilot suit that could be mistaken for some kind of exo-skeleton from a dystopian future.
After another delicious local meal I say goodbye to Carlo, Sabina, and Camilla. In the days and weeks that follow I find myself mindlessly clicking to the Stone Island website, or browsing Ebay for past collections. Gripped by the cult that is Stone Island; eager to find out more about the past and anxious to see what is to come in the future.
Keeping accurate and comprehensive records and archives seems to be very important to Stone Island, with data and collections of all previous seasons, vintage inspiration, and colour dye formulas. Explain the significance of this practice both personally and to the Stone Island brand and identity.
There is a perception of our product that we are original. After 30 years to be an original is something quite unique, and I think that the originality comes from the fact that we actually get our inspiration from real pieces, and the army pieces, always. They’re interesting; you never find a detail that is for fun, or is for beauty; everything is functional, and I think in Stone Island is more or less the same thing. When we study a pocket, or study a collar, or hood, they must be engineered in some way, they must have function.
What is interesting is that we keep the original and we make a contemporary interpretation. But Stone Island is recognizable as a real one- as an original. So I think it is really an opportunity to take inspiration from real pieces and make new real pieces. That is very important to us. From a functional point of view, from a design point of view, but also from a fabric research point of view. The army stuff is huge. For us it’s really like a coal mine. A single garment we go inside, and we get a lot of inspiration. I think it is a key point and also the opportunity of having the piece in front of you in the historical archive. It gives a lot of inspiration to the design team. They are young people, and when they enter the historical archive, they feel all the heritage of Stone Island. I think it is always a psychological help to make sure we always do our best.
When did Stone Island begin to build its archives?
From the beginning; meaning we were not thinking about the historical archive, but then one beautiful day we leaned back and said "oh my god" this is a historical archive! From the beginning, we have done research travel, and we buy reference pieces- used and new- so we can improve the historical archive. I’m really proud because now we have a real historical archive. Also the building is important because the quality of the air, the control of humidity, of light- before it was really just a hanger. Now it is becoming even more and more important. So we started from the beginning but after probably 10 years, is when we actually realized that we are building a historical archive.
Where did the pieces come from?
We have a section of everything we have done, then we have a section of prototypes, and then we have a section with the military and uniforms that we have found around the world. We both travel around. The last section was a gift from one of the oldest agents we work with, who started his job in 1982 and retired last season. He makes his own historical archive, and he is a generous man. When he left the company, he sent to me, two trucks with 400 to 500 pieces. So now we are accepting other collector donations as well.
The Stone Island archive is quite peculiar. I must tell you this story because I like it a lot: On a beautiful day, I received a call from my manager in Germany, he tells me "Carlo this gentleman is not able to find the 30th anniversary book" and he’s phoning all the shops to find one. So finally they delivered the book to the gentleman and the man has a collection of over one thousand Stone Island pieces. But it’s not an archive- it is his closet, he uses the pieces! So really, it was shocking, because I always see my archive, so entering the closet of this guy of 1200 pieces, but divided by family like knitwear and jackets. He wears it everyday. So it was a different point of view, totally different because here we organize by season, but he changed the order because he is wearing it. It was a different experience. Our customers are very important to us. They are collectors; they are doing personal historical archives with Stone Island pieces.
We organize a once a year visit with special customers and when they enter the archive, it's like they enter a church or a cathedral—they start whispering! [laughs] When we did the 30th anniversary exhibit in Florence there was a special visit with some of our customers from England- about 15 guys. They put £100 each in a cash pot. They passed through the exhibition and they are looking at the garments to see if they have it in there own personal archive, and whoever had the most gets the money. The guy that won had 67 pieces from the exhibition alone in his archive. It’s really something special. It’s a piece of my life!
How many items are there, in each archive?
Military pieces, there are about 4000, and about 40,000 in the Stone Island collections archive.
This is a beautiful story. When we had the earthquake in 2012, we decided to build the historical archive. Day after day I would see the growing of the historical archive building and finally it’s finished, so the gentleman that was doing the construction said "Carlo come and see." And it was empty—big! He said to me: ‘Carlo for the next 10 years you will have no problem’. We started putting collections inside, and now it's already full. Now we need to move part of the historical archive to get back more space and we will edit it to the most important pieces. I feel that we don’t have to carry everything; to save space we can choose some special pieces because it is becoming a problem actually. Thank god that on the back of the historical archive we have a huge piece of land that is empty. So we’ll see! [laughs]
Who maintains the archive?
