This story appears in Issue 16 of Highsnobiety Magazine.
For over 35 years, Stone Island has created garments that are weatherproof, experimental, and symbolic of multiple subcultures. But perhaps its greatest achievement is cultivating a brand that is truly trendproof.
When you get to know the people who work at Stone Island, the Italian sportswear company that has changed the way men dress since its inception in 1982, you realize a few things. You geek out with its design team on their attention to functionality, detail, and finishing. You talk to its creative team, refugees from the London fashion world, with whom you share your disdain for all the fussy fashion drama. You get to see an extremely successful company that is still run very much family-style, without the need to squeeze every cent of profit out of it.
But what you realize first and foremost is that it is the almost palpable passion that permeates the company, from its owner and creative director Carlo Rivetti, down to the people who do dyeing experiments in its NASA-level facilities in Ravarino, Italy. Passion is the backbone of Stone Island’s success that has earned them a hardcore following that by now spans over generations and continents, confirming Stone Island’s OG status in the world of covetable sportswear.
In a way, Stone Island is an unclassifiable brand. It’s not exactly fashion—they don’t stage runway shows, and their roots are firmly embedded in the kind of a no-fuss, masculine dressing that shies away from fashion’s self-importance. Yet design-wise, it exceeds a lot of what passes for “high fashion” these days. Nor is it exactly streetwear, as the company’s focus is different from the streetwear uniform of sneakers, jeans, joggers, and hoodies. Stone Island occupies a place somewhere in-between—a brand for people who work in fashion but are not of fashion, such as i-D’s Fashion Director Alastair McKimm and the conceptual menswear designer Aitor Throup. Stone Island was there long before the current red-hot intersection of fashion and streetwear took hold.
Fashion and streetwear often take inspiration from the rest of culture. In contrast to say a fashion brand like Raf Simons, or a streetwear brand like Supreme, that actively mine culture for inspiration, Stone Island has played a role in culture creation. Every subculture has visual cues to differentiate itself, and Stone Island has helped create these early on in its life. The first subculture it helped define were the Paninari, a group of aimless Italian kids who may have cared more about their appearance than politics, and had the money to support their consumption habits (supposedly they once caused a global shortage of Rolex Daytona watches). Along with Moncler, the Paninari’s jackets of choice were Stone Island. In addition to being well-designed, Stone Island had an unmistakable identity in its logo, something the Paninari gravitated to because of its instant signal appeal.
Stone Island’s logo was created by Massimo Osti, Stone Island’s legendary founder and its first designer. He adopted the compass rose (sometimes called a wind rose) as the brand’s logo and made the badge removable—a nod to the removable insignia on the uniforms he bought at Italy’s flea markets, which were flooded with military gear in the late ’70s.
And so Stone Island landed smack in the middle of the trend of casualization of men’s dress. From Italy it spread to Germany; from there to the Netherlands, and then to the United Kingdom. In the UK it found its success in the “terrace culture” of the working class football hooligans, who tended to congregate on the football stadiums’ terraces, before all Premier League stadiums became seating only. This may seem strange to the American sports audience, but in the UK, the most rabid football fans, who came to be known as “Casuals,” don’t wear jerseys—that’s reserved for dads and their kids—but differentiate themselves through clothes with clear signifiers.
Casuals, who predominantly came from the English working class, had always had an aspirational streak in them, and dressing well was part of it. In the pre-Internet age, in order to get Stone Island beyond the limited local distribution, one would have to travel to Italy. The hardcore football fans who journeyed in support of their team would make a pit stop at a Stone Island store or a stockist (or sometimes looted one, as one myth goes). Owning Stone Island would signal two things: one was that you were a fan dedicated enough to support your team internationally; and two was that your team was good enough to compete on the pan-European level, whether in Champion’s League or the UEFA Cup. The rarity of Stone Island and its relatively expensive price tag made it all the more covetable. The clothes were also practical and durable; they protected you from the inclement English weather at an open stadium.
At the same time, Manchester United’s star Erik Cantona began wearing Stone Island, which he bought at a local shop, during post-game televised interviews. Cantona was not only arguably the best player in England at the time, but the most notorious one for his shenanigans on the pitch. And thus Stone Island’s reputation as a tough guy uniform was cemented.
As culture became globalized, so did football culture, of which the English one was the most infectious. As the iron curtain fell, Stone Island became sought after by the Russian football fans, who began to emulate the misbehavior of their English counterparts. At the same time the brand made its way to Japan, and from there to South Korea, and most recently, China.
