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Rhuigi Villaseñor Has Earned It

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Rhuigi Villaseñor won over high-wattage celebrity fans and ushered in a new era of opulent American with Rhude. Now, with the keys to the Swiss house of Bally, the Filipino-American creative director is embracing a very European kind of luxury.

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In a basement studio in Milan, Rhuigi Villaseñor is standing in his skivvies, directing the stylist on his next choice of footwear. “I’m ready for lizard!” he calls out, and the stylist extracts a reptilian pair of tasselled white loafers from a suitcase overflowing with gear that Rhuigi has personally supplied for the shoot. I’m unsure how to introduce myself in this half-clothed moment, but he pulls on a pair of white pleated trousers to match the shoes and comes over to warmly hug me hello.

“Got to come correct—this is going to be big for my family,” he says, pulling on a navy blazer that emanates yacht vibes. And the look is fitting, since the founder of the cult brand Rhude and freshly minted creative director of Bally is frequently spotted on pleasure boats these days, rightly celebrating the extended moment he’s having.

In anticipation of his runway debut for the Swiss luxury brand on September 24th, Rhuigi has been dashing between Milan, Bally’s HQ across the Swiss border in Lugano, and factories around Europe. If he’s not there, he’s home in Los Angeles at the headquarters of his label Rhude, which announced him as a designer with a flair for grasping the zeitgeist. His globetrotting is whiplash-inducing—Instagram stories flash from a basketball game in California to a wicker-basketed Vespa by dappled Lake Como sunlight. “Can you send me options by the water in Croatia or Greece? Sardinia maybe?” he says into his phone, planning his 31st birthday celebrations.

So how is the European lifestyle treating him? “I live most of my life in hotels now,” he says, pulling up his sleeves, revealing batches of tattoos and a chunky rose-gold Patek Philippe Nautilus. “And since I came to Europe, I’m drinking a lot of tea.” He widens his eyes at me. “Tea-quila!” A blazing star of the current fashion scene though he may be, the man is not afraid of a corny joke. I chalk this up to his very tight-knit relationship with his family. He talks about his relatives more than anyone I’ve ever interviewed.

Rhuigi established Rhude in 2015 without any formal design training and a vernacular shaped by, in his words, “what I would buy if I had money when I didn’t have any money”. His references were informed by his adopted city of LA, where he moved from Manila at age 10, but they also reflect a patrician culture he coveted, which he gleaned in his youth from avid reading of those “very suit-driven years” of GQ (“for real,” he promises me) and his absorption of Town & Country (“Yes, for real!”), with its lifestyle of “things that I was interested in: Ralph Lauren, racecar driving, wine collecting, duck hunting.” I suspect few LA millennials maintained a teenage passion for duck hunting, but he foresaw an existence that he’s now living: a self-described cigar connoisseur, he collects race cars, wine, and grail-level watches. (The ducks he leaves in peace.)

The designer viewed his own brand as a way to help out his family, which struggled after moving from the Philippines. He launched with a single bandana-print T-shirt and won support from superstars such as Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg. His most recent Rhude show in Paris was a masterclass in his particular American mash-up of sportswear and baller attire with Nantucket prep and Los Angeles leisure: prominently branded boxers poking out above prim tartan golf shorts; a leather driver’s suit paired with a beachy open-knit tank and flip-flops. Call it modern Californian insouciance. Call it success. “Family’s all set now,” he boasts. The brand made $30 million in the last year, he grins. Over $30 million, he adds.

“Life is about ‘earnership,’” Rhuigi says. Ownership? I ask. “Earnership,” he repeats. “If you feel that there are supernatural forces guiding life, then you’re not fully in control of yours.” Everything is a choice, he says. There’s no fate controlling our destinies on this planet. The secret to life, for Rhuigi, is summed up in earnership—a sort of existentialist’s meritocracy. “If you feel that you’ve worked hard to do the right things, if you feel that you’ve earned it, you’re in total control.”

He’s made a talent of cementing friendships in all kinds of high places, and at the photoshoot, he rolls off some of the names on the Bally show’s guestlist: Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Tommy Hilfiger, and Pucci designer Camille Miceli, who has brought her own measure of excitement to Milan’s fashion scene, arriving as an industry favourite from Dior and Louis Vuitton. Among his superfans are the kind of marquee celebrities with their own superfans: Jay-Z, often seen smiling in a Rhude cap or with an arm around Rhuigi; Future, who starred in Rhude’s first campaign; Bella Hadid; plus LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and a fair slice of the rest of the NBA.

