Remo Ruffini has turned the Moncler jacket into a cold-weather style statement. As fashion’s most iconic names pose for the world’s biggest photographers in his wares, he tells Clare Coulson why the label will never go out of style — and why holidaying in St Moritz is crucial to his success
Even if you’ve never owned a Moncler jacket, chances are you know exactly what one looks like. Over the past decade the brand’s signature zip-front, high-necked down-filled Maya jacket, which retails for £700, has become a luxe winter staple — whether it’s on the back of a Vespa-riding city slicker or whizzing down the black runs of Verbier or St Moritz.
For Remo Ruffini, the 55-year-old Italian entrepreneur who has masterminded the reinvention of a brand founded in 1952, Moncler has been an obsession since childhood. Like most of us, his first sighting was on the cool young Italian hipsters who had persuaded their parents to splash out on the colourful logoed winter jacket.
‘I was born in Como, very close to the border with Switzerland,’ explains the mop-haired, super-chic businessman who finally persuaded his mother to buy him a Moncler jacket when he was 14 years old. ‘In the winter, when you wake up in the morning at seven o’clock, it’s freezing cold outside and you have to ride a bike to get to school. The only thing you dream of is something that can keep you warm. So I got a Moncler jacket and I still remember that first morning I used it. Since then Moncler was my love.’
Three decades later, in 2003, he acquired the company at a time when its annual turnover was less than €50m. Last year that figure had risen to €694m. The brand now has 142 stores around the world and when Ruffini took the company public in December 2013 the shares were 31 times oversubscribed, sending the share price rocketing and valuing the company at nearly €3.7bn. Ruffini was an overnight billionaire.
He is in many ways an unlikely mogul. Until the run-up to his IPO he still lived full-time in his 19th-century lakefront villa in sleepy Como, preferring to commute into Milan for work, rather than live in the hustle and bustle of the city. And there’s definitely a sense that the fun-loving entrepreneur, in his double-breasted suits and bare ankles, is as devoted to his home life — his wife Francesca and sons Pietro, 26, who works in consultancy, and Romeo, 23, who is still at university — as his thriving business.
He’s equally passionate about decorating his homes, including his Como villa, a plush townhouse in Milan, a yacht and a restored ski lodge in St Moritz — which is, he says, where he feels most at home and where he spends most winter weekends. ‘I love the profound silence you can only find at high altitude, where the air is rarefied and the chill is absolute. It is what I define as my personal luxury treat — an escape from my hectic life.’
And it is an intense work life, steering the continual growth of his business at a time when there is unprecedented competition (not least from high-profile brands such as Canada Goose). Ruffini is adamant that Moncler is a unique product — made from scratch in Italy, with each component, whether it’s the smooth-running zips or plush shiny nylons, manufactured specifically for the company. (His personal favourite is a matt blue Longue Saison jacket, which can be worn year-round.) ‘I think what keeps attracting customers is the quality and the perfect combination of style and performance.’ The jacket that has been worn by Jackie Kennedy and Madonna, Charlotte Casiraghi and Cate Blanchett is, he says, ‘beyond fashion’.
A career in the fashion business was always on the cards. He cut his teeth working for his father’s menswear company Gianfranco Ruffini in America before returning to Italy in 1984 to set up his own shirting brand, the New England Company. By 2000 he had sold this company and begun consulting for Fin.Part, a now defunct holding company that owned Moncler. Fin.Part was almost bankrupt — and suddenly there was a chance to acquire what Ruffini knew was a sleeping beauty crying out for a 21st-century renaissance.
Founded in 1952 by Alpine climber René Ramillon, the brand’s history was all about practical mountain essentials — quilted sleeping bags, tents, lined cagoules — and the company’s first jackets were made for protecting workers from the cold. The name was an abbreviation of the Alpine town Monestier-de-Clermont, where they were produced.
It was the French mountaineer Lionel Terray who saw the potential of a cosy, down-filled jacket, and the company began to produce a specialist line for him. In 1954 Moncler jackets were worn on an Italian expedition to K2 and later on Terray’s expedition to Alaska in 1964. Moncler Outlet was the official sponsor of the French downhill ski team at the Grenoble Winter Olympics in 1968. The logo was tweaked (to its now iconic cockerel design) and by the next Winter Olympics the team requested more changes — the jacket was streamlined and leather epaulettes were added for resting skis on.
The jacket migrated from the slopes to city streets and became a flashy Euro must-have in the 1980s. But by the 1990s they had lost their position in the market, out-manoeuvred by the snappy, sporty (and cheaper) winter coats served up by companies like The North Face and specialist ski brands. When he took over in 2003, Ruffini immediately spotted the potential for revival. ‘It was absolutely unique — it was rare to find a brand with deep roots in tradition. Our aim was to roll out a “global down jacket” strategy all over the world.’ In other words, to make the jackets as popular in towns and cities as they were in the world’s chicest ski resorts; to turn them into a classic must-have that could be worn by anyone of any age, anywhere in the world — for a princely price, of course.
One of his early masterstrokes was to enlist cutting-edge designers to run amok with the padded jackets, creating extraordinary couture versions. With the Moncler Gamme Rouge collection, launched in 2006, he hoped to make ‘down jackets so elegant that women would wear them to a first night at La Scala’. Since 2008 the collection has been designed by the Italian-born, Paris-based Giambattista Valli, who applies his exaggeratedly feminine and luxurious aesthetic to sublime outerwear; this autumn’s collection includes a quilted scarlet jacket topped with a richly appliquéd topcoat. Elsewhere there are sumptuous materials, extravagant details and fluffy fur collars. In 2009 Gamme Rouge was joined by Gamme Bleu, a men’s collection by the highly influential New York menswear designer Thom Browne. The label has also collaborated with Chitose Abe, Junya Watanabe and on capsule collections with Pharrell Williams.
Moncler’s artful courtship with high fashion has seen it put on spectacular shows in New York City, from dancing flashmobs at Grand Central Station to its Central Park extravaganza in 2012, in which 180 ice skaters performed a synchronised spectacle while the fashion world sipped on spiced cider and hot chocolate.
Ruffini was producing catwalk spectaculars long before the Insta-ready shows of the past few seasons. ‘When I am asked which is my favourite, I’m always tempted to answer “the next one” as I want to believe creativity and inspiration have no boundaries,’ he adds. And sure enough, his current passion is his Art for Love project, a benefit exhibition. ‘I think that in the history of photography, there never has been such a great number of talents as the 32 participating artists. I am so excited about it.’
It says a lot about the considerable pull of Cheap Moncler Jackets that Ruffini has enlisted some of photography’s biggest stars to take part in a book and exhibition, which opened in New York earlier this month. Peter Lindbergh, Patrick Demarchelier, Arthur Elgort, Paolo Roversi, Steven Klein, Craig McDean, Steven Meisel, Mario Sorrenti — the list goes on and on. ‘I simply made a list of great names,’ explains Ruffini, who wanted to put together a photographic project that would also have a social impact for some time. All funds raised, through an online auction, are going to amFar (the American Foundation for Aids Research), of which Ruffini is a long-time supporter.
Each image features in varying ways the brand’s signature Maya jacket, an enigmatic reminder that the Moncler billionaire has built his success on one simple idea — the ultimate winter jacket with universal appeal.