The story of Stone Island in North America is a bit different. The brand tried entering the market in the ’90s, but the sales were tepid. There was no terrace culture in North America, nor was soccer taken seriously as a sport, and so the cultural signifiers that made Stone Island popular in Europe never translated to New York, Los Angeles, or Toronto. Besides, Americans were more fascinated with workwear and sportswear as its own uniform of masculinity. It was not until hip-hop became pop culture’s dominant music form and rappers—most notably Drake and Travis Scott—began to discover Stone Island in the past couple of years that Stone Island became coveted stateside.
One story goes that Drake discovered the brand through “grime,” a strand of British hip-hop. Another involves M5 Showroom, which has represented Stone Island’s North American business since the ’90s, introducing Drake and Travis Scott to the brand, as well as brokering collaborations with hyped labels like Nike and Supreme. Stone Island’s enduring appeal is another thing that sets it beyond fashion, where brands tend to come and go.
“I never wanted Stone Island to be a fashion brand,” says Rivetti in his Milan office. “I come from a clothing manufacturing background, and I have seen how fashion brands come and go, as generations shift. We tried to chase fashion with C.P. Company [a sister brand that Rivetti sold in 2010 in order to concentrate on Stone Island], and we were always late. So, with Stone Island, yes, we know we need to stay relevant, so we can change the design team, the content creation team, the marketing team, and yet our language remains the same.”
“I never wanted Stone Island to be a fashion brand.”
In 2012 Stone Island celebrated its 30th anniversary with a display of its impressive archive at Pitti Uomo in Florence, and international launch of its accompanying book, Archivio ‘982_‘012. It was a watershed moment for everyone at the company.
“On the opening day of the exhibit at [Stazione] Leopolda, there was an earthquake in our headquarters’ region,” says Rivetti. “We only showed up like an hour before the opening. We brought there the people who actually do the work itself—who cut, sew, and dye. And they were shocked to see what it is we have achieved in 30 years. To see it all in one space, it gave them newfound energy.”
Rivetti speaks with the infectious enthusiasm of a fan, and his light blue eyes literally sparkle when he latches onto a subject that is close to his heart, whether it’s Stone Island, football, or wine (one side of Rivetti’s family are winemakers). At the same time, his demeanor is easygoing, that of a man who has nothing to prove to himself or others. Which makes sense, considering Stone Island is that rare brand that has nothing to prove either. The proof is in the nylon metal pudding.
The story of Stone Island is incomplete without talking about Massimo Osti, its founder and first designer, who gave the brand its unique DNA of utilitarian design and innovation.
“Our particular wish [is] to tell the story of Stone Island through its greatest asset: the product, which, for us, has always been at the centre of everything,” reads the first sentence in the Archivio book. Not fashion design, with its impact on easily recognizable aesthetic codes, but product design, with its painstaking attention to the garment itself.
By 1982 Osti already had his first brand, C.P. Company, which produced clothes that were functional and elegant—the type of stuff that would be a weekend complement to your weekday tailoring, palatable but with an edge. Osti’s most famous C.P. Company garment was the Mille Miglia jacket with a hood that featured a pair of goggles, inspired by military gas masks, that is by now a design icon.
But Osti was also attracted by the worn, washed feeling of those military uniforms he scouted at Italy’s flea markets. At one point he wondered what it would look like if he used the canvas tarps that he saw on military trucks to make jackets.
“It looked terrible,” recalls Rivetti with a laugh. “So, Massimo decided to wash it, and the result was surprisingly strong. Too strong for C.P. Company, in fact, so he created a new brand on the strength of this one fabric, and that’s how Stone Island was born.”
Osti got the name “Stone Island” from the novels of Joseph Conrad. He made seven jackets from the fabric, which he called “Tela Stella.” They looked tough, lived-in, and they were wind-resistant. They were also an instant hit with the buyers and the end consumer.
Osti knew that he was on the right path, and he plunged headfirst into fabric and dyeing research, coming up with science-fiction level stuff and making it real. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, and pursued his goals with a determination bordering on mania.
One of Stone Island’s earliest icons is the thermo-sensitive fabric of which the brand’s Ice jackets, one of its most covetable, are made. The first jackets were made from polyester coated with liquid crystals. In 2010 this method was changed; the company started to use a polyurethane film impregnated with a special pigment that modifies the passage of light depending on the temperature. The film itself is bonded to a polyester mesh base to create the fabric that changes color if you say, go outside, or put your hand on it.
