Italian designer behind Palm Angels, Francesco Ragazzi, bridges gap between luxury and streetwear

Ragazzi is one of the most influential designers you’ve never heard of. After 10 years at Moncler, he is now making waves with his California-inspired label that’s a favourite among hip-hop artists and NBA stars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 June, 2018, 8:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 June, 2018, 8:04pm

After working for more than a decade as one of the masterminds behind the successful lifestyle brand Moncler – where he is still artistic director – designer and photographer Francesco Ragazzi is now focusing his attention on his skate-inspired label Palm Angels, which he founded in 2015.

While Palm Angels is based in Milan, the streetwear label is a far cry from a typical Milanese brand. Ragazzi, who lives between Los Angeles and Milan, conceived Palm Angels after releasing a photography book of the same title in 2014. The book was a celebration of Los Angeles’ young skateboarders, reinterpreted through Ragazzi’s own vision, by “taking a culture that was perceived as quite basic and elevating it”.

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Ragazzi is in Hong Kong to present his collaboration with online retailer HBX, a spin-off of media company Hypebeast and a Mecca for collectors of sneakers around the world. “Palm Angels really reflects my background between America and Italy,” says Ragazzi. “It’s my vision of American culture, so that’s why it’s not the stereotypical Italian brand or the typical American brand. I always try to reinterpret American culture in my own way.”

A favourite of hip-hop artists and NBA players, Palm Angels has developed a foothold in the industry in only a matter of seasons: tracksuits in lurid hues such as orange and purple, logo-printed hoodies, and cannabis iconography are the brand’s key signatures, appealing to a young audience of aficionados who don’t see much of a difference between luxury and streetwear.

Ragazzi agrees that the line between these previously two separate worlds no longer exists. He was one of the pioneering agents of this change, starting from his early days at Moncler, where he was working with hip-hop stars, such as Pharrell, long before they started to be embraced by Parisian brands like Chanel.

“Luxury companies are definitely getting closer to the street world, and this is something that Moncler has been doing for a while. Brands like Valentino, Gucci and Louis Vuitton have been doing this and some of them do it well, but sometimes it doesn’t feel real because they’re not able to speak the language of streetwear and deal with this world,” Ragazzi says.

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“Back in the days, when rappers collaborated with luxury brands, it was super niche, but now it’s all everyone talks about, especially on social media. And you need to be able to use those tools in the right way because you have to be authentic. We were doing it ages ago with Remo Ruffini [owner of Moncler], and he’s always been a visionary and has always given me a lot of freedom.”

While it’s hard to pinpoint what Ragazzi does at Moncler, or at his own brand, for that matter, it’s clear that he isn’t a typical designer obsessing over sketches and going through countless fittings.

He’s more representative of a new kind of creative, someone like Off-White’s Virgil Abloh, a jack-of-all-trades whose vision is often more important than actual cutting or sewing skills.

“It’s not easy to explain what an art director does because I do so many things, especially at Moncler. But you have to understand that when you work for a fashion brand, there’s much more than just making products,” he explains. “To sell that specific product, you need to do a lot that goes around it, and that’s what I do as a communicator: create a vision and an image around the products, which can be a campaign, a marketing strategy, an event … They’re very important for brands, especially nowadays. Things like monthly drops and collaborations are becoming more important, and also fun.”

Fun is definitely a key element of Palm Angels, whether it’s the carefree Californian attitude that’s always present in the brand’s collections, or the cannabis symbolism, which has become a de facto logo, along with those Cali-vibe palm trees printed on T-shirts and sweatshirts.

“Marijuana is a very important part of LA, and it’s always been part of Palm Angels, too. So I was using the iconography associated with cannabis in my collections and now that it’s legal it’s even more evident in Los Angeles,” he says. “It’s definitely part of the lifestyle of Palm Angels. I’m even working on a collaboration with a cannabis company.”

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Celebrities, especially rappers, have also been pivotal in the rise of the label, which has a strong following in Asia, a market that Ragazzi plans to explore more. “What I like about clients here is that they’re more adventurous. I tend to go for basic pieces, like a T-shirt and jeans, but when I design, I want to create something strong so I picture a celebrity wearing it at a concert. And I find that Asian customers are more receptive to things that are more special,” he says.

“I want to start coming to Asia more often, also for inspiration, not just work. I spent so much time in the US, and I discovered Asia kind of late, but I love this part of the world and find it very inspiring – I love the vibe here. I also find that the Asian market is very connected to the US, especially through social media. We found our first success with rappers, and even here in Asia, celebrities from the hip-hop world are very popular. That’s who the new generation looks at now.”