Minding Moncler

How Remo Ruffini got the fashion world to escape its doubts and embrace the puff.

Remo Ruffini is the consummate Italian outdoorsman. He’s more at home on the piste—or at the helm of a sailboat—than in the front row at a fashion show. He leads Moncler, his Milan-based luxury outerwear company, with a similar attitude. He’s exactly what the storied French brand needed.

Despite an illustrious history dating back to 1952, when René Ramillon founded Moncler in the town of Monestier-de-Clermont, in southern France, the company had begun to falter in the ’90s. Squeezed by high fashion outerwear offerings from Prada Sport and Gucci, as well as by more mainstream outfits like The North Face and Patagonia, Moncler struggled to find its niche, and in 2003 saw profits of just $62 million. Enter Ruffini, who brought with him a new sense of urgency and excitement. By 2016, the brand was raking in more than $685 million in revenue.

The cover of a 1960-61 Moncler catalogue. (Photo: Courtesy Moncler)

In part, Moncler’s comeback can be attributed to Ruffini’s push for diversity of aesthetic; not relying on one single vision allows the brand to speak to a wider demographic. Not only are there multiple lines that appeal to twenty-something, hard-core skiers as well as an older couture crowd, there is also a rotating roster of creative talent behind them that keeps the brand fresh and each season’s offerings unexpected. Moncler has expanded to include multiple collections including the classic sportswear line Grenoble; Gamme Rouge by Giambattista Valli; Gamme Bleu by Thom Browne; and Longue Saison, Moncler’s entry into the competitive marketplace for lightweight, season-less jackets. In addition to the ongoing design talents of Valli and Browne, as well as Virgil Abloh, Ruffini has enlisted pop stars like Pharrell Williams to create everything from limited-edition puffy parkas to eyewear and expanding accessory offerings. Ruffini delights in the design talent that he helps identify each season, and believes that constant creativity is key to the brand’s continued success.

Surface recently spoke with Ruffini on topics including his love of a preppy New England aesthetic, Japan’s affection for good backpacks, and global warming. It’s these varied fragments, sprung from Ruffini’s mind, that promise to shape Moncler in the years ahead.

A vintage photo of adventurers wearing Moncler. (Photo: Courtesy Moncler)

You grew up in the textile industry. How does your background inform your work now?

I was raised in Como, near the Swiss border, and was always surrounded by the textile industry. My grandfather and my parents were both involved with fabrics and the clothing business, so production, runway shows, and marketing were always topics of discussion at home. When my father moved his company, Nik Nik, to the U.S. in the ’70s, I followed him there. But my story—from a design and quality standpoint—was always Italian.

What first attracted you to the ski jacket, and to Moncler specifically?

Skiing was always my passion, and Moncler jackets were popular when I was about 14 or 15 years old. When I was a kid, I traveled to school on the back of a scooter in the freezing cold, so a Moncler jacket was not only fashionable, it was also very practical. Later, in the ’80s in Milan, the paninari—a group of rebel Milanese teens—started wearing colorful, graffitied Moncler puffers, and they became very cool. The brand went into decline in the ’90s, but when I saw that it was for sale in 2002, I was very excited because it had been a part of my life forever.

A jacket in the Moncler headquarters.

I’ve read that you were inspired by American prep from your time spent in New England in your college years. What did you take back to Milan?

I briefly went to Boston, and while I didn’t end up studying, I instantly liked the attitude and the understated, classic style I saw there. Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Hyannis Port were all inspirational; the relaxed sensibility resonated with me. I liked the look of chinos, button-down Oxford shirts, and all of the traditional clothes. Instead of going to college, I returned to Italy and founded the New England Company when I was 21. It fused a Brooks Brothers and Ivy League look with Italian tailoring and details—including a trimmer fit.

Is there a city with particularly interesting street style now?