To demonstrate how the fabric works, Rivetti put on an Ice jacket, for the first time made using leather, and then ran outside of the showroom. He came back two minutes later and the jacket he was wearing changed color in some places. He beamed eagerly at the fabric’s transformation, as if he just performed a magic trick.
It was the kind of enthusiasm that makes Stone Island push the envelope in product design and experimentation further and further. Fashion is often talked about as an art form, and while most of such talk is overrated, there is a certain artistry about Stone Island in the way it experiments for the sake of experimenting. At the end of the day, a jacket changing color depending on the temperature may not mean much to most consumers. But to Stone Island, that sense of achievement is real. That deep passion results in jackets made from stainless steel fibers covered with Teflon®, or “Lasered Reflex Mat,” a matte fabric that’s coated with microscopic glass spheres with a pattern engraved by a laser.
“Sometimes when we are working on a new fabric, we don’t even know what we are going to do with it until it’s done. So, in a way the fabric often dictates the garment,” Rivetti says.
Just like with design, Rivetti leaves nothing to chance at the production level. The company has been known to modify existing machines to achieve the results it wants. Every prototype is made first in the Ravarino headquarters. If Stone Island has to outsource manufacturing, it will install the machines in the manufacturer’s factory and tutor its workforce. Most products that are made elsewhere are made in white fabric, and come back to Italy to be dyed at Stone Island’s facilities.
“Sometimes when we are working on a new fabric, we don’t even know what we are going to do with it until it’s done. So, in a way the fabric often dictates the garment.”
This level of commitment is why some of the most interesting clothing designers, like Paul Harvey, Aitor Throup, and Errolson Hugh, have designed or still design for Stone Island. Rivetti discovered Harvey in 1994 at an outdoor gear trade show in Munich.
“I entered a stand for a German brand called ‘Sabotage,’ and I took one look at it and realized that whoever designed this would be perfect for us,” says Rivetti. “When I found out that Paul Harvey actually lived in Italy, married to an Italian woman, it was almost too perfect.”
Like Osti, who was a graphic designer, Harvey did not come from a fashion background. He has a degree in textile design from Central Saint Martins in London, which led to his fascination with materials. Once Harvey’s design team wanted to experiment with dyeing a fabric that was notoriously dye-resistant. They came across Kevlar®, a fabric that’s five times stronger than steel, and is usually used in bulletproof vests. Rivetti convinced DuPont, the fabric’s manufacturer, to let them use the Kevlar® name free of charge in exchange for the promise to dye the fabric that hitherto came only in pale yellow. Harvey’s design team came up with the idea to overlay the Kevlar® with a layer of nylon mesh and then coat it with polyurethane film. The combined material responded well to dyeing. More recently, Stone Island conducted a similar experiment with Dyneema®, considered to be the strongest lightweight fiber in the world.
Before the British designer Aitor Throup made waves with his own cerebral menswear collections, he designed for Stone Island’s Shadow Project as well.
“As a teenager in Burnley I was obsessed with Stone Island,” says Throup. “I later realized that the product from that era had been designed by the genius that is Paul Harvey, and directed by Carlo Rivetti; whom I was honored to work on some very interesting projects with at the beginning of my career. I owe a lot to that brand. They showed me that dreams could become a reality, and that clothing doesn’t have to be just clothing.”
Along with Throup, Rivetti approached the Canadian-born, Berlin-based designer Errolson Hugh, who was already making a name for himself with his own brand, ACRONYM.
“I found out about [Stone Island] quite late, after graduating and moving to Germany with Michaela [Sachenbacher, co-founder of ACRONYM] in 1993,” admits Hugh. “Our real introduction to the label was by walking into Studio Osti in 1995. Before that, we hadn’t so much as tried on a Stone Island jacket. I can still clearly remember the wool-lined rubber trench coat that was hanging just past the entrance. Stamped with the word ARCHIVIO boldly across its front, this was the first time we were confronted with the reality—and possibilities—of the world of Stone Island. We had a five-hour drive home to Munich later that day, and we spoke about what we had just seen the entire time.”
Hugh and Sachenbacher subsequently reached out to Osti and worked for his studio for one season in 1998. In 2007 they met Carlo Rivetti and his wife, Sabina, who is also actively involved in the brand, through Marc Buhre, the designer of Stone Island’s flagship interiors, with whom they also worked at ACRONYM.
