A Conversation With Ralph Rucci

Ralph Rucci at home
(article originally published September 2017)

The big topic of conversation leading up to NYFW, (Sept 7-13), has been the New York to Paris exile of some of New York’s most talented creators (Proenza Schouler, Rodarte, Thom Browne, Joseph Altuzarra), and the gaping hole it’s left in the calendar. But the most pronounced ‘hole’ for me, has been the absence of Ralph Rucci, a true artist in every sense of the word; a man obsessed with perfection, precision and luxury, and as close to a true couturier in the French tradition as we have on our soil (in 2002, he became the first American in more than 60 years to be invited to show in Paris by the French Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture). His last formal runway show in New York (for spring 2015 ready-to-wear), was held on September 16, 2014 and a few months later, on November 19th, he announced that he was walking away from the 33 year old couture fashion house he founded. He thereby gave up the reins to investors and was no longer able to use his name on a fashion collection.

“We need a new editor of American Vogue. American fashion is not as exciting as it was in the 70’s because the editorial hierarchies of magazines don’t have the vision that they once had.” – Ralph Rucci

But of course, you can’t keep a creative genius down. He staged a fashion week comeback in February 2016 with a new collection called “RR331” (his initials plus the number of steps in the Japanese Chado tea ceremony). To mark his return, Rucci took over a space on the far west side of the city, turned it into an art gallery where his large-scale abstract paintings in black, white and gold hung on the walls behind his fashion. And he’s not exactly been idling the time away. He’s been quietly creating made-to-order for a loyal clientele who seeks out the meticulous attention to detail and superb craftsmanship that have come to define his work.

At the age of 60, he is filled with emotion and passion, has very strong opinions, has a lot to say, and is not afraid to say it. And say it he did during the course of an interview I conducted with him at his elegantly appointed terraced penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side. He refers to it as an “evening” apartment and it is assuredly dark, inviting, and sexy. I guess you could say that it’s Ralph’s idea of a ‘man cave’: fabulously chic and perfectly curated, it is filled with beautiful, highly personal and very meaningful objects.

For the occasion, the designer was wearing one his many white custom made shirts and crisp khakis, accessorized with an Elsa Peretti belt and cufflinks, punctuated perfectly with Rick Owens graphic black and white sneakers. The interview was purposely timed with the advent of NYFW which kicks off with FIT’s annual Couture Council Artistry in Fashion Award Luncheon on Wednesday. Thom Browne is the 2017 recipient and in 2006, Ralph Rucci was the first designer to be so honored. Boy did they get that right! In 2007, he was also honored with a solo exhibition, “Ralph Rucci: The Art of Weightlessness” at the Museum at FIT.

Rucci has been the subject of other retrospectives, notably The Costume Institute of the Kent State University Museum (2005-2006), The Costume Institute of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2007), and The Phoenix Art Museum (2008). Among his awards: the 2008 Fashion Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Pratt Institute’s Icon Award in 2009, the SCAD Andre’ Leon Talley Lifetime Achievement Award (2012), and an Honorary Doctoral Degree from The Drexel University College of Art and Design (2015).

He is the subject of two beautiful coffee table books: “Ralph Rucci: The Art of Weightlessness” written by Valerie Steele, Patricia Mears, Claire Sauro, 2007; “Autobiography of a Fashion Designer: Ralph Rucci” text by Matthew Egan, photography by Baldomero Fernandez, 2011. He is also the subject of two films: “Ralph Rucci: A Designer and His House”, 2008; “A Quiet American: Ralph Rucci & Paris”, 2012.