Initially, Rhuigi had fumbled with his own line, receiving orders but failing to produce the goods. “It was a bad part of my first few rounds of the business, something I rarely speak about,” he says, blinking. “Trying to run a company on your own is a very difficult thing: to ship, design, communicate and manage so many facets—not something most creatives think about.” But the last three years have seen himi build his independent venture into a gravitational force in the fashion sphere—and one with a devoted tribe.

“I’m picking up serious lessons on how to run a major company from Bally,” says Rhuigi, gamely trying on a cashmere turtleneck despite the withering heat. “I’m learning how to create a house that will last for a long time, how to scale up and make sure Rhude can weather the storms.” He’s captaining three collections these days, in Bally, Rhude, and his ongoing RHU line of athleisure for Zara. “These are huge responsibilities that I set for myself,” he says. “Single dad, three kids!” He’s clearly got success—big-time success—on his mind. “I want to be remembered as the sort of designer that’s really interesting, like Chanel.”

Outside, the photographer chooses a spot for him in front of a landmark 1941 Rationalist bank, the Ancient Greek-inspired architecture paying homage to modern finance. Rhuigi, whose recent Rhude collections have titles like “New Money” and “Bull Market,” vamps contentedly between the hulking granite columns. “My dad always told me diamonds grow under pressure,” he says after the shot. He’s antsy, in a good way, about debuting his Bally designs to the world. “When you look back at the first collections of all the greats, the essence is there, even if it’s a bit rough.” His intention is clear: be one of those greats.

With Bally, Rhuigi is steering a house with a narrative a long way from Rhude’s. Founded in Switzerland back in 1851, the enterprise made a smashing triumph of selling shoes. A byword for luxury leather goods in more recent decades, the brand has foregone a creative director for the last five years and got by with a strategy that banks on duty-free sales. Rhuigi describes the heritage house as “a sleeping beauty”. Or, more fittingly for this roadster enthusiast, “a Ferrari that […] hasn’t been on the road for quite some time. It just needs a new paint job, an oil change and it’s good to go.”

When the photoshoot wraps, I head with Rhuigi and his crew to the nearby Mandarin Oriental hotel that he calls home when he’s in Milan. We walk into the bar and the uniformed hostesses at the front welcome him with that special friendliness reserved for famous guests and big tippers. At a table in the stone-cobbled courtyard encircled by the hotel’s palazzo, he reclines into a patchwork-patterned couch, admitting that he doesn’t actually drink tequila as he orders an Aperol Spritz and chats about his first days at Bally.

“They have this incredible archive,” he explains, “because the brand is so old and during the war, Switzerland was neutral, so nothing was shaken or stirred.” The proximity of alcohol is already inducing its own metaphors. “The beauty now is that the house is teaching me something I never really had as a brand, which is craftsmanship and real, real serious heritage.” In his introduction to the company, he visited the workshop in Caslano, Switzerland, where Bally’s footwear is handmade. “It’s so tedious. I think it’s three hundred steps to make a shoe,” he says, marvelling as he twists his diamond tennis necklace. “I often romanticise about how Rhude T-shirts are made by hand – that they’re washed or touched by real hands. There’s this romanticism to someone transferring energy into the production, but Bally is very different. It’s much more elevated than that.”

What drew him to working with the house was “nostalgia,” he says. “It was one of the things that I was thrifting for in high school—Bally shoes to wear with my orange tab Levi’s.” He remembers his grandfather and father—both soigné characters by his description—sporting the brand’s footwear back in the Philippines.

Later, I call up his dad in LA. “I think I had an influence on Rhuigi because I’ve always been a [neatly] dressed guy,” says Rhoderick Villaseñor, who started all of his children’s names with the letters “Rh”—Rhuigi, Rhoxanne and Rhayden. Rhuigi describes his father in his younger days as a sharp dresser who wore a lot of YSL and designer clothes. Today, Rhoderick proudly flaunts the Rhude label. (“He looks like a racecar driver,” Rhuigi tells me.)

Rhoderick relocated the family from the Philippines to a new life in Los Angeles in 2001, switching from engineering to the medical insurance business. “I told the kids that I’m making this sacrifice for them, that we’re not that rich, so they have to be really smart and focused, and to always remain humble,” he says. Rhuigi repeated these exact lessons to me a handful of times. His mother, Teresita, whom he describes as “very artsy,” took care of the kids and taught Rhuigi to paint, draw and sew. Rhoderick, meanwhile, was a self-described disciplinarian who still dispenses advice in his almost daily phone calls with his son. “I would never settle for a B—it has to be an A+ every time,” he says. “And I wanted those kids showered twice a day, with their hair perfect and their shoes shined.”

At the Mandarin bar, I take a look at Rhuigi: his hair is combed in a pin-sharp Caesar cut, but on his feet…sneakers. Green Adidas x Gucci Gazelles. Yet he’s made a hit out of Rhude’s penny loafers, despite North America’s penchant for sneakers. “I’ve always been interested in how I can integrate a dress shoe into someone’s day-to-day wardrobe,” he maintains.

He describes his approach at Rhude as “filling a gap in the market.” He took the pulse of his compatriots and figured out what they needed, or wanted. But the penny loafers, in which he was referencing classic styles like those of Bally and Florsheim, were an experiment to see if he could promote more of his personal taste. His acolytes have said yes in droves, and Bally must be hoping to bring some of that magic to its legacy brand and hopefully appeal to a new audience, especially in America.

But why would a heritage brand turn to an independent LA designer to guide its future? “Because he’s different,” says Nicolas Girotto, the CEO of Bally, who fervently pushed for the hiring of Rhuigi, and who had already shaken things up at the company by introducing sustainability commitments and an overdue e-commerce push after his appointment in 2019. “Rhuigi was on our map for what he was doing with his own brand, but also for his balance of contemporary streetwear and a luxury sensibility.” When he started, the designer spent hours interrogating Bally’s artisans about their craft, Girotto says. “In choosing a creative director for a 170-year-old brand, I wanted a person who would disrupt, and we all saw in Rhuigi the possibility to bring the brand in a new direction. He’s someone who has a direct dialogue with his audience, and through this dialogue he gets a good sense of where society is going.”

With Bally’s revamp, Rhuigi is rethinking the visual codes of the house. “I found the most beautiful ’30s-era logo in the archive,” he tells me—it will be one of a handful of logos used in his brand restyling. However, he’s also transforming it from a leather goods company into a serious apparel purveyor, particularly of womenswear. “I get to expand my creativity on the women’s side now,” he says.

For Bally’s first runway show in two decades, the womenswear is key. “To convey a lifestyle, you need to convey a full offering of ready-to-wear,” Girotto details. It’s a traditional tactic for brands known for shoes and bags that are looking to occupy more space in consumers’ minds—think of past transformations of Gucci or Louis Vuitton—but Rhuigi, hailing from outside the luxury industry’s circle of pedigreed designers, is not the traditional choice. “It’s quite cool for a very established house like this to bring in a guy with Rhuigi’s background, who established himself on his own and has this freshness, this youth and this open mind,” Camille Miceli tells me. The Pucci designer struck up a fast friendship with Rhuigi backstage at an Alicia Keys concert. “He’s going to bring something different to the brand and to Milan Fashion Week.”

Rhuigi, sinking into the hotel courtyard couch, casts an eye around the bar’s high-patina crowd of heavily jewelled guests sipping on their cocktails and studying each other’s outfits. “There’s something about a red velvet rope, right? We all want to be on the inside of a velvet rope,” he says. “Ultimately what we want here is to cultivate a community of like-minded people that desire a similar lifestyle and want to dress in a similar way.” Good advice for any brand. He brings an American sensibility to the Swiss house, he says. “If you were to define America, it’d be pop culture and consumerism. I want to mix that with respect for Bally and craftsmanship.”

