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Stone Island: 40 Years Without Compromise

  • Words: Eugene Rabkin

  • Photography: Thomas Welch

In this week’s FRONTPAGE, writer Eugene Rabkin spoke with Stone Island CEO Carlo Rivetti on the brand’s 40 years of innovation.

The year was 1982, and Massimo Osti — an Italian designer who was manic about fabric research and vintage military gear — stumbled upon the idea of using heavy canvas tarp commonly found on military trucks to make clothes. He dyed each side of the material with resin-impregnated pigment, and made jackets and an army-inspired cape. The result was so unlike anything he had seen before that he decided to launch a new brand on the strength of the fabric he called Tella Stella.

He named the brand Stone Island, and to symbolize its ruggedness, used the wind rose — usually seen on compasses — as its logo. On a more pragmatic level, it signaled the weatherproof practicality of the clothes, as well as the marriage between aesthetics and utility that turned out to be nothing short of revolutionary. Fast forward to today and countless “techwear” brands make wind and rain-proof clothing adapted for city life. But back then, Stone Island stood alone, and it took a true visionary to lift it off the ground.

That visionary was Carlo Rivetti, whose family business was already producing clothing on a mass scale in Italy, including a strong background in suit-making. The restless 25-year-old Rivetti was looking for something new — he saw the change in the way men dressed, shedding suits in favor of more casual clothing, and he was searching for a brand that not only reflected this trend, but took it into the future. When Osti showed him the first Stone Island collection, Rivetti knew that he found exactly what he was looking for.

Rivetti signed up to become Osti’s partner and to manufacture Stone Island, throwing himself into the business with manic devotion. Gradually, Osti moved on to other projects, and Rivetti took over the business and its ethos of making the most innovative clothes possible.

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Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch
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Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch

In the decades that followed, Stone Island has grown beyond a mere brand, and into a laboratory of ideas. It pioneered object-dyeing, the practice of dyeing a garment after it has been constructed. The brand has 60,000 unique dyeing recipes in its color library. Its designers — who operate more like engineers — have made camouflage patterns by stripping the dye away with acid and by shooting garments with paintball guns, along with jackets whose color responds to temperature changes. In its frenetic pursuit of innovation, it has made garments from the most advanced fabrics like Kevlar, Dyneema, and Primaloft. It has worked with some of the most innovative designers in menswear such as Paul Harvey, Aitor Throup, and Acronym’s Errolson Hugh. And these relationships have been symbiotic: the designers learn from the brand’s store of technical know-how as much as they contribute to it.

Experimentation is at the core of Stone Island. Its proposition is to push the envelope in clothes-making using the most advanced technologies available. At the same time, there is a strong concern for aesthetics rooted in its Italian heritage. Put together, this is the purest ethos of what design is.

There is no talking about Stone Island without talking about its cult following. It is a dirty secret of marketing that word of mouth is the best advertising, but Stone Island’s influence has always been grassroots. Its adaptation by subcultures, from Italian Paninari to English football fanatics and hip-hop artists is well-documented. Its fan base spans the globe and several generations. Sons wear their father’s “Stoney,” as they’re affectionately called, and collecting vintage Stone Island has become a bona fide obsession for many.

For all of its global reach, there has always been something essentially Italian about the brand. Unlike much of techwear where form follows function, Stone Island’s concern for spezzatura — the dandyish predisposition for how one looks — is unmistakably present, done in its own matter-of-fact way. You feel it when you wear a Stone Island jacket; there is a sense of excellence in the clothes that says, “I have nothing to prove.”

There is also a uniquely Italian disposition to Stone Island when it comes to its human element, from its fans to suppliers and employees. There is a saying that with Italians, the first time you are a customer, the second time you are a friend, and the third time you are family. This attitude stems from Rivetti down through the company.

Well into Stone Island’s 40th anniversary, we spoke to Rivetti about what he has learned throughout the decades of steering the brand.

EUGENE RABKIN: What attracted you to Stone Island in the first place?

CARLO RIVETTI: I was already working in my family company, GFT, when I encountered Stone Island, which was soon after it started. We were looking to get into sportswear, and I saw what a radically new thing it was. There was nothing like it on the market; it really was proposing a different dimension of clothing. So I was there from the beginning, in the delivery room, as this baby was being born.