The style in northern Europe—Stockholm and Copenhagen, in particular—where it’s cold, and the attitude is very sporty, are both very interesting. The way they dress and how they use bright colors is very different than in Milan or New York.

A detail in Ruffini’s office.

You’ve done interesting collaborations with everyone from Pharrell to Junya Watanabe to Erdem. How were they chosen, and what have they added to your brand?

Pharrell is not a classic clothing designer, but someone from the music world, so it made for a totally different, very interesting collaboration. The ones we did with Japanese designers have been a highlight as well. I love Japanese style and we’ve worked with designers including Chitose Abe and Sacai from 2010 to 2013, Junya Watanabe in 2004, and Visvim, who understood our DNA particularly well. The Japanese always start from the original, from the basics of our brand, but then add incredible twists.

How did Moncler O, the latest collaboration with Virgil Abloh and Off-White, come about? 

Virgil is a creative director and DJ, but he has incredible energy. Using oversized logos and designs inspired by North Sea fishermen, as well as our technology, he married streetwear with skiwear and it was very successful.

A Moncler ad from 1980. (Photo: Courtesy Moncler)

Who do you think does fashionable skiwear or outerwear really well?

One of the best companies is the small Swiss skiwear brand Kjus. They do a great job with lightweight, technical jackets, and the quality is excellent. This is one of my preferred companies. Prada Sport was an interesting concept, too.

Tell me about your theatrical New York and Milan Fashion Week presentations.

We never wanted to do a classic catwalk show in New York. We put on spectacular performances that also showcase the technical side of our products. This year’s show was an icy, winter festival. In Milan, for example, Thom Browne for Gamme Rouge has played with the idea of the great outdoors—right down to the tents and sleeping bags.

About your production process, why did you move it from Madagascar to the Veneto region when you acquired the company in 2002?

When I bought Moncler, they were purchasing finished garments from the Far East and the Middle East, but I wanted to control the production and quality 100 percent.  That means we now buy all of the raw materials: the down, the specially designed nylon, the zippers, and the accessories. I’ve structured the company around this process. We cut everything ourselves and oversee the stitching and assembly at our facilities in Piecenza, before the finished pieces are delivered around the world.

Pieces from the spring/summer 2017 collection. (Photos: Courtesy Moncler)

How do you see the future of Moncler?

I want to continue keeping to our roots, and to focus on jackets. We don’t have to make everything, we just have to make our products the best. I think the strategy is more or less there, but we will always improve upon what we already have on the table.

Ruffini in the showroom.

What keeps you moving?

I’m inspired by my life: from skiing in St. Moritz, to sailing in the Mediterranean, to spending time with my family. The biggest inspirations, however, are the people in the streets, and people in the mountains. In a mountain village people tend to dress in strange ways because they are on vacation—they try different things because they are more concerned with comfort and functionality. My job is to travel the world to see what normal people love.

And what about non-normal people? Drake, for instance, wears a Moncler jacket in the “Hotline Bling” video.

Celebrities use our jackets for music videos or in life, but we often don’t know about it in advance. I had no idea, for example, about Drake—my friend called to let me know. It’s great advertising.

A scene at the Moncler headquarters.

On the sales side, how does the international marketplace affect your business?

The world is obviously very volatile now. The U.K. market, for example, was quite depressed, but post-Brexit it is very successful. The British pound lost power, and the U.K. attracts customers from Asia and the U.S., so it has become one of our strongest performing markets. Japan is the opposite; the Yen became strong, so Asian tourists are going elsewhere. This is especially true in Tokyo and Ginza—it has been very difficult for us. The best region is still Europe—the U.K., France, Italy—and for anyone in the luxury market, Asia is quite successful now as well. Russia, however, has softened quite a bit over the last two or three years.

Do you ever think about global warming?  In the outerwear business—and as an avid skier—weather must be everything.

We are making jackets that can be used year-round. I am always interested in global weather patterns, especially in colder climates. Our business is winter.

A scene at the Moncler headquarters.
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