Ralph’s “ALT”er Ego

Maybe FGI (www.fgi.org) should stand for “Fashion Group Intelligence”, rather than Fashion Group International. Is it my imagination, or do the powers that be at FGI have some sort of prescient, divining powers? In this past month alone, they have shone the spotlight on designers who were not only deserving of the honors, but who, as it turns out, had found themselves in the center of things, extremely of the moment, and newsworthy.

Case in point, at their annual Night of Stars held on October 31, one of the star fashion honorees was Peter Copping. While he had originally been selected, (months prior), for this work at the helm of Nina Ricci in Paris, just 4 days before the evening, Oscar de la Renta passed away, and Peter would be formally named the company’s creative director by Eliza Reed Bolen (Oscar himself had actually made this selection). The event turned out to be a fitting tribute to the beloved Oscar, and a formal welcome to New York/coming out party for Copping; a designer who had been under the radar on this side of the Atlantic (in fact, many in attendance admitted they did not even know what he looked like).

The most recent example was yesterday’s Tastemaker Series (the bi annual event centers around breakfast or lunch at an iconic restaurant and features an intimate conversation between a revered fashion designer and a famed editor). On the menu at yesterday’s lunch at Le Cirque (along with risotto with pomegranates and sea bass) was a talk between two fashion icons and good friends: Andre Leon Tally and Ralph Rucci. What kept it from being predictably interesting, informative and entertaining, and made it quite topical, is that just about one week ago, Ralph had announced that after 30 years as designer at the helm of his eponymous label, he would be leaving the company. It was obvious this would be a topic of conversation and jumping off point for the discourse. Indeed, when I spotted Ralph chatting with Linda Fargo and Constance White, I couldn’t resist asking him how long before the formal announcement was made, had he actually contemplated this move. He diplomatically answered that he really could not address that. But he was quick to say that there is something “very exciting” in his future, and while he wouldn’t divulge exactly what it was right now, he promised he would in the near future.

FGI President Margaret Hayes noted that this was only the 2nd Le Cirque lunch and as a stickler for keeping to schedules, she joked that everyone should eat and drink quickly (“you have 25 minutes” she said), after which she promised a conversation between two “charismatic icons” (“on different but converging paths”). Not that they needed introductions, but Ms. Hayes introduced Ralph Rucci as both an accomplished artist and world renowned designer and couturier, and Andre Leon Talley, who she described as an expert on all things fashion. As she put it, “Andre is often quoted as saying that he is usually always right”. This got a laugh: the first of many during the course of this lively, impromptu love fest which was unlike the others. Instead of being a true one on one interview conducted by an editor with a designer, each equally got to ask questions of the other, and they both shared intimate, revealing, often wonderfully funny recollections from the past (after Ralph posed some questions to Andre, the latter quipped: “I thought this was about you!”).

At one point Andre admitted, “Do you know what it’s like to have to get up and be me? The ALT that you see is many rivers that run deep. It’s a constant struggle to get up and tackle the constant struggles. You cannot judge a book by its cover. It’s not just about what you wear and what you look like on the outside. It’s a constant struggle. It’s easy to be bitter (especially in fashion where the corporate heads don’t get the creative side of fashion). My house now looks like a bookstore. To maintain my life in fashion is very difficult at this point, but I get through it.”

Ralph offered, “Everything has to have a certain level of expertise or I don’t do it. I’m proud to say that in my 30 years, I have never compromised. You have to go to bed with yourself, nobody else!” This got a round of applause from the guests. He continued: “I consider the first part of my life to be part 1. I hope that part 2 will be more refined, more clear, and more enjoyable. I am clothing the content of a woman which is why it is spiritual.” As for unforgettable moments, he recalled Elsa Peretti (in the 1970’s) wearing a cashmere bodysuit and carrying a brown paper bag as an evening bag. “I live for those moments. Without humility, there is no style. None!!” (He emphasized the word “none”).

The key moments from Andre’s professional life: learning how to analyze clothes without taking notes (he learned this from WWD’s John Fairchild in 1975), and learning (from Vogue’s Diana Vreeland) about the luxury of clothes, and the narrative behind what the designer is making. Karl Lagerfeld was the first great designer he met and he recalled that meeting in May 1975 (it was at the Plaza Hotel, with Andy Warhol). “I was always prepared. For one week prior, I read everything I could about him and learned everything about him. We became great friends.”“I learned a lot about the history of the culture of fashion from Karl”. Andre received a degree in French Literature from Brown University and observed that it has been very useful. He also talked about Vogue Magazine, a great learning place where all the top editors had a strong “point of view”.

Ralph asked Andre to describe his key fashion moments.  “The best collection I saw was designed by Karl Lagerfeld for the house of Chloe in Paris” (he couldn’t recall the year). He described how the show venue was made to resemble a prison cell with the models wearing fabulous hats and outrageous rooster pins on their v neck sweaters. In January 1978, there was Saint Laurent’s “Broadway Collection”, which he hailed as “landmark”. There have been many memorable Chanel shows, and then there was Marc Jacobs’ “train collection” for Louis Vuitton in Paris. “I cried, as did Grace Coddington, when the girls got off the train that actually moved.”

He was quick to point out: “It’s important to have a life at home that is the opposite of fashion. You must!” (he emphasized ‘must’). “At home you must cultivate your own garden. It has to be the opposite of fashion. You don’t want to become a fashion victim. This is very important.” He talked about how he had been very inspired by the fabulous, strong women in his family (he grew up in the south), and by nature. “Nature gives me great inspiration. Trees, the sky, books. You can’t get enough books.”

As for the ladies they both adore: Sao Schlumberger was number one on both their lists. Andre recalled that when he was the Paris editor of WWD, Sao was the first one to invite him to lunch (“nobody else did, and I don’t know why”). “She had great unorthodox taste. She was a very smart woman. It was amazing to see how she selected her clothes. I learned a lot from the way the ladies (which included Nan Kempner) bought their clothes.”

Ralph reflected on the 5 couture collections he showed in Paris and noted that his goal has always been “to make a garment that has no weight at all. And no superficial adornments.” His three favorite customers: Jacqueline de Ribes, Deeda Blair, and rock legend Patti Smith, who he proudly boasted has been invited by the Pope to sing at the Vatican (she will be performing at the Holy See’s Christmas concert this year, which means that he will be making something for her to wear).

Speaking of women, Andre mentioned that he brought his good friend Whoopi Goldberg, to Ralph’s spring 2015 show in September. “She bought 11 pieces and paid for all of them” he announced. “I love to watch people at a Ralph Rucci show. The way they respond to the beauty of his clothes” (and the enduring joy and beauty and will bring). He then mentioned that Lee Radziwell also loves Ralph’s clothes. At this point, Ralph said he had to share a remembrance from his fall 1999 collection when it was presented at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills. He was invited to Elizabeth Taylor’s home and he described how he smoked pot with the “teeny tiny star who wore no makeup”, and who then “absconded with a violet sable”.

Margaret then asked if anyone in the audience had any questions. Someone asked Ralph: “What do you think are the biggest hurdles with regards to fashion relationships?” His response: “Treat people with kindness. That’s what gets success.”

Another asked, “Why did you leave, Ralph?” “I needed to take a step in the future to revisit the past, so I can do the future.” This was met with a round of applause. It ended with loving words by a guest to Ralph about his enormous contribution to fashion.

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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