Couture Week for Fall/Winter 2021/2022 begins in Paris on Monday. Ralph Rucci’s RR331 is one of a select group invited to show by the couture committee. The last time Ralph participated was in July 2019. The ‘show’ will take the form of a 6 1/2 minute film by Matthew Placek. It will be accompanied by a digital presentation of Ralph’s sketches enhanced by the incomparable illustrations of Bil Donovan, a long-time collaborator and dear friend of Ralph’s. I spoke with Ralph before leaving for Paris and Bil by phone on Friday.
Ralph explained that he was inspired by the house of Schiaparelli. Two seasons ago, creative director Daniel Roseberry sketched a “collection imaginaire” for a promotional video in Washington Square Park. The sketches were so well received they were presented instead of a show and offered to clients on a made-to-order basis. Ralph thought it was beautiful and highly effective. “It did not miss a beat in terms of press or sales. I loved it so much I wanted to do something similar,” recalls Ralph.
The resulting lookbook is comprised of Ralph’s technical sketches along with Bil’s captivating illustrations. Bil says Ralph would give him his flat sketches, and he would explain each garment in detail. Bil would then do a rough sketch in pencil, being careful to get the proportions correct and grab Ralph’s aesthetic. Once Ralph approved it, Bil did a finished illustration in watercolor and ink on Fabriano Artistico, his paper of choice.
“It harks back to an era when Joe Eula would sit with Halston, Rene Gruau would sit with Christian Dior, and Antonio Lopez with Charles James. Coming up with the formula to communicate that vision in watercolor or ink is a dialogue between the artist and the designer” – Bil Donovan.
Coincidentally, I interviewed Bil Donovan almost one year ago for my article, “Fashion’s Line Drive: The Rebirth of Fashion Illustration,” on August 9, 2020. Bill has collaborated with Thom Browne and Carolina Herrera among others and is also Artist-in-Residence for Dior Beauty. Bil believes digital illustration is very important in today’s marketplace. Sometimes it’s in the forefront and sometimes it’s in the background but it’s always present. He called this experience extraordinary. “We were both creating on the same canvas,” he says. “Ralph is a painter and a creator, and he gave me so much freedom.”
The collaboration certainly left Ralph buoyant and upbeat. The film was shot in Ralph’s apartment last week. He says that Matthew, Bil, and he, were “on a plane of communication that was so silent and so good.” “The purpose of the film is to show process and development and make the suggestion of possibility,” says Ralph.
Next week, Ralph will receive clients and press in his hotel suite in the Ritz Hotel. There will only be 7 actual samples from the 32 piece collection, which is half-day and half evening. Guests will have a chance to sit down with a designer and see his lookbook. There are many benefits to substituting sketches and illustrations for actual samples. Bil firmly believes that fashion illustration has the power to communicate fashion in a way that photography can’t. The fact that it’s more abstract than photography is a plus for a designer like Ralph Bil says. Also, it makes sense not to waste fabric in this day and age if it’s not necessary.
Ralph did not have to worry about money or deliveries; therefore, it encouraged his creativity. “For the first time in my life, there were no perimeters or boundaries. After 41 years in business this October, it’s all on my own terms”: Ralph Rucci.
By presenting the working sketch and the illustration, Ralph has more opportunities to sit down with the client and create a partnership. This allows the clients to create something unique unto themselves, Ralph observes.
I asked Ralph if he has a title for the collection. He tells me he never thought about it but then says, “A singular experience of deep unconsciousness.” When I noted that it sounded heavy, Ralph replied, “It is. I had to go inside myself and find it. It’s my deep emotional attachment to this métier. There is no separation between work and my life. When I am detached from it, there’s great sadness. My work puts me in the center of my existence”.
Among the fabrics Ralph uses are double-face wool, silk Gros de Longres, silk chiffon, silk gazaar, and moire. There are sumptuous furs (chinchilla and Russian Barguzin Sable). There is a lot of white because it’s uplifting. There is also ivory, black, petrol gray, orange, coral, navy, and two prints. One is taken from a watercolor print by Bil Donovan; the other is a painting Ralph made of Joseph Beuys running inside view wearing his infamous huge black compact wool coat with mammoth wolf collar. The painting is screened onto silk gazaar, then made into a bias cut caftan with one spiraling seam. The script written is embroidered in copper micro-cut bugle beads. The Maasai separate necklace is embroidered in micro-cut copper bugle beads..
Ralph describes one look in feathers that he especially loves and a short evening dress in ivory double-face wool with transparent white organza circular discs tracing the seams and coming out of the slit on the skirt. There is a twinset in white freshwater pearls over pants made of white silk and wool tree bark satin. “There’s also lots of French knot embroidery, there’s vibration, there’s dimension,” says Ralph.
“Ralph is an extraordinary master of design,” says Bil. “The collection is an extension of what Ralph always does. There’s a subtlety to his designs, but at the same time, it’s graphic and powerful. He is an artist sculpting fabric. Ralph is very conscious about sensuality and the form of a woman and how important that is. Ralph speaks in the vocabulary of couture, and I just follow suit. It was fascinating”.
And, it was also educational. Bil says he learned about a French knot and how Ralph could take one seam to create the garment, it spirals around the woman, and what it does to the body. “Ralph speaks in such a reverent tone about his work that it’s almost spiritual,” says Bil who is also ecstatic because Ralph is employing the art of fashion illustration. “The more it’s appreciated, the happier I am! “