An Interview with Ippolita Rostagno

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Photo: Courtesy of Ippolita

It is no coincidence that the ‘Made in Italy’ stamp is held in such high esteem around the globe, as the Mediterranean country is home to the world’s most skilled craftsmen and artisans. Italian-born and New York-based Ippolita Rostagno was surrounded by this inimitable craftsmanship her entire life, growing up in the beautiful and inspiring countryside of the Tuscan hills just outside of Florence. With art and creativity running through her veins, Rostagno began her career by opening a dance studio in Los Angeles, California, only to serendipitously realize she had a knack for designing fine jewelry.

During her first visit to Dubai, Savoir Flair met with the inspiring designer for an intimate tête-à- tête at La Serre, discussing how the Ippolita brand came to life, the influence of her Italian heritage, how she is working to save the artisanal industry, why making fine jewelry is fun, and her recent expansion into the Middle East.

You started your career in the arts, by setting up a dance studio in 1983 in Los Angeles. How did you end up designing jewelry?
Well, prior to that I grew up in Italy and I had studied sculpture. After having a dance company for a few years, the truth is that it really became so difficult to dance, choreograph, and fundraise. Dancing is such an intensely physical, demanding discipline. You can’t sort of do it, it is either you do it or you don’t do it. There is no in between, so I decided to move on. I thought to myself, what do I want to do? Well, my other interest is in the fine arts, so I said okay, let me see what I can do with that. Of course I needed to make a living, so I thought I’ll make and sell some jewelry while I am deciding what to do next – so that’s kind of how it started.

Because I didn’t have a background in jewelry, I approached it with common sense, thinking, ‘Let me see what is out there. Where is the jewelry for me?’ I’ve been extremely lucky, and also I realized that I had a talent for it. It is one of those things like, ‘Who knew?’ You don’t wake up in the morning and say I am going to be a jewelry designer. I really understood that being your own customer is really the best guideline. The interesting part of the journey is understanding what your aesthetic is, and when you first create something you think, ‘Is this my aesthetic? I am not 100% sure.’ It is not until you make a hundred things that you can identify it. Then you have a starting point.

When I started my impulse was about the real wearability of fine jewelry. I was looking around the marketplace to see what’s out there, and I thought, ‘Hey, wait a minute, where is the cool jewelry? Where is the jewelry for real people who work for a living?’ I really wanted to create jewelry that I would want to wear. I am my own customer.

So how did your American and Italian roots influence the way that you design? 
Craft is definitely extremely central to what I do. The important thing for me is that even if you don’t know anything about jewelry or anything about craft, it is obvious that it is handcrafted. There’s a lot of work and thought that goes into each piece, and it is not just designed by some unknown person and manufactured in any factory. When you touch the jewelry and feel how beautiful it is and how exquisitely it is made – this appreciation is something that comes from Italy. When you grow up in a culture where every single thing is beautifully made, where the buildings are not just buildings, but every stone is in the building was made just so. You really absorb that.

I am actually working on an initiative to save craft from extinction. It’s incredible how it manifested from a lot of different countries. It’s happening everywhere. People who really know the old, expert techniques are 70, 80 years old – they are artisans, and there is nobody coming up behind them. There’s nothing like Italian ingenuity and craft, and I really hope to keep that alive.

What three words best describe the aesthetic of Ippolita jewelry?
Simplicity, femininity, and joy. Simplicity because all of the shapes and contours are extremely regular, because it’s universal. And universality is important to me, meaning the fact that you would look at something and say, ‘Yeah that’s me’. People with completely different backgrounds can say that, if there is a universal simplicity about it. Feminine because you are really designing for women and want the woman who wears it to feel like it belongs to her. Joyful because it’s happy and makes you smile.

The inspiration for your Spring/Summer 2014 collection was sparked by your time spent working with women at a craft school in Afghanistan. Can you tell us about this experience and what it meant to you?
It was a very interesting project. The American government was interested in developing micro-economic development in Afghanistan particularly, to create an alternative economy which wasn’t tied to giant industries. They were looking for partners that could help create an industry there.

So I went to visit this craft school that had five or six different crafts: ceramics, jewelry making, wood carving, etc. I had to go there to see what are the strengths. Ultimately, jewelry is not something that you can learn overnight. The training part of it is extremely challenging. They had actually sent 10 kids to India to learn how to carve stones. But I helped work with them on the design, production side, and the organization, trying to feed them some technical know-how. After I came back, I was in this desert frame of mind which is actually where this collection came from. I’ve always done round shapes, but I’ve never done squares and out of that experience came lots of squares and desert colors.

The names in your new collection are quite whimsical – ‘Lollipop’, ‘Rock Candy’, and ‘Gelato’ – how important is it to have fun with what you do?
Very. People underestimate the emotional value of saying that it’s fun. It is okay to say that fine jewelry is fun. Traditionally it is just that those adjectives or connotations are not associated. You don’t say, ‘Diamond jewelry is fun’. Those things don’t normally go together, because it’s part of the accessibility factor. It is not less precious just cause it is fun. All my jewelry is an attempt to say it’s okay. You put them on and you say hey, that’s cool – they make you feel great.

Since launching your eponymous jewelry line in 1994, what have been two of your most cherished moments and milestones?
Getting into Bergdorf Goodman. That was a big one. Honestly, then I hadn’t even put two and two together to know that this is what I am going to do with my life. The fact that they gave me such a tremendous opportunity; they were not impatient with my learning curve or anything like that. They said when you have more jewelry you can bring it down. The environment is completely different now – it is all about productivity per square inch.

That was certainly my experience, just like a number of magical events. You just don’t know and that’s what I find so interesting about success in general. When I read biographies and they say I can tell you exactly what I did step by step, but you can’t reproduce it because it was like a combination of the people, what was going on in the world, and the things that were happening around you. All those things put together that made that moment possible.

What is one accessory that you absolutely cannot live without?
Bangles. I wear them every day. I don’t sleep with them but I shower with them. One thing about my jewelry is that it’s not fragile – they are made with real, sturdy materials.

How do you spend your time when you are not designing?
Mostly traveling, or working in the studio when I am at home in New York. I have a place in Hamptons, so I go there to getaway when I need to.

How would you describe your personal style?
Eclectic. Professional. Eclectic especially in the hair department!

This is your first time in Dubai; how do you find it?
Exiting. It is so cosmopolitan and wild.

Was it what you expected?
I didn’t really have a lot of expectations. I didn’t come with an idea of what my reaction is going to be. It is very positive.

Congratulations on opening your new boutique at The Galleria Mall in Abu Dhabi and two boutiques in Saudi Arabia – the only boutiques outside of the United States. What does it mean for you to have a presence in the region? 
It’s huge. I am so well traveled generally, but this place is not like the rest of the world. I feel like now I’m reaching a lot of different people.

Do you plan to open more boutiques in Dubai or Abu Dhabi later on?
Yes, we are looking for a place in Dubai. It is going to take some time because there are not a lot of places that are right.

Click through the gallery below to discover the Ippolita jewelry collection.

Photos: Courtesy of Ippolita

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