The Conversation:

Marilyn Kirschner: Tell me what you’ve been doing lately?
Ralph Rucci: “RR331” is my corporation and my label is my name; my signature iconic iconographic symbol of me and what I represent. When I showed that group of clothes in Feb 2016 I did not know if I wanted to introduce ready-to-wear or couture and I let it unfold itself. I have always made haute couture in a ready-to-wear category. So what I have been doing for past three years is made to order (suits, coats, cocktail dresses, etc.) The big request is for me to make a painting and to have it screened on double face wool and made into a coat and a dress. It’s a mix of my art and my couture. It’s all made in my old factory in the garment center and I use the workroom of Nicolas Caito, the French patternmaker who is credited with raising the level of technical craftsmanship in American fashion to a level only seen in Milan and Paris. I am putting together a spring couture collection which I will show in New York in November. I am still in the process of figuring out the venue but I am hoping for a commercial space in one of the new tall buildings in midtown.
MK: I am really looking forward to that!

RR: It will be quite beautiful, done in ivory, black and puce. I am obsessed with puce, the strange color that nobody knows what to do with.

RR: What I want is my work covered for a younger audience to see; young, youthful clothes made-to-order, the way Galanos and Norell were covered. The way Halston made-to-order was covered. I make clothes for women in their 20’s and women in their 80’s. Age is not an issue. Age has been one of the most crucial detracting points in American fashion industry.
Unless it’s covered, you don’t exist. And in this system it’s important to have coverage. And I don’t understand the INSANITY of a publication like American Vogue that I admire so much, not covering my work. I don’t understand. I don’t understand because it’s equivalent to academia. If a student is really important, they will be accepted by Princeton, Yale, Harvard so they can start their career and lives with these extraordinary institutions. The Ivy League in American fashion is American Vogue. And whether we like it or not, the approval of American Vogue is factually essential. And I’ve never tasted that and I’ve accomplished so much in my life and my career and all over the world people receive me except in my own country.

In my life I have always aspired to be the very best I can be. My career was built on technique; using the best of everything. I did not enter this profession because I wanted to be wealthy. I didn’t choose this profession. Because I’m a spiritual person, I believe I am chosen. God gave me a specific set of skills and I’ve applied them in this world and I work day and night. And when I have presented these collections, I would be shocked that people were speechless, crying, out of the beauty.

When I left Ralph Rucci I took a year off and then I started on my own. When I took that year off the amount of mail I received, showing how I am seen and respected in the world shocked me. And it shocks me that I have been ignored by American Vogue. It shocks me because my work is not third tier. And what shocks me is I cannot digest the reasons because the reasons are so cruel. And personal. And it’s probably always going to be like this because I suppose embarrassment would occur.

And why would I be telling you all this? If my lived experience can do anything to help young people, we might have a different American fashion industry. There are many young people with amazing creativity and they don’t all have to be lemmings. Also, I turned 60 this year and it was a big deal a year ago. Now I’m proud of it; proud that I am starting over a business and career at 60 when the norm is the 20’s. I’m seen as old. My goal is to have a couture business that resets and re-standardizes the American fashion industry.

MK: Speaking of which, NYFW begins next week. Do you think New York can get its mojo back?
RR: Yes, I do.

MK: What do you think needs to happen?
RR: We need a new editor of American Vogue. American fashion is not as exciting as it was in the 70’s because the editorial hierarchies of magazines don’t have the vision that they once had. And who am I to say such a thing? I am someone who has been obsessed and possessed by fashion. I grew up and I was lucky enough to witness the unsurpassed genius of Halston. A Halston presentation was like nothing else. The word modern did not have an existence before Halston existed in fashion, and it was the touchstone of modern. In the 70’s you had two things happening: Yves Saint Laurent in France and Halston in the U.S. and you could buy from each designer and know you were getting perfection. They both had a point of view and were genius.

So today I think for journalists and editors like yourself, it must be terribly mundane to look at a blouse and pair of pants in a collection with no intellectual purpose behind it. If you’re looking at Celine it’s different. I don’t understand how these companies are permitted to show such works.
When I am asked who my favorite designer in the world, is, I always have the same answer: Josephus Thimister. How do you explain that Josephus Thimister is not designing for the house of Dior? How do you explain the house of Balenciaga? And I don’t care if you put it in print. Because I worship Balenciaga.

