Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis: A Conversation with Ralph Rucci

Fern Mallis has  Conversation with Ralph Rucci

Last night kicked off the 9th year of Fern Mallis’s Fashion Icons at the 92nd Street Y. The special guest was American couturier Ralph Rucci, who just launched his new couture line RR331. In the audience were fashion industry veterans like Jeffrey Banks, Stan Herman, Marylou Luther, Joan Kaner, Robert di Mauro.

In her introduction, Fern hailed Ralph, who is celebrating his 39th year in the fashion business, as a genius who can’t be compared to anyone else. Before beginning the 90-minute conversation, there was a film clip showing the designer working in his atelier. Fern remarked that Ralph told her she could ask him anything, and nothing was off-limits.

Stan Herman, Marylou Luther & Jeffrey Banks
Photos by Marilyn Kirschner

Fern proceeded to discuss Ralph’s childhood in Philadelphia. Ralph admitted that he was “born with a platinum spoon placed in his mouth” (his sister Rosina is 18 months older). We learned that Ralph was always chic and had a finely honed sense of aesthetics early on (no surprise there). Ralph’s boyhood room was decorated in black and white buffalo plaid, and he had a red telephone.

Paul Hand & Teri Agins

Ralph came out as gay as a young boy, and in Catholic school, he was “hit on by priests” but was never molested. When Fern asked how the family felt about his sexuality, Ralph said that it was never discussed, and never brought up. His parents were focused on the obvious God-given talents which would propel him to greatness. The most important thing Ralph learned from his father is that “Humility is the greatest accomplishment you can achieve in this life.”

Much of the discussion was centered on Ralph’s design heroes: Balenciaga, Charles James, Mme. Gres and of course, Halston whose bias-cut inspired him so much, Ralph’s first show at the Westbury Hotel in 1981 was called “An Homage to the Bias.”

Ralph admitted that he had an “obsession” with Halston who made the most “extraordinary” clothes. Ralph still marvels at the way Halston was able to throw a piece of chiffon on the floor, drape it on a model, and it became a dress! When Fern asked Ralph if he saw the Halston documentary, he said he did and hated it. “They should have focused on his genius rather than the drugs and sex. Everybody does drugs and sex!”

Ralph admitted that it was Eve Orton who discovered him. He recalled that the legendary Harper’s Bazaar editor (she was the chicest woman in the world and I remember her well) spotted him dancing at Studio 54. Ralph’s sister Rosina is another significant woman in his life. Fern noted that you must go through Rosina to get to Ralph.

Fashion veteran Marylou Luther is another key person Ralph has relied on for advice, and so is Cathy Horyn. Cathy was at The New York Times when they first met. Another vital person was Joan Kaner. Ralph met Joan Kaner in 1987 when she was at Bergdorf Goodman. Ralph referred to Joan as his “Saint.” His close relationship with Neiman Marcus (where Joan was later fashion director) provided him the opportunity to show in Paris.

In 2002 Ralph became the 1st American to be invited to show at Paris couture. Ralph recalled that there was only one house that vetoed him: Balmain, which at the time, was designed by fellow American Oscar de la Renta.

The discussion began to focus on Ralph’s relationship with the press, which has had its ups and downs, to put it mildly. Never one to mince words, Ralph admitted that he once “pissed off” WWD by saying that New York was “too provincial.” And it bothered Ralph that the reviews were always written before the shows. In one of Bridget Foley’s reviews of a Ralph Rucci show, she observed that his clothes are not for everyone.” As Ralph said, they are not MEANT for everyone.” This got a round of applause.

Then came the elephant in the room. Fern said, “No, Vogue, no, Anna.” As everyone knows, Ralph has never been featured in American Vogue. But he almost was. In 2002, when Ralph showed his couture in Paris, Vogue’s Grace Coddington selected two of Ralph’s dramatic Infantas to be photographed by Penn. The article was to be written by Hamish Bowles.

When the issue came out, there were no pictures of the clothes and no mention of Ralph Rucci. He called Hamish, who said he really could not comment. He couldn’t even show Ralph the pictures that were taken because, in a court of law, that could prove the images existed. It was the Vogue editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, who pulled the images.

“I have never been included in Vogue in my entire career. Our American fashion industry has been raped in these last few years. That is not how our profession should be run” Ralph effused. When Fern asked Ralph how he feels about that now, he responded, “If you persevere and do things your own way, they can’t affect you. God is in charge!”

Ralph was pleased to tell the audience that Nicole Kidman will appear on a future cover of Australian Vogue wearing one of his black velvet dresses from his couture line. This was met with applause.

There were some humorous light-hearted moments. Ralph spoke about meeting Kanye West, who he called “adorable.” Many years ago, when Ralph’s atelier was in Soho, Kanye called him and asked, “Can I just watch you work because your clothes are so dope?” Ralph admitted that he did not know who Kanye was, and he did not understand what ‘dope’ was.

At the time, Kanye was working on a collection in London, and he wanted Ralph to design for him. Ralph described the collection as “making Rick Owens fittable.” As Ralph put it, “I can’t fit into Rick’s clothes.” This got a knowing laugh from the audience.

When Fern asked Ralph if he will ever get his archives back from Howard and Nancy Marks, he responded by saying, “I hope so. It’s a spiteful gesture to not return my archives.”

Ralphs new couture collection which was shown in Paris this past July is called RR331, which Fern hailed as “complicated simplicity.” When Fern asked Ralph if he would ever go back to doing ready-to-wear, he said, “No, I don’t want markdown money,” He is also not up for doing 10 collections a year; two is more civilized, he said. However, Ralph would be open to collaborating on a lower price line for QVC with Martha Stewart.

Among the many things that bother Ralph is the ageism in fashion. “The only way to become young is to age,” he opined. Ralph also takes exception that the front rows are filled with those who are paid. Fern called them “influencers” but Ralph questioned who they were influencing? Ralph also railed against A-listers who borrow clothes for the red carpet when they are making salaries in the multi-millions.

One of the questions from the audience was a request for Ralph to tell the story about his meeting with Geoffrey Beene. It was a doozie. Ralph admired the legendary American designer and wanted to work for him. When he met him in his atelier, Geoffrey stared at him for a while and asked if he was Puerto Rican. Ralph was in complete disbelief but answered that he was Italian. He has never gotten over this. Later, when there was a sketch of one of Ralph’s designs on the cover of WWD, Geoffrey sent a blatantly negative note to him.

At the end, Fern asked Ralph what he would like his legacy to be. He answered, “To improve my métier and make it eternal. It’s an evolution. Seeing an eternal quality.”

“The world is my oyster. Paris is open for new blood. I’m hoping we can get a fragrance. I’d love to retire in 15 years and paint!”

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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.

1 Comment
  1. Brilliant! Ralph Rucci’s Collections are Iconic, and Timeless pieces that will hang along side the finest designers in Couture Fashion History…

    To show how truly remarkable Ralph Rucci is take note of his comment “Humility is the greatest achievement you can achieve in this life.” To me, that’s worthy of a needlepoint pillow!

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