15 April 2023

Ahead of his END. Talks at our new Milano flagship, END. sat down with Stone Island’s Creative Director and CEO, Carlo Rivetti, for an in-depth discussion surrounding the brand’s ceaseless approach to product innovation.

To remain in a state of continuous experimentation for over four decades is a feat only Stone Island could achieve. Its output has been one of relentless innovation, creating garments that are evocative and otherworldly, yet equally grounded in functionality. The driving force behind all of this comes down to one man with a vision that knows no boundaries. A passion that’s limitless. A commitment and dedication that’s unparalleled. That man is Carlo Rivetti. Since his involvement with Stone Island commenced in the brand’s second year of existence, Carlo has relentlessly guided it through the unknown like a captain sailing through a sea of possibilities, defining what garment innovation looks like not just for Stone Island itself, but the industry in general.

As I sit down to write this piece and reflect upon my time spent in Milan meeting the man responsible for inspiring just about everything I believe in clothing, I find myself feeling energised. A state that can’t really be evoked by words. But that’s the power of Stone Island. Garments are not just garments; they’re something that exists beyond the physical; something that cannot be defined; something that strikes a chord with you on a deeper level; pieces that have permeated global subcultures and have been collected, cherished and passed on through generations for continuous decades.

As I first go to greet Carlo, a sense of nervous excitement washes over me. The nerves, however, instantly disappear the second Carlo greets me, which can only be described as a warmness and enthusiasm akin to bumping into an old friend or family member. It’s this enthusiasm that’s the beating heart of Stone Island, a label that’s continuously progressed as a result of his passion and willingness to colour outside of the lines.

Ahead of our debut END. Talks overseas at our all-new Milano flagship — and also Carlo’s first-ever talk in Italian — I sat down with him to delve into the alchemical way Stone Island approaches product innovation, touching upon the importance of ceaseless research, experimental material treatments and the brand’s iconic heritage.

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of Stone Island — a milestone representing four decades sat at the cutting edge. How has Stone Island approached research and innovation to maintain this constant state of progression?

Research is in the DNA of the brand, something which we had already started over 40 years ago. I must say that research and innovation are my two biggest passions. The people working in the company help me a lot, because if we don’t pursue innovation, they also get bored. So, little by little, year after year, we acquire new technology and generate new ideas. What is interesting to me, is that there is a wealth of research that we started in the ‘80s that we were unable to finalise. Now, however, with the introduction of new technology, we can work to bring this research into reality. So really, we view research as an open field in front of us.

Materials form the backbone of Stone Island, with a long history rooted in pioneering performance textiles. Looking back on this history, if you had to pick one Stone Island material as your favourite, which would it be and why?

Well, I will say the thing that everyone will say: the next fabric. Popular Stone Island materials are signs of different eras of the brand, but I must say that the most important thing to me is that I am proud of every single piece that the company has put out into the world — and that isn’t easy, we’ve created so many. I always say that there is a step that is fundamental to Stone Island materials — we started garment dyeing natural fibres, and then, in the middle of the ‘90s, we were able to garment dye polyester and man-made fabrics, which gave us new opportunities. I think that this is really one of the pillars of the past, present and future of Stone Island. I am the 8th generation of my family involved in this business, starting from when we worked with textiles in Biella. Textiles are in my blood.

"I always say that there is a step that is fundamental to Stone Island materials — we started garment dyeing natural fibres, and then, in the middle of the ‘90s, we were able to garment dye polyester and man-made fabrics, which gave us new opportunities. I think that this is really one of the pillars of the past, present and future of Stone Island."

Material treatments are also integral to Stone Island’s innovation, whether that be developing your own colours in-house through your signature garment dyeing technique, or modifying a material’s property through the various special processes you have pioneered. Can you speak about the importance these treatments hold for the brand?

It's fundamental, as we don’t work with the colours from the providers of the fabric. We always create something that is specific to us — this is what differentiates us from all of the other brands. Also, garment dyeing is not a flat dye, the penetration of the colours inside our garments is totally special — it’s three dimensional. Again, this is a fantastic opportunity, because sometimes we put the garment inside the machine, we close everything, we’ve thought of the colour, but then when we’ve finished the dyeing process, the colour is totally different — sometimes better than the one we had thought of. In terms of numbers, Stone Island has created more than 60,000 unique colours. I always say when you enter our dyeing lab, it’s here where we have all the colours of the world, we can build the colour we want. We have no borders, no limit on creativity.

Like with this fabric *points to a Ripstop Prismatico Marina jacket from SS23*, this is really interesting as it’s a mixed fabric. When we make a garment in our dyeing laboratory, we can achieve 11 different colours on the same garment with one dye, playing on the different construction areas of the design, changing the pressure, acidity or temperature of the water. So there really are no borders for opportunity with this.   

Moving into the unknown is something that Stone Island has constantly pushed for. When Stone Island experiments with materials and treatments, is there an end goal in mind, or is it purely free experimentation with the end result as a by-product?