MK: (laughing) So I assume you’re not a fan of Demna Gvasalia?
RR: I am a great fan of Balenciaga! And he’s a mentor to many of us and I don’t understand why those in the power of running businesses would find LOGIC in a perverse upside down effect of clothes as opposed to finding a designer who understands the newness of cut and the advancement of fashion through cut and the knowledge of texture and the knowledge of fabric. I don’t understand. I am just obsessed with verification and have always been.

MK: Who else?
RR: I love Miuccia Prada. Her approach is shocking and fresh every year and I do wear Prada. All my mohair suits are Prada. I buy all my clothes at Barneys because I have a sales associate I’ve worked with for two decades who I really trust.

MK: What do you think of Alessandro Michele?
RR: I think he’s interesting and he knows a great deal about a great amount and I’m moved by him I think it’s really beautiful for women. I just have a sense about men looking uber masculine so I don’t understand the feminine approach. It’s not my taste but I like what he does. The workmanship is beautiful. People say it’s expensive. I say, it’s not expensive as it should be. And I think the accessories are fun.

MK: He struck gold. People were and are ready for that. Interesting, I always think of you as a minimalist and he’s such a maximalist.
RR: You know what Marilyn? I am a minimalist, but look at my home (which is more is more rather than less is more). We want things that bring us comfort and have a story. When it comes to clothes I love uniforms for myself but when I design I have to be broader or else you are not interesting. But there is a formula and a style that I bring to everything. But the maximal idea? Let’s just say I was drawn to what Jil Sander was doing.

MK: Who do you like in New York?
RR: I respect the diligence and commitment of many American designers but will not comment personally on their work other than to say that they all have something meaningful and important to contribute to whatever it is that “American Fashion” is and is destined to become.

MK: As a longstanding member of the CFDA, do you have any suggestions for the organization?
RR: I wish they were as supportive as they want us to believe they are. The one time I requested a meeting with the president to ask if she could use her personal relationship with the editor-in-chief of Vogue with regards to scheduling, because the scheduling was changed that year, was just a smack of reality. It was much different than dealing with the Chambre de Syndicale. When you had a meeting with Didier (Grumbach) everything got done. It was a different type of polish. I don’t go to the CFDA Awards anymore but I did love them when they were held at the NY Public Library.

MK: I agree. It felt small, special, and intimate.
RR: Yes, it was a celebration of fashion and it felt like the Coty Awards. But the CFDA had to change because it also mirrors fashion journalism.

MK: Are you referring to American Vogue specifically?
RR: Yes, American Vogue. I say this and I get so upset talking about this because I did not chose this profession. It chose me. It was chosen for me. Fashion is such a genius profession. After all, this is the profession that houses Mme. Gres, Givenchy, Balenciaga. God gave me this ability and I kept my head down I worked day and night and I did not play politics at all, which admittedly had its pros and cons. Maybe things would have been different if I had. But I had to stay true to myself. That was not my personality and I have to live with myself. And I dream a lot.

MK: What do you dream about?
RR: I dream about Vreeland which is why my friendship with Andre (Leon Talley) is so meaningful because he is IT; the embodiment of that vision, of that connection. And he makes the connections of creativity.

MK: What inspires you these days?
RR: In developing my work I do a great deal of research. And what I study and what my books are mainly about are interiors and architecture. Specifically, the interiors of Lorenzo Mongiardino; he is a constant. Both he and Balenciaga are constant foundations for my work. The layers of decorating and the usages of trompe l’oeil and fabric techniques allow my mind to open in fashion design. And it’s been like that for many years but now even more so.

I seek solutions in interiors because when you think of couture, where do women wear the clothes if not boardrooms or board meetings? They wear them in each other’s home, so the homes reflect the couture and the couture reflects the homes. It’s more satisfying especially now, because fashion has become more banal. They can’t make the fabrics because there’s nobody there to purchase them so all that luxury winds up in the home and that’s why I am so drawn into the home.

Thank you Ralph. We look forward to seeing new collections in the future.

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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