There are few brands that flourish [for] over 40 years. What is at the core of Stone Island that has made it endure?

First, it’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years. Everything feels like it happened yesterday. We did not follow anyone or anything, not the market, not the trends, not fashion. What we wanted to do was to innovate, because when you innovate, you are not linked to the things that other brands follow. Tella Stella, our first material, was not just a new fabric but a revolution in the entire garment paradigm. Ever since that, we’ve concentrated on the fabric. Sometimes we went as far as investing into fabric research for our fabric providers, even buying them looms.

Sometimes our suppliers lose money on research for us, but they are okay with it, because it’s more important for them that they work on something interesting. We’ve always been about building transparent relationships with our suppliers, with the people who work in our company, and of course, with our customers. Respect is very important to us, and you are seeing the result of doing this for 40 years.

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Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch
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Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch

How has Stone Island evolved in all this time?

If you want to be an entrepreneur in Italy, you must be very, very optimistic (laughs). I was always sure about our company. Of course over so many years we have had ups and downs. But what remained important for me is that the people who work for Stone Island are always proud to work there. Commercial results, whether good or bad, were never the most important thing. The most important thing has always been innovation, developing something unexpected, something new. We were always self-referential in that way, and we never chased immediate results. And that allowed us to be at the forefront of the market.

This is especially important today when most companies concentrate on giving people what they want instead of giving them what they don’t know they want yet.

If you give people what they want, you are late to the game. If you want to give them something different — not that you shouldn’t care about the market — but you should see what’s missing. I’ve been asked by retailers to bring certain items to the market, and I would always ask, “What for? If there are other companies out there that do it well already, why would we want to be a copy?”

In the past few years we’ve seen techwear widely adopted by men’s fashion. That must feel validating to you, since you’ve been at the forefront of techwear for so many years. The world has caught up to you.

I’m very proud to have had the intuition that the world will change. Fifteen years ago I said that a new wave of dressing is arriving, and we have to be ready for it. Sometimes, of course, being too early is the same problem as being too late. We are lucky that our customers are very loyal. What we do is very hard to imitate, because to do garment-dyeing, you really need to understand how the fabric behaves. It’s an old couturier tradition — you need to know the soul of the fabric in order to work with it, but we do it on an industrial level.

In some way then the story of Stone Island is the story of material innovation — the brand develops as new fabrics come on the market.

What is magical about Stone Island is that we transform the material. We start with one thing and we arrive at a totally different result. It’s an alchemical approach. Sometimes our providers don’t recognize the fabric after we are done with it.

Stone Island has also had an incredible cultural influence. What is the universalizing aspect of the brand that has had it accepted by different subcultures [around] the world?

I think it’s because we’ve never set out to please anyone. We have a very strong DNA and a specific, well-defined language that we use to communicate our values. When we started the world was smaller, but we never tried to conquer a culture — we were adopted, first by the Paninari, then by the football fans, and so on. And this is not a marketing story, it’s just what happened. These subcultures see that we are not trying to market to them, and I think this organic approach is important.

The fans, they really get excited about the garments. We were in China, for example, at a pop-up we did in Shanghai, and one guy came up to me wearing a Stone Island jacket and he was explaining to me for 10 minutes how it was made. Of course I know how it was made, but it was really special to see how someone was so excited about it. I can’t imagine many other brands where this would happen.

What have you learned in the past 40 years? Is there anything you would’ve done differently?

I am 65-years-old. I was 25 when I started with Stone Island. I [am] proud that I was able to develop my vision. Of course I’ve made mistakes, but mistakes are also opportunities. We make many errors when we develop products, but we learn from them to make better clothes. If you want to innovate, you must be ready to make mistakes. Actually, I would be worried if we did not make mistakes — that would mean we are not innovative enough.

I’ve also had to make bold decisions in order to make Stone Island what it is today. For example, when I realized that denim is not our strength, I made the decision to cut it, because it was not up to our standards. Imagine a company that cuts denim today, when everyone wears jeans? Maybe we lost money, but it was the right decision that allowed us to concentrate on what we do best. At the end of the day, you have to stick to your vision.

  • Words:Eugene Rabkin
  • Photography:Thomas Welch

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