It is totally free and pure experimentation. Now, the lead time of our work is so short, that if you want to do innovation, you don’t have to think to the next season. You have to think of experimentation, innovation, and then you move onto the next collection. I always joke with Sabina, my wife, regarding the 30th anniversary exhibition we did in Stazione Leopolda in Florence. The people there didn’t want to give us the space at first as they said the exhibition was too big. The most important thing to note here was that the presentation was a display of all the successful treatments, but if we were to do the presentation on all of the unsuccessful treatments, we would need the San Siro stadium. When we start experimentation, we don’t know what the result will be. Also, even if it’s not successful, during the process you meet people, or you encounter new technology, and though it may not be linked to what you originally had in mind, it gives you new ideas. It’s always a good experience.

Integral to Stone Island’s design language are also the many off shoots that sit alongside the mainline, like the legendary Marina collection which is on display in END. Milano. Can you touch upon the importance of these different lines and the role they play in the Stone Island DNA?

Marina is certainly in the Stone Island DNA, as we started this 35 years ago before pausing it for a period. In the beginning, Marina was a very graphic project, but when we restarted it, we wanted to bring something different to our passionate consumer. It’s also an opportunity to do something different that we cannot do with our mainline. I think that people that know Stone, instantly recognise Stone Island Marina. So, this is the idea, to have the opportunity to develop different things. I hate to be closed into a box, so I always try to jump outside of it and into new areas of experimentation.

Shadow Project, meanwhile, was an idea that came to me many, many years ago. In the ski station where I've visited since my birth, there is a shop where I saw a particular type of active skiwear for the first time. It was the uttermost technical gear but with volumes and solutions that I never saw before. I instantly said, “I want to meet the person responsible for this”, and then Errolson arrived. When Errolson left the company, the problem — *Carlo repeats problem in air quotes* — was the mainline was really growing so fast, that the company was unable to follow too many different projects. Shadow Project was really time and energy consuming. I think the most beautiful part of my job is that I can look around when I am at a restaurant, or when I’m watching a movie, and I can learn a lot of things. When I was teaching at the Milan Politecnico University, it was really very interesting, because I was talking to the young generation and I always said that making garments is like the production of wine, in that every year is different. I think it’s good for me to pass my experience on to the young generations.

Since the early days, subculture has sat at the core of Stone Island, starting in the 1980s with the Paninaro here in Milan and reverberating throughout wider Europe to UK subcultures. Why do you feel the Stone Island brand has resonated so strongly on a subcultural level?

Because we are a serious product and we respect our final consumer, first and foremost. Also, did you know the Paninaro still exist here in Milano? They meet once a year, they come in our store. You mentioned before about integrity, and I think integrity is something that gives you the opportunity to establish a really strong, none-commercial approach. Four years ago, we arrived in Shanghai, a place where I’m totally unknown, I must say. There was this guy wearing a vintage piece of Stone Island and holding a sign saying “welcome Carlo”. So, I went to talk with him and he explained to me how to construct the jacket he was wearing. This is the type of approach that is really fantastic. I also think Stone Island is like a club, we are all different because of our culture and interests, but we all recognise each other. We don’t need to change our language to talk to different people, they want to be a part of our world.

END: As you said with the Paninaro that’s still around today, I think a lot of people who get into Stone Island do so at a younger age and continue throughout life, with a lot of people having been fans of the brand since day one.

Carlo: Yes, and they are teaching their sons and daughters. These days, we’re seeing a lot of Stone Island product also worn by women. This makes me very happy.

The earlier years of Stone Island were crucial in the brand becoming what it is today, with a long list of significant milestones in pioneering product and materials. How important is this heritage and DNA in informing the current output of Stone Island?

Well, yes, it’s important, but we also focus a lot on revolution. If you know where you come from, then you will know where to go. So, we refer to our historical archive, but the design team and I think that the world has totally changed and we have to evolve. I always say that we have to put the sunglasses of Stone Island on, so to give our interpretation of what the people ask for. Integrity, it comes back to that again.

"With the future, we will continue the same as we started over 40 years ago — with the same integrity and the same passion for product and colours."

What does the future hold for Stone Island and its approach to textile innovation?

With the future, we will continue the same as we started over 40 years ago — with the same integrity and the same passion for product and colours. I must say that it’s not easy, because we are living in hard times — a lot of providers have closed due to ageing or suffered financial disruptions. When the people are afraid, they don’t invest in the future, they invest in what they know. We try to do the exact opposite. So, I think that we need to continue pushing all of the research, the treatments, the fabrics, the styles, the functions of use, that are contemporary. The heritage of Stone Island is so strong, that I am past not making mistakes.

During the Milan Design Week — the furniture fair — we always set up a special exhibition at our showroom. In the last years we have shown our Prototype Research Series and I remember once, before COVID, a Dutch architect entered the showroom wearing a garment from the first season. I immediately rushed over to him, and he said to me “oh, I didn’t know if you’d recognise it”. I said, “are you crazy?” *starts laughing*. I discovered that this piece was not part of our historical archive, so we made a trade off — I kept the old one and gave him two new jackets in return. 

Are there any innovations in Stone Island’s current season that you are particularly excited about?

The transparency we’ve achieved with this fabric, *points to a nearby Ripstop Prismatico*, and the type of colour is to me, something very interesting. It’s cleaner product, but we can always innovate with Marina. This garment is fantastic, it’s double dyed to achieve its unique colour — it’s an alchemic, magic opportunity. Like I said before, when you put the garment in to dye, you don’t know what you’re going to get back — that, to me, is magic.  

writerJack Grayson
|photographerMaria Purdy