A “logo kingdom” is how Rhuigi describes the America of his childhood. “I witnessed this artillery of global brands and I wanted to make one. That’s why Rhude is so logo-driven. My whole project is a comment on American culture.” He pauses, munching on a couple of aperitivo olives. “But for Bally, I’m looking more at Europe.” His vision is rooted in more elegant times—the wistfully imagined jet-set outfits of après ski, Mediterranean villas, and bygone nights at Le Palace in Paris. Yves Saint Laurent’s first decade of designs. Gianni Agnelli. Aristotle Onassis. A world of “hyper-luxurious things that have been forgotten. What I would love to dress up in.”

He sees the Bally man swaggering around in understated pieces distinguished by their craft and materials: “We’re talking vicuña wool, python, silk—you have to be a really concentrated kind of man to seek out a silk-blend tank top.” He shows me a silk polo shirt and a soft lambskin “hyper-tailored” biker jacket, along with slim, pointed-toe dress shoes with a slight heel, made on vintage lasts he excavated from the archives. There’s none of the ruggedness or loose threads he incorporates into Rhude. “Really, I want people to wear wingtips and listen to jazz,” he sighs.

Not what you’d expect from a designer frequently filed under the category of streetwear, a term whose second-rate fashion connotations, he complains, can carry racist undertones. “It’s about audience,” he frowns. At one point, Rhuigi shows me pictures of some new inspirations: European road signs spotted in his travels. “If I make streetwear, I’m going to make what you see on the street!”

“Another Aperol Spritz, please,” he says to the waiter and finally agrees to show me some preview pictures of the new Bally womenswear designs. I see safari pockets and a button-front. “It’s a bodysuit,” he says. A white leather safari bodysuit. Another style recalls Guy Laroche’s famous booty-baring cut-out black dress worn by French film star Mireille Darc in 1972 – with a built-in thong, and a bit more booty.

“I’m updating this lifestyle for where we are today,” he says. “We’ve been locked up for so long and now we’re ready to have fun.” He selects a single look to encapsulate the collection for me: a silken white blouse with a natty row of loop-fastened rouleau buttons down the front, worn with a cognac leather envelope skirt held together by just a single clip at the hip bone – that touch of ta-da revealing the model’s leg from tip-top to bottom. European swank meets American scandal.

Cultural references collide in the collection. He pulls up a picture of a bag whose handle of wooden blocks was inspired by classic Swiss toy-making. A bracelet, with emerald-cut gems in lacy golden settings, represents “Earthquake Baroque,” he says, a nod to the Philippines’ architectural style developed in 17th and 18th century post-quake reconstruction. “It would be a pity if I didn’t amplify my own heritage at a house like this,” he says, sipping his spritz. “I want to speak about my personal stories and heritage along with the brand’s heritage.”

Visions of Milan’s future will be colliding when Rhuigi presents his runway show at the city’s Fabbrica del Vapore, a youthful arts and culture institution in a former train factory. It takes place a day before national elections in Italy, which the Fascist-heir Brothers of Italy party is projected to win, ushering in an era of state-sponsored hate and rolled-back rights for immigrants, women, and the LGBTQ+ community. Giorgia Meloni, the presumptive prime minister, has cited anti-immigration “Great Replacement” baloney in public statements.

Bally may have chosen Rhuigi to tap into younger tastes and the American market, and for his talent for stoking a frenzy of followers, but it is also significant to see a Filipino designer leading the brand in this climate, on the catwalks of Milan, where Filipinos constitute the largest immigrant group in the city. Girotto tells me that for the company, which has its second major headquarters in Milan and is participating in the city’s fashion week, the appointment of Rhuigi wasn’t “to tick boxes or for elements of diversity, but the choices we make show who are and fashion needs to show positive choices.”

As an American living in Italy with deep anxiety about Meloni’s fear-mongering ascendancy, I can’t hide that I’m rooting for Rhuigi here. I’m rooting to see this city, this country, and this corner of Europe open up to new ideas, to youth, to subcultures, to foreign cultures, to the kind of free-wheeling hybridism that nurtures visions like Rhude’s American-bred style. Fashion isn’t politics, but it is a measure of our time, and right now Milan needs every sign of progress possible. All the better if it comes outfitted with chic silk blouses and glam leather skirts.

Laura Rysman is a Florence-Based writer and Monocle’s central Italy correspondent.

Photographs by Federico Barbieri
Styled by Alessia Caliendo
Grooming by Ricky Morandin at W-MManagement using Lierac

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