“I guess [Buhre] had his ACRONYM bag with him during a few meetings at Sportswear Company [the parent company of Stone Island], and it must have caught Carlo’s perpetually curious eye,” continues Hugh. “When Paul [Harvey] retired from Stone Island, the Rivettis reached out to us through Marc and we flew down to Ravarino to meet them. It was one of those rare meetings when everyone immediately understands one another. We were very serious students of Stone Island by this time, so we were thrilled to have the opportunity to learn and contribute.”
Working with Stone Island’s know-how provides a designer par excellence like Hugh with immense possibilities.
“Almost everything that we do at SI would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to execute anywhere else,” says Hugh. “To be able to do that type of work regularly, and to be able to deliver it as a real product to the market, season after season, is truly remarkable. Stone Island’s ‘normal’ exceeds the most advanced ‘not for sale/show only’ propositions of other brands on the regular. And it’s always new. Doing very difficult, beautiful things that no one has done before is the everyday situation at Stone Island. It’s the best possible job for a designer really.”
Hugh and his team were at the Stone Island showroom to check up on the final results of the Shadow Project, the experimental line that Hugh designs. Together with his team we went through the racks, trying on the jackets with complicated closures and hidden layers.
“Check out this drop pocket,” says one of the guys, showing off what was essentially a slit in the front of the jacket. He drops his cell phone into the slit and then, like an illusionist, takes it out of the inside pocket of the jacket. I think about the countless times I have had to open my jacket in the frigid New York wind to put something valuable into an inside pocket. Problem solved. A “first world problem,” one might say, but my mind ventured into the possible application for this in the military, where every split-second counts. After all, few people know that the D-rings on a trench coat were invented to hang grenades on, so a soldier would only need one hand to pull the pin out in order to throw the grenade, without having to let go of his rifle. And while I doubt the many fancy women who strut around SoHo in their Burberrys know this, that detail has nonetheless remained.
I leave the showroom—still in the final stages of preparation, the team working well into the evening—and follow Francesca, the press officer, to see the current collection that just hit the stores. As she walks me through it, my brain strains to keep all the information in—tiger camouflage achieved by applying six layers of paint on a jacket, heat-bonded rain coats, spray-painted knits, hand-brushed sweatshirts, and so on.
Stone Island’s fervent embrace by its customers is an indispensable part of the brand’s success. Its fan base is as immense and fanatical as those of football clubs. For many, collecting Stone Island is a serious endeavor and a lifelong passion. Rivetti is very cognizant of that. His office is flooded with fan mail, and he tries to respond to as many letters as possible. He never snubs those who approach him at airports or in restaurants. He will occasionally engage a customer during store visits, sometimes giving him fit advice. He has drinks with fans. One time Rivetti had a special piece made for a dedicated customer’s birthday and presented it to him during a book signing in London. He sent flowers to another’s family upon his death. None of this is contrived.
“I think part of our success is that people see the love that goes into our product. Our experimentation is our love,” adds Sabina Rivetti. “There is a life aspect of what we do, in how the wearer perceives himself when he dresses in Stone Island.”
“I think part of our success is that people see the love that goes into our product. Our experimentation is our love.”
All of this passion has paid off handsomely for the company, whose business has been booming. In a recent survey done by Business of Fashion and Lyst, the online shopping aggregator, Stone Island came in as the eighth most-searched label in 2017—quite an achievement for a non-fashion brand that caters almost exclusively to men (though Rivetti says that he is seeing more and more women buying Stone Island’s menswear). Stone Island has successfully reentered the American market with two flagship stores, one in New York and another one in Los Angeles. Its wholesale business has been on the steady rise, and so has its e-commerce. But at its heart, Stone Island remains a family company.
“There are all these businessmen from China that are now asking me to take the brand there and open all these stores,” says Rivetti. “They tell me we will sell a billion dollars’ worth a year. I don’t want to do that, to just chase money. We will always do what feels right.”
By now, Stone Island possesses the rich narrative that the brand has accumulated over the years, from design process stories to cultural influences. Today, as we drown in the sea of stuff, a brand needs to have a clear message to connect with people.
“The future of brands is storytelling,” asserts Rivetti. “And we have thousands of stories to tell.”
This story originally appeared in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 16, which is available now from our online store, as well as at fine retailers worldwide.