|Robert Rufino is this small-but-perfectly-formed elegant man who lives in a small-but-perfectly-formed elegant box. He had a splashy title at the time of this interview, Vice President of Creative Services and Visual Merchandising for Tiffany & Co. Today he is editor-at-large at House Beautiful. He described himself at some point in his interview as being a kind of monk in his Upper East Side cell. Well, a monk that has just bought himself seven pairs of shoes – four pairs of Gucci and three pairs of Prada, if you must know. He says that the splurge was uncharacteristic although he admits a lifelong love of beautiful clothing and of living large, except that he really doesn’t. His life is very edited. We wondered if his immaculate outfits were not a kind of armor for a man who seems, despite his sociability, shy, intense and an obsessive perfectionist – something that has carried him far in his career. He insists that he is not shy, merely reserved, and that he also has a well-developed sense of humor. And it might be true … at the end of the interview, in the spirit of Christmas, he donned a pair of velveteen reindeer horns – alas, no photograph (although we got one of the dog, Windsor, wearing his pair).
So I just took a little field trip to go and look at the Tiffany’s windows – they’re very pretty, like a snowy Russian forest. Was that the idea?
No, it’s just romantic. It’s all about diamonds.
In some ways, at this time of year, you have to stick to a fairly defined theme. You can’t be too daring, Christmas in the desert, say …
I mean we are Tiffany’s. We are a legendary company and I think we have to stick close to our roots, and you know, I usually do stuff that’s more traditional. For a couple of years I did tartan. This year is the first year we embellished the outside of the store. We’ve never done that before.
|Window dressing seems like a fun thing to do – is it?
It is. I started when I was19 at the real Henri Bendels. It was just this tiny little town house and every room was a different little entity. Retail is theater.
You started off in retail but there was a period when you worked for magazines – how did you find that transitions.
Well, when I went to magazines, I was always intrigued by photography and setting up still lifes. The thing about the Tiffany’s windows is that they are little still lifes.
|Can you walk us through the process of setting up a window?
I really can’t draw, I doodle. I have a gent who I work with, Tony. I’ll walk the street or something in a magazine or go to a movie. I was influenced by the Marie Antoinette movie so I had this artist do these incredible paper wigs … this was in October. I’m very hands on. We have a studio and every [Tiffany] window throughout the world is sent from New York, every three weeks. We send all the props and Tony does a booklet, an illustration. There’s over 60 [stores] in the U.S … over 50 in Japan alone.
Who oversaw the extensive renovation of the flagship store?
It’s all in house. My role was to act as interior designer. Every inch of that store has my touch … every carpet, every wall covering, every piece of furniture is custom made … it was like a great face lift where you really can’t tell. It’s quiet chic.
|Are you essentially quite conservative in your taste, or indeed, in your life?
I’m not at all conservative. I’m known to be a great dresser … I mean I love to dress. My friends call me ‘Duke’ [after the Duke of Windsor] and I’m not blowing my horn, I’ve been on the International Best Dressed List twice, and I’m always nominated.
So in what ways are you not conservative?
I personally? What is conservative?
Well, restrained, honing more towards tradition …
I think I am traditional with a twist. I don’t look English but some people say ‘Are you English?’ sometimes. I’m Italian but it might be the way I dress or the way I carry myself, I don’t know.
|Where do you like to shop for your clothes?
I’m a Ralph Lauren fanatic only because Ralph Lauren cuts a 37 short and then I go to my tailor. Sometimes I have a few things made when I go to London.
What’s important about clothes?
To me? What’s important about clothes? I think you have to feel comfortable in what you wear and who you are. I’m five foot seven-and-a-half … and you know, it’s very odd. I don’t see what people see. They say ‘You’re so elegant, you’re so dapper’ and I just kind of laugh. Like, you know what … I look in the mirror and think ‘Oh my God, you’re so ugly!’ But I have a strong attitude. I have this strong attitude about life. You have to live life large. I love life and I enjoy every minute of it. There’s been some down times … but you know …if everyone looked like me it would be boring but I’m 54 and when I see men who are 54 dressing like 22-year olds … this is pitiful.
|What did you wear when you were 22? |
I was always … not this … I had thick, beautiful long hair … and …er, you know …
Why do we need pretty things? Why do people buy jewelry?
I think it’s a feel-good …
But what is feeding in people?
Their security, their status. I think it’s a celebration to yourself, it’s a reward to yourself.
Are you a very private person?
Yep. I mean most people think I’m a snob because I’m very reserved. But I am extremely funny if you get to know me, I have a wicked sense of humor. And I’m a pussy cat …
Who do you admire?
Now? You mean alive? …um, who do I admire? That’s a hard question. Probably Yves St Laurent. I’m obsessed with the Duke of Windsor … the way he wore a tie in the garden … [Later he calls and adds these names: Elsie de Wolfe, Ralph Rucci, Cecil Beaton and JFK]
|Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New York city … I grew up in Chinatown if you want to know the truth.
What was Chinatown like then?
It was like a little village. I went to a missionary school and they would be scrubbing the sidewalks in the morning. I went through this whole monk thing.
Monk? You mean you wanted to be a monk?
No … but I was very spiritual. A lot of my friends were Chinese not Italian.
|How does that play out in your life now?
I’m still very spiritual. I sit and meditate. I’m a runner, so sometimes when I go running, I’ll stop and stand in a church and meditate a little bit.
What do you carry with you from your Italian heritage?
[Shrugs, as if to disown it] … I’m English … I mean, you know, whatever … I love Capri. My favorite city in the world is London. I love the accents, I love the clothes. Everyone is very proper. I feel very comfortable every time I go there.
You seemed a little shy, or at least hesitant, when you told us you grew up in Chinatown …
Do I? No, when I tell people that, they look and they go … ‘You’re full of …’ and I go ‘Yeah, I grew up in Chinatown.’ I grew up in Chinatown and I’m a self-made person.
|What are you giving people for Christmas presents?
I bought 60 little picture books of Marie Antoinette to hand out to certain people. And special presents ... some beautiful paisley sheets from Ralph Lauren ... I wear a kilt at Christmas time.
My friend is Scottish and when he was 50 he had a kilt custom made, and I was with him and I thought, why not?
And what do you wear underneath it?
[Looks at the floor and begins to laugh … shakes his head but doesn’t answer]
• by Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge
• photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch