She started in book publishing and hopped accidentally into jewelry where she made a splash for Banana Republic before starting out on her own to design fine jewelry.
Now as comfortable on the business side as creating jewelry women want to buy, Ippolita recently talked with Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief, Douglas Gollan, as she set her sights on global expansion.
ET: What is your background?
Ippolita Rostagno: It was all very accidental and it happened organically in that I didn’t set out to be a jewelry designer, let alone a business owner. I grew up in a family of artists. My father was an experimental theater director, my mother was decorative painter and I grew up with them in Florence. Growing up in Florence was an important experience for me because that’s where my love of craft comes from because everything is crafted there. Ultimately, everything is crafted everywhere but you aren’t accustomed to paying attention to that. By growing up in a craft-centric city like Florence, however, you are paying attention as a matter of course. You appreciate how beautifully shaped this bottle is and how beautifully made the table you are eating off is, even if you aren’t working in a design capacity.
ET: You speak perfect English?
Ippolita Rostagno: That’s one of the questions I always get, and it’s because my mother was American. She met my father on her junior year abroad and stayed in Italy.
ET: How did you end up in the United States?
Ippolita Rostagno: After being raised in that environment, I went to art school and studied sculpture and then moved to the states when I was 20. I originally moved to New York but it still felt too European so I moved Los Angeles and got a degree in English Literature from Occidental College. After a few years, however, I began to feel there wasn’t quite enough of a cultural scene and moved back to New York after graduation. I worked in publishing, at Harper and Rowe (now Harper and Collins), for a few years and eventually realized that’s not what I wanted to do.
ET: When did you start in jewelry?
Ippolita Rostagno: I really wanted to get back to a craft of some sort because I was missing it. So in 1992, like everyone who can’t afford a studio, I set up a bench in my apartment and thought “let me start small.” In the meantime I had a daughter and the mother of a girl my daughter was friends with in pre-school told me she was a jewelry designer. I had never heard of such a thing. She showed me what she was doing, which was basically children’s beads on a string, and I offered to help. I started looking at what was on the market, because my background was in art not fashion, and I started looking around at stores and thought “wow, this is easy.” I walked into Bergdorf Goodman and it was one kind of woman, and I walked into Ann Taylor and it was another kind of woman. It was clear that you designed for different kinds of people.
So I approached Banana Republic, who had just shifted from their original safari identity to the fashion business aesthetic they have now and thus didn’t have a jewelry category. I told them it was clear to me what their jewelry should look like, said “why don’t we go into business together?”, and they said OK. It was one of those crazy opportunities that wouldn’t have worked in any other circumstance because there was no plan and no merchants attached to [jewelry for] Banana Republic.
ET: So it sounds like you hit a home run out of the box?
Ippolita Rostagno: No, then came the rude awakening – they don’t actually pay for design so you have to make your money through manufacturing. The designing part was easy because I knew what the jewelry needed to look like but I knew nothing about manufacturing – not to mention the fact that in costume jewelry the manufacturing techniques are very broad and change every few weeks because you are tied to the fashion world. You figure out how to do resin beads and then you have to do feathers. You figure out how to do feathers and then you have to do wood. It forces you to become very nimble very quickly when it comes to finding out how to bring all these things together in a meaningful and relevant manner. That was honestly the most fabulous training I could have had, however, because it was so wildly disparate; when you’re shipping every six weeks you have to be on top of what people want and you have to get right.
ET: And what about the start of Ippolita?
Ippolita Rostagno: After I had been doing [Banana Republic] for a few years I thought “wait, why am I doing this for them?” I was working as a private label—I didn’t exist there—and that, coupled with the fact that I was tired of not being able to represent my identity because it wasn’t their identity, led me to my own company. I decided I was going to try to make a line for myself and since I didn’t have any customers it didn’t matter what it looked like. Interestingly, because I had been working for one insular company, I didn’t realize I was part of a larger fashion community. So when I began looking around to see what in the fine jewelry looked cool enough that I would want it, I realized there wasn’t anything in that space. There was high jewelry—Graff and Bergdorf with their diamond tiaras—and there was costume jewelry but nothing in the middle. I had no strategy for building a line; I just started making things that I wanted. I like bangles so I started making bangles and the first thing people started telling me was “DON”T MAKE BANGLES, WOMEN HATE BANGLES!” But since I had nobody running after me telling me what to make, I just made them. From there it grew in a completely organic manner.
ET: Tell us about you style?
Ippolita Rostagno: Because my aesthetic was always very clear—people can love it or hate it, but it has to be clear, you can’t be all things to all people—I also learned that customers will take craziness and outrageousness if they believe it; if it’s true to you. If you try to be crazy and middle-of-the-road and try to do giftables under $100 customers won’t know what you stand for. Bergdorf Goodman (in 1999) became my first customer and, like Banana Republic, it was a whacky, luck-of-the-draw thing because I had no retail customers or relationships. The fashion director saw my original designs, which were wild, oversized, large gold pieces that looked more like sculptures than jewelry, and said “this stuff looks crazy. I’m not sure we can’t sell it but we will put it in the window because it looks so fun.” So they put it in the window and sold a couple of pieces. That’s when I asked myself, “If I do this seriously, what is really missing from these pieces that I want in them?” I have a motto, “cool enough to covet, classic enough to keep”, and everything I design has to fit that criteria.
ET: You’re known for your handmade look?
Ippolita Rostagno: There are a lot of elements that contribute to this. The handmade quality is really important because my products are so intensely handmade and have to look like that; it would be a pity if it weren’t self-evident. Of course, in order to make it self-evident you have to work hard at understanding the difference between hand-crafted and crafty. I am not interested in the craftiness, it just needs to seem crafted. The custom cut of the stone helps but the most important thing is the language of the metal, what it feels and looks like.
