Sunday, June 16, 2024

How Stone Island reset the fashion compass

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As a teenager in England in the early 1990s, Kim Jones distinctly remembers trying to get his hands on Stone Island. “You just could not find it,” says the artistic director of Dior Men’s. “There were only a few shops that would have it in the UK, and we’d save up money to try to buy it. It was like Stüssy – one of those brands you had to have.” He finally copped a sweatshirt, which promptly had its button-down compass badge – the removable brand signifier usually displayed on the left bicep – stolen. “That was how in demand it was then.”

The Italian maker has, since its founding in 1982, always been susceptible to hype. Beloved for its technical prowess, fabric innovation and staunch “function over form” values, it has been co-opted by a broad cross-section of society over the decades. Positioned as a brand for the people, it nevertheless has a price tag – justified by the extensive research that goes into engineering the clothes – that makes it aspirational (jackets start at £550 and go up to £2,000).

Technical-cotton gilet, £2,250, and cotton and rubber B30 trainers, £1,100. T-shirt and cargo trousers, as before. Leather AirPods case (just seen around neck), POA. All clothes by Dior and Stone Island © Johnson Lui

In the past 10 years, Stone Island has shifted from a niche, in-the-know menswear label into a global phenomenon, with revenues reaching €411mn in 2023 and Moncler’s acquisition in 2021 valuing the brand at €1.15bn. Its international success is in part thanks to collaborations with Supreme, Nike, New Balance or Adidas; and its latest partnership with Dior, which launches in the UK at Selfridges this month and then globally in July, cements its appeal in the luxury sector. 

“I love Stone Island – it makes some of the best technical outerwear in the world,” adds Jones. “When someone’s such a specialist and they hone their craft so well, you can only admire them.” 

Cotton and silk embroidered jacket, POA, cotton jersey T-shirt (just seen), £770, and cotton denim cargo trousers, £2,200
Cotton and silk embroidered jacket, POA, cotton jersey T-shirt (just seen), £770, and cotton denim cargo trousers, £2,200 © Johnson Lui

Comprising 60 pieces, the Dior collection (from €300) spans outerwear, sweatshirting, trousers and accessories that combine codes and techniques from both brands. “It’s couture versus our industrial approach, and how those sides complement each other in terms of fabric research, design and process,” says Stone Island’s design director Silvio Rivetti. Both brands’ archives are mined for inspiration: a double-pleat tailoring motif comes Dior’s 1952 spring/summer collection, while the internal structures are characterised by Stone Island’s “Dutch rope” system of attaching and detaching. “The two brands exist in completely different scenarios in the industry,” adds Rivetti, “but we both know our trade, and share a mutual respect for what we do.”

Stone Island was founded in Ravarino, Italy, by Massimo Osti, the fashion designer who also started the brand CP Company. Osti pioneered garment dyeing, a process that involves colouring clothes after they’ve been cut and sewn, allowing for unique, tone-on-tone effects in the finished products. His first Stone Island collection included seven jackets made from Tela Stella, a sturdy fabric derived from the canvas tarpaulins used to cover military trucks, and coated on both sides with different coloured resin. The fabric was enzyme-washed, both to give it a faded appearance and to break down the sturdiness of the material; the first experimentation for a brand that would go on to dye Kevlar, create colour-changing “Ice” fabric and a jacket made of stainless steel. 

A key part of Stone Island’s lore lies in the people who have worn it. In the ’80s, the brand was adopted by Milan’s Paninaro, a hedonistic subcultural group not unlike America’s yuppies, who got their name from the sandwich shops they frequented. They wore the brand along with other fashionable work- and performance-wear, including Moncler, Levi’s and Timberland, and spawned a cultural movement. 

Technical-silk coat with removable gilet, £7,000, cotton and satin jacket, £3,100, and matching trousers, £1,500. T-shirt, trainers and AirPods case (just seen around neck), as before. Technical-silk padded blanket with harness (in hand), POA
Technical-silk coat with removable gilet, £7,000, cotton and satin jacket, £3,100, and matching trousers, £1,500. T-shirt, trainers and AirPods case (just seen around neck), as before. Technical-silk padded blanket with harness (in hand), POA © Johnson Lui
Technical-silk coat with removable gilet, £7,000, cotton and satin jacket, £3,100, and matching trousers, £1,500. T-shirt, trainers and AirPods case (just seen around neck), as before. Technical-silk padded blanket with harness (in hand), POA
© Johnson Lui

Its most well-known association, though, is with English football fans, who are said to have caught on to the brand while travelling for European Championship matches in the ’80s and ’90s. “Stoney”, as it was dubbed by the fanbase, became a mainstay of terrace casual style, while also becoming associated with hooliganism; some grounds and pubs even banned Stone Island clothing because of this perceived link.

The brand likewise became a staple of the Britpop wardrobe, with Liam Gallagher wearing it (and, in 2017, making headlines when his Stone Island jackets were nicked from his hotel room after he’d played Glastonbury). It has moved through Britain’s music genres, from rave culture in the early ’90s to the Grime scene of the 2000s, adopted by rappers including Skepta and Kano, and then to North America, where it has found favour with Drake and A$AP Nast. 

Vintage Stone Island is highly collectable. Jackets from the original 1982 run can fetch up to $5,000 on resale platform Grailed, while styles by named designers – including Osti, who left the company in 1994, and Paul Harvey, who was the head designer between 1996 and 2007 – are particularly in demand. “I have one of the original jackets from 1982, which is lovely and faded, and I’ll never get rid of it,” says Stone Island collector and re-seller Robert Gale. “My other favourite is a military parka, designed by Paul Harvey, that has fibre-optic cables running through it and a battery pack, so you can turn it on in the dark.” Gale also notes that any items where the badge is not in its usual position, which was common in the first few years of production, are a hot commodity with collectors. “If you can find something with it not on the left arm, it usually means it’s a special piece.”

Leather jacket, £6,400, technical-jersey and chenille jumper, £1,200, and cotton and satin trousers, £1,500
Leather jacket, £6,400, technical-jersey and chenille jumper, £1,200, and cotton and satin trousers, £1,500 © Johnson Lui

The collaboration with Dior will undoubtedly become collectable too. “There is a field jacket, taken from Stone Island’s 1988 autumn/winter collection, which I think fully expresses the soul of the collaboration,” says Rivetti. “It’s a military archetype that’s been manipulated to be more sophisticated with the use of silk, and then has embellishments on top.” The Stone Island compass badge is realised in silk and has Dior’s signature cannage motif stitched through it. 

Stone Island has always insisted that it is not a fashion brand. “We don’t perceive Stone Island as a streetwear brand either,” says Rivetti, “but in the past 10 years, we’ve been adopted by streetwear culture. We see ourselves as the ultimate product label.” Regardless of how the brand perceives itself, its cross-section of fans, from football to fashion, are always ready to reinvent it as they see fit. 

Dior and Stone Island is in-store in Selfridges London from 18 June; it launches worldwide on 4 July

Model, Feranmi Ajetomobi at Wilhelmina. Casting, Tiago Martins at Ben Grimes. Grooming, Ami Fujita using Bumble and Bumble. Digital operator, Okus Milsom. Stylist’s assistant, Lucia Bustillo. Shot at Battersea Power Station

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