The product team, and a gentleman who works part-time does photos. This is becoming a problem: we need a photo archive, but it is an unbelievable amount of work. Little by little, step-by-step, a gentleman is doing the photos. It’s not pressed, I don’t need it tomorrow morning but I’m thinking of hiring a student to do this job. I don’t want people to be alone in the archive. I have to think the right way of doing the photo shoot. Now because of the book and little by little we are building, I would like to have a serious historical archive. My idea is to have all the photos done in the same format.
Do you remember some of the first pieces that entered the military archive?
It is not one of the first, but one of the most significant for me. It’s a diving suit, made in Ventile cotton. It is from the '40s, French army, and the hand and the foot is rubber, but everything else is cotton. It’s unbelievable! I remember when we found this piece it was like "oh wow!"
The first ones though are the most simple, because when we started collecting them, everything was new- so we formed a base. Then we improved the quality, and now when we enter places around the world that have used military pieces, 80% we already have, so sometimes, we find one piece. We choose flower by flower, and improve the quality. The first ones are the most basic—plus the tent. The tent was not in the archive; it was outside the archive, in the fist row, because the tent is something very special, and probably one of the first pieces. In some ways the tent is probably one of the inspirations that moved Massimo¹ to start Stone Island.
Was Massimo Osti collecting back then?
It was him and his people in the early days. They still have a part of the historical archive. Massimo sold the biggest part, but they have the fabric archive that we developed here, and they have the same ones. But it was fabrics developed in the company.
Was the first collection based on a particular inspiration piece?
Yes. If you look at the Italian army uniform, on the collar there is the mostrine. Now it is steel, but in the '20s, '30s or '40s it was made in fabric and it was a signifier of what part of the army you were in. So, for example, if it is green you are Alps; so every specific part of the army has their own. Massimo would like to pay a tribute, so the first collection was really a tribute to the military uniform. The idea of the badge also comes from the Italian army. It is kind of a tribute we decide to pay to the uniform, because the first collection was really based on the uniform. The fabric as well, the first collection was only one fabric, with a different colour on each face. It was stone washed to make it soft and it came from the tarpaulin cloth of military trucks.
Why are the military references so important?
It’s the function. It was the '80s; Massimo was one of the first that went to flea markets, to find solutions: the pocket is a solution, ventilation is a solution. It is because of the function. It has nothing to do with the military institution. If you find a pocket on a military jacket, it has a function. What is important is the shape, and the closure. In the uniform, everything is function.
I think it is in the DNA of the brand, because the story is that Massimo wanted to pay a tribute to the military uniform, and it is why we now have the military archive. It is something really linked to past, present, and future. The uniform is really part of the DNA of the brand.
Has the importance or role of the archives changed over the years?
Yes. It is sort of a wave. In the first 10 years it was more important. Then we started looking less to the historical archive, because everyone was talking about vintage. I hate vintage, because I think we have to look at the future, so I tried not to look back to the archive. I tried to move forward. I was afraid that if I looked at the archive, I would go cross-eyed. And now we are using it more, the historical archive—the particular pocket, or hood. Also, because in the last few years we have been able to develop new fabrics that in my opinion are totally contemporary; so there is no risk of being vintage.
I think that in this day, our collection is very contemporary but you can find some details that are recognizable, or iconic, but also contemporary. So now we are opening research again in the historical archive. Also after 33 years, a new generation is arriving- younger people- and thank god we are able to speak to young customers. Now we are talking to a younger generation and young people never have never seen these pieces. Of course we will not do a copy of the past, but an interpretation.
Again we become original by looking at ourselves. It’s a fantastic opportunity from a company point of view and personal point of view- it’s fantastic. I remember the '80s and none of these people remember the '80s and now we are back and we are cool again. A lot of young guys, they get the book, and they ask me "Why don’t you do this?" It’s important tothink about doing an interpretation of our past, and an incredible opportunity to do an interpretation of our DNA- of our story.
