Sterling Ruby was invited to be a guest designer by the Federation Haute Couture et de la Mode, making the renowned and prolific American contemporary artist the first American Haute Couture designer since Ralph Rucci to have that honor in 2009. Ruby’s 21 piece collection is titled “APPARITIONS” which explains why the models were made to look like chic ghosts.
“I kept thinking about couture as the idea of touch and soul, and what it would mean to a 25-year-old.”- Sterling Ruby
It’s an ode to Americana complete with references to the Pilgrims, the Amish, and the Mennonites; the latter two sects lived near Ruby in the small town in Pennsylvania where he grew up. It was intended to be a show held outdoors. But, since covid cases were rising, they switched to a video shot by Sterling in a Los Angeles paintball course interspersed with images of a rustic cemetery.
The inventive, unique, and at times surprising collection is filled with artisanal touches and craft details and references Sterling’s installations which include collage, sculpture, video, and textiles.
It represents a new kind of haute couture and alternative glamour that seems right for our times. There are no overblown ball gowns, no futuristic or retro touches, no unnecessary embellishments or flourishes, no medieval capes, and no stale mother of the bride dresses, all of which are typical Haute Couture fare.
The primarily simplified, minimal shapes have maximal impact thanks to the use of Ruby’s signature paint-splattered artwork and the abstract photographs of his photographer wife Melanie Schiff. As a fashion designer, Sterling makes the most of his varied influences as an artist: craft, punk, hip-hop, urban gangs, and graffiti.
All the limited edition high–end pieces are hand made by Sterling. He learned how to use a sewing machine at the age of 13 and has been making clothes for more than 33 years. It was an eclectic collection. Among the offerings were winged-arm dresses in ruched and enzyme dyed shirred chiffon, oversized suits in blown up woolen plaids, cloaked dresses in opaque fabrics, and tactile cozy cocoon coats using yarn spun from Isabella Rosellini’s sheep farm in Long Island.
There is a decidedly offbeat yet polished, dressed up vibe. I love the high heeled pilgrim pumps embellished with punkish silver safety pins and the unusual, oversized, sculptural “instrument” and “tool” bags.
By the way, this was not Sterling’s initial foray into the world of Haute Couture. For Raf’s first Dior couture show in 2012, Simons developed fabrics based on Ruby’s paintings. Sterling is perhaps best known in the fashion world, as Raf Simons’ longtime collaborator. The duo worked together on clothing and spaces for almost a decade.
He was responsible for taking Calvin Klein from minimal to maximal beginning with Raf’s inaugural collection for fall 2017. Sterling’s artwork and sculptures transformed not only the Klein runway shows, but the Calvin Klein showroom, and the Calvin Klein stores worldwide.
Ruby’s magnificent debut collection was held in Florence, Italy, in June 2019. Immediately following the show, Suzy Menkes remarked, “That was the best new-person collection I have ever seen.” He was instantly crowned “America’s most interesting new fashion designer.” Not bad!
Presented in conjunction with the menswear shows for spring 2020 at the Pitti Uomo trade fair, the presentation was entirely unisex; the street wear was interchangeable between the sexes and both male and female models were used. While Ruby’s Haute Couture debut did not make a statement about streetwear or gender (it was only womenswear), it did make a social statement about our history as a nation of the melding of cultures, backgrounds, and influences.
The positive reaction to Sterling’s debut proved there was a hunger and thirst for clothes that are joyfully exuberant yet brooding, streetwise and wearable yet artistic and highly idiosyncratic. There still is. It also pointed to a wide–ranging appreciation for the craft that is authentic; not appropriated.
As Sterling remarked at the time, “It’s kind of fun to think of something being worn out in the world, and having movement, and that other people can see,” And he admitted enjoying the experience so much, he would love to do it again. And so he did.