Even if you can’t see him enter a room, you know when Robert Rabensteiner, the celebrated creative director, is present. The exquisite scent he wears, Santa Maria Novella’s Melograno, wafts through the air – it’s powdery, clean, fresh, spicy, citrussy, expensive and utterly masculine. Rabensteiner’s delicious fragrance acts as a primer for your eyes. Everything about the man is refined, sophisticated and considered.
He believes in the power of quality, whether that’s an excellent tailor or a perfectly polished shoe, yet his persona is that of an old-school movie star. He’s effortlessly elegant, like a modern version of Cary Grant. Marrying classics with eclectic subtleties, he describes his own aesthetic as, “100 per cent unique with a touch of a certain silent elegance. Not loud, but always having the form and elegance of a man.” For this issue, he is wrapped in a lavish tuxedo and an ascot coat in his automotive-themed portrait, his obsidian Rolls-Royce, contrived in black and white, like many of his own editorials. The car is Rabensteiner’s. In fact, it was a special gift from the photographer Michel Comte, a close friend of his for more than 30 years. “He just called me one day while I was in LA and said, ‘Listen, the car is yours’,” he recalls as we chat over Zoom. “And I said, ‘Ah, okay, good!’ Then I had the car sent over from Los Angeles to Italy.” Otherwise clad in Brioni, with chunky wellies keeping his feet dry, a scarf sheathed around his head and, at times, a dog under his arm or the straw of a McDonald’s drink between his lips, the impeccably groomed chap is gracefully bullish.
When our editor-in-chief Sophia Neophitou asked him to pose for this issue, his dilemma was: where? “I’m a traveller. I have a mountain house and a house in the city, but I travel all the time,” he says. Shooting him in his swank vehicle was the obvious choice. Eternally traversing the globe – even as a child – slowing down but never stopping, Rabensteiner always appears pristine, albeit with an air of nomadic disarray, notwithstanding the tux. He’s like an animated Boldini portrait. He drives his car fast, the wind blowing through his bespoke suit, wearing trainers and colour-block socks for a touch of personalised pizazz.
Still, Rabensteiner is an image maker and a seriously sought-after one at that, with 28 years of work alongside the late Franca Sozzani as the former fashion director and editor-at-large at L’Uomo Vogue. He now operates as a creative consultant – styling, creating concepts and orchestrating shows – with countless brand consultancies tucked under his belt including work with labels like Roberto Cavalli, Moncler and Trussardi.
As we chat it’s a balmy day in the heart of June; the afternoon sun slants through the windows of the sumptuous Saint-Tropez villa he’s staying in. Everything the man touches is distinctly nuanced, attributable to his diehard love of film.
The resulting looks are anything but ordinary and, with a pretty specific penchant for cinematography and screenplays, it comes as no surprise that his cardinal inspiration is derived from the work of award-winning Italian directors like Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio De Sica and Federico Fellini. Rabensteiner’s enduring authority stems from his gentlemanly aesthetic. Like a dandified signor, he’s a tastemaker of the most refined palette poised at the precipice of Italian fashion. And let’s be honest, his personal style isn’t too shabby either. In fact, his eye for detail is unmatched.
Playing with notions of what makes up menswear, elegance is his trademark. With a dedication to perfection and beauty, Rabensteiner’s work comes out of an immensely creative brain supported by high-quality skill and finesse. He is living, breathing evidence that it doesn’t take a medley of prints, patterns, textures and colours to crack panache. High-quality materials perfectly cut and tailored, and poignantly steeped in sophistication, are enough. With Italian savoir faire, the he proves the power of a first-rate classic.
Rabensteiner cultivates an aura wherein fantasy lies. His wardrobes are a blank canvas, each composition a magnum opus. It’s practically impossible not to notice the man’s glaring wardrobe savvy. No trifler could possibly fill the foldable leather loafers of Mr. Rabensteiner.
Rabensteiner spent most of his youth in the mountainside of South Tyrol, North Italy, which was owned by Austria before WWII, so in turn, his first language was not English or Italian, but German. From within this remote village buried deep in the forest, his introduction to the art world wasn’t flipping through the pages of Vogue or frequenting galleries, it was his family: “I come from a very big, elegant family.” Art was his parents’ world and his aristocratic upbringing between the Tyrolean mountains and an eventual pied-à-terre in Milan forged a profound love of elegance within him. Rabensteiner also possesses a deep affinity with nature.
