|Rufus Arnold Alexis Keppel, the 10th Earl of Albemarle, is known socially as Rufus Albemarle, very posh, very tall, sort of bows and air kisses your hand (if you’re female) when he meets you … oh … with one of us being British and one of us being a seen-it-all New Yorker, we couldn’t help but tease him a bit towards the end of the interview. And he’s a sport, took it in good part. You’ll have to go to The List on this website to find out how he’s related to Camilla Parker-Bowles as well as all the other labyrinthine aristocratic connections he has, too complicated to enter into here.
He’s worked as a designer for most of his adult life, designing everything from cochlear implants to camera equipment but now he’s devoting his energies to creating exquisite shirts that fuse an English sensibility with Italian flair and workmanship about which he is passionate. He likes to explain things. There’s a touch of the British eccentric about him, or at least enthusiast, for example standing up to mimic how one rides a pennyfarthing, which, apparently, he can, (‘One rotation can move it four meters! Inertia of the large wheel … gyroscopic force!’) and if he does go on a bit, it’s also rather endearing.
Do people always want to talk to you about class, assuming that you are interested in that?
Not particularly. This is something that crops up because you’re English.
So you don’t have a [big aristocratic] pile?
No, not anymore.
Did you grow up in a pile?
No, no. I grew up in Florence, at the foot of a pile. My great aunt was Violet Trefusis, who was a ‘grande dame de societé’ and she had a place called L’Ombrellino over a square called Bellosguardo, which is the ‘beautiful view’ and I basically lived in a villa at the base of this and that was my playground. But I never saw her. I was allowed to go to tea once and then I scared her by pulling out a plastic sword and she never wanted to see me again.
Was she very delicate?
No, old-fashioned. She was [part of] the end of the Edwardian era. She was brought up by the mistress of Edward V11 [Violet Trefusis’ mother was Alice Keppel, and Trefusis herself is famous, amongst other things, for her lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.]
|Where did you go to school?
I did all the nuns’ school in Florence, the Catholic education and all of that. Then I went to the American School in Florence. I sort of ended up at eight years old with an ambiguous education and was sent off to English boarding school at age eight.
How was that?
It wasn’t actually that bad of a school. It wasn’t an Eton. It was kind of a funky school, vegetarian, Quaker, co-educational. I remember the parent’s circle was ‘Ah there’s the mother of Whitesnake, and AC/DC’s parents … oh look it’s Vivienne Westwood …’
But did you like it?
I loved it. The first two years were hideous. You went from ceramic tiled floors, terracotta, to linoleum. You went from glasses in your home to plastic mugs. You went from stucco to pebbledash. [he says ‘terracotta’ and ‘stucco’ with a lavish—to our ears—Italian accent.]
I think children are very aesthetically aware. Those things do matter.
Absolutely. I was brought up in the most incredible idyllic place … we had these gardens that used to go up the hillsides, olive groves going into pine forests. It was an extraordinary childhood, and then suddenly Hertfordshire.
|Would you send your son to boarding school?
Yes, but there’s a much more sort of soft approach, which is semi-boarding. They start off with a weekend and then they board every other week and then they find that it’s more fun. That’s the time they get to hang out with their friends, play lots of sports. Boarding school actually is a very good thing, I think. It’s saving the children from their own parents!
Is it fun when you’re studying history and suddenly relatives crop up in a way that doesn’t happen for everybody?
[Laughs] Well, I suppose so. But then there’s also the other histories that you enjoy.
It seems that Italy is the touchstone for you.
Oh yeah. It’s my heart.
Do you think people romanticize Italy too much?
I think there’s an awful lot to romanticize.
I suppose ultimately it is a dizzyingly seductive place but I was wondering if, for someone like you who knows it so well, you see other sides.
Well I find it very dynamic. I like the work ethic there.
|So how did you decide upon designing and selling shirts?
I don’t know. Sometimes decisions that you take are just taken on the fact of pure instinct. I used to design bicycles … and the design of the bicycle hasn’t changed since 1890 something … what they call [the diamond frame] was really fixed by the turn of that century. Well, the shirt is the same. Beau Brummel suddenly made his underwear a visible garment. The shirt has changed very little. So, if you like to call it that, I chose the most difficult thing to do … because that’s what I’ve always done.
What are the differences in attitudes towards design here, compared to Europe?
The Americans appreciate good design, which means solid design, well-made design ... the fridges, the automobiles were all top, top, top class here. Whilst England was struggling with the Austin 7, the Americans had already done the T-Ford. The fridge in America, you could open it one way or you could open it another way. I know a fridge graveyard in Maine, which I used to go to photograph all the Hercules [fridges]… absolutely amazing level of detail … the thing is then design sort of became an ends to itself. It’s ‘designed’ therefore it’s good. This is a brilliant piece of design …[He points to a corkscrew on the desk and begins a little lecture, leaping up to show us, on a bike that is leaning on the wall, how it was originally intended as a cotterpin. In so doing he slices open his finger.He keeps talking but disappears and then re-appears, having taped the cut with duct tape.]
I have a Band-Aid in my bag …
No, this is designer’s Band-Aid … [He’s now talking in enormous detail about the structure of a collar of a shirt]
|So you’re obviously very detail-oriented. Are you anal?
Anal … er … anal. That’s a very metrosexual-stroke-ambiguous …er, am I anal? Er … I always believe God is in the details, so yes I do try and get everything as perfect as I can.
Are you a worrier?
Yes! Of course.
And you’re a tinkerer, a fixer?
Yes, as a child I always used to take things apart …whether I could put things back together again was another question.
You mentioned that you liked going to fridge graveyards in Maine …
Oh yeah! The things that I love to do when I’m on holiday … go and visit boatyards, and Maine is the world’s most exciting boatyard.
|It doesn’t sound in the least bit exciting … underneath this suave aristocratic exterior, you’re actually a boring engineer.
Exactly! A tinkerer. [Laughs] My great-grandfather, the eighth earl, was the first man to write a book about cycling in 1894 … and also put up signs, where the road was too steep, you dismount. He was the president of the British Cycling Federation. He built his own J-Class boat.
So you come from a long line of boring engineers!
Do you cultivate your aristocratic persona?
I think by being in America it’s become more apparent. If I go back to England …
But I suspect it’s more of a persona …
Is it a persona? I don’t know. I think that people that know me quite a long time don’t think I’ve changed that much. I mean I’m six-foot-four, I’ve got a beard … I mean you have to have your clothes made for you … it’s … it’s … you look a bit strange in sportswear, so I don’t. I choose to wear more traditional clothes, so yes, all of that could be cultivated maybe. I don’t know. That’s a cruel question.
|Oh, you’re up to it …
Well I was in the House of Lords at the age of 21.
I hope you didn’t open your mouth!
[Laughs] I didn’t open my mouth. What do you think I am – crazy?
— Lesley Hauge and Sian Ballen; photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch