Women’s History Month continues with MR’s salute to successful Women in Menswear. Here, Ruth Graves, president and CEO of S.T.E.P. USA, one of the most creative designers in men’s accessories, shares her passion for the business.
Do you feel being a woman has helped or hurt your journey?
I don’t believe it helped or hurt. My experience has always been about men and women working on the same page to create uniquely beautiful designs.
Have male or female mentors been more impactful in your career?
I’ve learned from both. My design experience included creating textiles for Ralph Lauren early on to Valentino, Robert Talbott, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Nicole Miller, Audrey Buckner. All the mills were aggressively going after the same designers so we had to compete very hard but each designer opened a door for me and inspired new creativity.
Gaining perspective from working with both men and women, I’ve been able to form and expand upon my own personal vision.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received from a mentor?
When I ventured out on my own after working 20+ years for the largest silk mill in Como, I would think of Giancarlo Galvani’s advice to never stop reaching beyond the ordinary, to never settle for mediocrity. Interestingly, Giancarlo preferred hiring women over men, believing that “they have the more passion” and the ability to juggle many tasks at once.
What advice would you give to women entering the menswear industry today?
Work hard, focus, do not look left or right (a quote from Anna Wintour) and never ever give up!
What would you do differently if you could start over?
Absolutely nothing! I’ve had the opportunity to create the best, for the best, learning from the great printing and weaving masters in Como Italy. In fact, my company name (S.T.E.P. stands for STUDIO TESSILE ENRICO PRINI) is an homage to Mr. Enrico Prini, who encouraged me to travel the world to source the best yarns. I’ve travelled from Como to Mongolia to India to the indigenous people of Peru, always discovering the finest yarns, dreaming up fresh ideas, and making new friends that become family. These are the real blessings from my work.
What are your thoughts on work/life balance?
Women have the power and strength to conquer and do it all. How we do it is an anomaly but still we do it! COVID gave many of us some much-needed time to step back, focus creatively and set new goals. My current goal is to keep reaching further, always beyond the ordinary. But I couldn’t do it without my wonderful family.
You offer a lot of limited edition and custom-designed product: why?
I want to offer retailers a continuous flow of fresh concepts each season. I never wanted to stock goods: the collections I present at trade shows generally sell out, which pushes me to move on to what’s next. I love the diverse group of retailers I work with, so why should their stores all look alike? Why shouldn’t they showcase their own signature accessories, especially since it’s the accessories that make the outfit. It’s the little things!
Yes, this is a lot more work, takes a lot more time, and is certainly less profitable for me. But it’s something I love to do and I believe it is much appreciated, which is what makes it all worthwhile.