“I’m gonna tell you something very personal,” he says. “I came from a silent world – from deaf parents. I am a child of CODA, which means Children of Deaf Adults.” As a boy, he had to assist his parents beyond what would be considered usual for any child of his age. “If the doorbell went, or somebody phoned, it wasn’t my parents who would answer, it was me – I had to translate everything into sign language for them,” he explains. “But I was five…” In many ways this silent existence pushed him to discover art and literature. “Being born in silence means you observe with your eyes more; reading, watching movies and dreaming,” he says. “Everything was magical, feeding my own imaginary world with fantasy and romance.”
Studying the history of art before going on to teach the subject to D/deaf children and then transitioning into photography, Rabensteiner had dreams of learning from Helmut Newton, Deborah Turbeville and Barbara Bordnick, who were all fascinated by the opulent and vivid visuals of the fashion world – a fascination that rubbed off on a young Rabensteiner and acted as the catalyst for what was to come. He got his start by assisting a variety of designers, but it wasn’t long before that he realised that he was pursuing the wrong trade. “Designing wasn’t right for me,” he says. “I’m better if you give me a ready-made jacket to work with, because then I can build a whole story around it.”
The truth is that Rabensteiner stumbled into fashion by chance. “I had to travel and be curious about everything,” he says. Jet-setting to Vienna, he then made a chance acquaintance who led him on a journey to Milan where he met Franca Sozzani, the then-acting editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue, who quickly snatched him up as a stylist. From that moment forth, Rabensteiner’s career sprung to life and the possibilities of the future began to seem limitless. “We were a team of three people,” he says on his start at L’Uomo Vogue. “I learnt in three months what others would learn in two or three years. But as the new generation comes up fast with a new way of dressing up and a fresh view of the world, you can never stop learning.”
From the get-go, a mix of modern and traditional dress has been a clear focal point of Rabensteiner’s fashion intentions, interwoven with his own proclivities. “I have a collection of traditional dresses from Bhutan to Chile to India to South Africa,” he says. “I find them so interesting.” He composes stories much as he creates outfits; the wearer becomes a character – the protagonist and the antagonist both at once – lavish in essence and imbued with a boundless sense of adventurous abandon.
Always observing, Rabensteiner finds inspiration for his work in the world around him. “I love to watch people.” Be it Gen Z or our elders, books or films, people-watching at the airport or admiring cultural dress on his travels, he finds inspiration in everything, even describing his creative process as “play”. “Even if I’m observing a quiet place, I love what is around me. Whether it’s a picture, nature, sports or a new face, everything gives me energy and I’m never bored.”
As we begin to unravel what he’s enjoying most during this chapter of his life, without hesitation he replies, “Every single moment.” Listing off small pleasures, such as being with friends, spending time with his father and enjoying time alone, there is nothing that won’t bring him joy. He explains, “I’ve been lucky. I have friends, I have boats, I have houses in different places. I have a house in the forest and [one in] the mountains. From eating a plate of spaghetti or going to a nice restaurant to finding a beautiful suit in a vintage store, I enjoy every single moment. But what I love most is ‘love’ – because it’s all about love. I can be in love with a place or a person, but I especially love when I’m in love, with all my heart, and even better, I love giving love. It’s what carries me forward.”
Revelling in optimism, Rabensteiner, now 56, speaks of the future with the zest of a 20-year-old fresh off the university conveyor belt. “As we come out of Covid and Russia’s war on Ukraine – where freedom was taken away – we have to think positive. Of course, regarding the inflation we’re facing, things will change, but fashion won’t,” he declares. “Fashion is inspired. People will always dream of new things and designers will carry on. Maybe we have to focus more on sustainability and maybe magazines will no longer have a big budget, but that’s going to change nothing. If you have good ideas, you can do beautiful things.”
Taken from Issue 56 of 10 Men – PEACE, COURAGE, FREEDOM – on newsstands now. Order your copy here.
Photographer CEDRIC BUCHET
Fashion Editor ROBERT RABENSTEINER
Text EMILY PHILLIPS
Fashion Assistant MARIA SOFIA BRINI