In the '80s everyone was wearing ties and jackets, and I remember the first Stone Island pieces in the window, people were thinking: "my god what is this?" I learn a lot looking at my son because what they wear to school is something I could not wear to go to school. When I was a child I would go to school and wear a jacket, a small tie and a traditional pair of shoes. In the past we called these tennis shoes (points to his adidas NMD), and we used them to go to the gym. The way people go to school today is how we would dress for the gym. So we understand that the new generation will never again use traditional garments like ties and jacket, with the exception of ceremonies. Normal life for people now, is much more comfortable, and as you grow up you never understand the formal jacket, or the tight collar with the tie.
Sabina: How long has it been since you have worn a tie? Camilla, when did your father last wear a tie?
Camilla: I remember my father, just once, for the love of your (Sabina’s) mother- for her 80th birthday, he wore a tie.
Carlo: When I started working I was in a traditional company, so I had to wear jacket and tie every morning. I remember clearly, a beautiful day in July in Torino— 40 degrees. We organized a meeting on a Saturday, so the factory was closed, so I dressed informal. The ‘informal’ way was a blue blazer with cotton polo, and khaki pants. I remember I opened the door and 18 people were sitting there, and I saw 18 people staring at me because- in 40 degrees on a Saturday- they were all wearing suits and ties. Oh my god!
This is a beautiful story: My father was the first to make ‘Ready to Wear.' The brand became very popular and we sold an unbelievable number of pieces in the shop. On a Saturday at the shop in Torino we were able to sell 4000 blue suits. It was very popular in the whole country, and I remember one day the distributor comes to us and said, "we need a special suit, a simplified one. We don’t need pockets, we need a beautiful front, but the back could be very cheap." He explained to us the use. So we said we would try. There was a special brand name for this, because it was used for dead people, so they didn't need the back! In those days, even when you die, they would dress you in a suit and tie. Unbelievable! Then in the 80’s we arrived with a garment that changes colour! [laughs]
So now you understand why I enjoy life; from dead people with suit and tie, to jackets that change colour. I prefer jackets that change colour! And I want to be cremated when I die, so no problem with ties! [laughs]
It seems like family is very important to yourself as well as Stone Island. Why is this? Do you think it is unique to Italian companies?
I do everything for my family, because my family is the future, and I am very happy that they started working in the company, and I think they like it. I never asked them, like the Father to the son "What do you want to do when you grow up?" Finally the three of them started to work inside the company. This is a fantastic company; it’s small and family based.
If you look at the successful companies in Italy, they are family owned. For instance: Ferrari cars. The Fiat group owns Ferrari but still the son of Enzo Ferrari owns 30% of the company. So the individual is the most important stakeholder. The wine industry is all family owned—98% family owned. Mr. Giorgio Armani is still there, Versace—the family is still there. The family in Italy is very important, it is why we have survived 40 years of unbelievable politicians. We still have politicians that steal. We have a good lifestyle, and we survive everything because of the family. Especially in the south, in the south the family is the center of everything.
It’s a fantastic way of staying together. We do the most beautiful job in the world- to work in a mine is different. We make beautiful products and we have a beautiful company. When we travel, we check the best shops in the world, in the best cities in the world- not bad at all. When we spend vacations together, it’s not boring. We have a lot to talk about and it’s very relaxed. It’s also a way of keeping the family very tight. Everyone, especially the young guy, is so proud of this (points to Stone Island badge on his sleeve), because now we are cool. Now everyone in the family wears the badges with pride. My family is the owner of the company. When we do the dinner with the family it’s unbelievable, because we all are wearing Stone Island and everyone looks at us; you see 13 Stone Island people arriving all together!
I also feel that my family is not only my family. Stone Island is my family; the people working here are my family. I have worked in a lot of companies, and I know a lot of companies, and Stone Island is something special. We are in the middle of nowhere and people started working here when they were 14 and they are still here after 30 years and they still look young and enthusiastic doing their job. In this company, when they leave they turn off the light. They treat the company like it is their own company. They are my family and we work all together. Family is everything.
What I’m sure is that I’m ready to leave my place. I would like to be only the honorary president, I would like to have the time to travel the world; I’m ready to do this. The problem is my wife, because my wife is the worker of the family. My philosophy is that in the family you need one person working, and that is my wife [laughs]. My dream is to open a bar in Mexico. If I am here it’s because I have a family. On one hand I’m very proud and love working with my family, on the other hand I would like to stay in Mexico [laughs], but I have to wait until they learn.
Find the printed version of this interview in issue 02 of intelligence Magazine, available now.
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Full interview available in issue 02
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ISSUE 02: Sk8thing & Toby Feltwell