ET: In your early years you didn’t really use stones?
Ippolita Rostagno: When you’re at the beginning it’s challenging because you don’t have a vocabulary so you don’t your know what defines your shapes, scales, silhouettes and stones. For the first five years I only used gold because I didn’t know anything about using stones. I realized that one of the reasons I was resistant to stones was because, if you buy stones off the shelf, they are all cut the same way. I would put them into my soft looking metal and it would make my jewelry look old-fashioned immediately. It wasn’t cool and since it wasn’t cool I didn’t want it to be part of my language. So I learned how to cut stones and that opened up a completely different avenue of expression. I went from a total purist—only using gold—to using every stone in the universe. It’s very fun when you can make everything from scratch with no limitation. Who says you can’t put pearls with rubies with turquoise with crystal? If the only thing you’re really looking at is “how does it look, how does it make you feel?” then it doesn’t really matter, you’re just following your aesthetic and creativity.
ET: What is the gap you feel your jewelry fills?
Ippolita Rostagno: One of the things I felt was missing in the industry was the idea of fun in fine jewelry. Honestly, my whole life is about fun. All I want to do is have fun. Introducing “fun” and “coolness” into jewelry was important to me because while my gold bangles with diamonds don’t strike you as the coolest thing you have ever seen, it is the concept of wearing fine jewelry in a casual manner that sets us apart. I put on $15,000 worth of bracelets but I’m never going to make a $200,000 bracelet because it’s not something I would wear. I don’t want something that you feel you can only wear on certain occasions because that’s not the way most people live. I want to wear 15 bangles that I can go swimming in and not worry about because they are too precious. I love the idea that I am free to live in my jewelry all day long and do whatever it is that I do.
ET: From this point where did the business head?
Ippolita Rostagno: First we went to all Neiman Marcus and then to all Saks. One of the reasons I didn’t start in jewelry stores initially is because the jewelry was too cool and because our brand was more of a fashion brand than a jewelry brand. Our parallels were with Chanel and Fendi, as opposed to the jewelry department, because that’s how women related to our product. Our customers are self-purchasing, partly because our business grew up in the era of the self-purchaser that didn’t exist before. My business is not cyclical that way—we don’t have spikes at Christmas—our best seasons are the spring and fall because they are very colorful and because women buy our pieces for themselves when they are buying new wardrobes.
ET: And are you expanding globally?
Ippolita Rostagno: We are in about 300 channels of distribution now—in the Caribbean, Canada, Harrods and Liberty in London. We opened our own boutique on Madison Avenue a couple of months ago and are opening a new one in Abu Dhabi soon. We are also looking a retail rollout in L.A., Dallas, and Bal Harbour, as well as possible partnerships in Japan, China and Russia. The cadence at which things materialize is often curious. I didn’t think I would open in Abu Dhabi before L.A. but that’s just how it happened.
ET: How have you balanced Ippolita’s growth and expansion with your philosophy of “keeping it fun”?
Ippolita Rostagno: One of the benefits of growing organically is that it doesn’t happen overnight. You grow on a need to grow business, slowly building out all the functions. Because I started by myself in my living room, I was always hyper-aware of how important it is to deliver. The product has to be perfect because you are doing a very expensive and beautiful thing. All of these business efforts only matter if the product is amazing so I grew at a rate where I felt I could control that. Slowly I started to delegate functions entirely—like sales and finance—and it was incredibly gratifying because I always only wanted to worry about the craft part, not the business side. But now you have to be so creative to stay in business because the world is changing constantly. There is no resting on laurels because as soon as you figure one thing out something else pops up. Whole new problems have cropped up, like what does it mean and what does it look like to be a luxury brand on the internet? These are all things that require a lot of creative thinking, such as how do you get to the customer? How do you relate to the customer? Now I love every part of it, both the business and creative sides. Going back to my philosophy, everything has to ring true to the customer. If you try to beat them over the head with a marketing campaign for a product that doesn’t mean anything then the customer won’t respond to you. You can’t take anything for granted; you have to make sure you are communicating the right thing to the right customer.
ET: Five to ten years down the road, where do you see the business?
Ippolita Rostagno: I see it as a company with global distribution; the brand that women think about when they say “I want fine jewelry.” That’s my goal. We are looking into all categories and launching our men’s line this fall, but I don’t really have the hankering to go into the lifestyle business. Our lifestyle concept is wearable fine jewelry. We don’t need the handbags and clothing lines. I feel there has been a lifestyle madness in the past ten years and it isn’t often that brands can do a lot of different categories well. It always ends up being one thing done well and everything else riding that one thing’s coattails. I only want to do one thing well. It takes a while to understand what makes sense for you and what makes sense for this brand is to dominate in the space of fashion fine jewelry
ET: Is your daughter going to be in jewelry the business?
Ippolita Rostagno: Probably not. She is 24 now and on her own trajectory. It’s funny, people often ask if my daughter loves jewelry—she doesn’t love jewelry but she loves entrepreneurship. You don’t pass things to your kids in the way you think you might and she got the entrepreneur bug. People say that this generation is so entitled but I think it’s great that they have absolutely no barrier to entry. She says “I want to go do this” and it never even occurs to her that she knows nothing about it, which is good for her because it means she will learn. Now I find I learn a lot from her because she, like a lot of people of her generation, is technologically savvy because she lives in the digital world more than the real world, or because the digital world is part of the real world now. So I am constantly running marketing ideas by her, asking “should I have a Pinterest board? What should it look like?” and because she knows me so well she always knows exactly what it should look like. Being a very visual person, I think a picture is worth a million words, and if the thing itself doesn’t tell the story then there’s your answer. That’s true of products, art, design, anything visual.