Lunch with American Couturier Ralph Rucci

I was really looking forward to this week’s lunch with designer Ralph Rucci for a whole host of reasons. I’ve long been a fan of his exquisite couture designs that are unrivaled in their artistry, precision and beauty. And, it’s New York Fashion Week, which used to be one of the most exciting times in the city when the industry’s top talent gathered just blocks away from the Garment District under the tents at Bryant Park to show their spring collections.

That was another lifetime ago. In 2010, IMG moved the shows to Lincoln Center and for many of the fashion faithful it was the beginning of the end. Over the course of the next five years, Fashion Week became a soulless and overly corporate endeavor promoting commercialization over creativity. Some of the biggest names pulled out and bailed on New York opting to show in Europe. Today, Fashion Week is an anorexic shadow of its former self with a calendar bloated with fashion filler instead of fabulousness. I thought Ralph, who last showed in New York in 2014, would surely have plenty to say on the subject.

“I didn’t know who ninety percent of those people are,” Ralph told me when I mentioned the ad that ran in this past Sunday’s style section in Times promoting Fashion Week.

Everyone who is anyone in the industry knows Ralph. Considered by the fashion intelligentsia to be the sole American couturier designing today, he was the first American in more than 60 years to be invited to show in Paris by the French Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in 2002. He continued to show his collections there for the next five years. “I was so embraced by Paris. That was the greatest time in my life. In the reviews, they wanted to know ‘How does this American know how to do this?’ I miss it and I want to go back.”

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Ralph has always had a clear affinity for a European approach to design. “Distillation is the key to taste,” he told me just as his salad nicoise was served. “American fashion reflects politics. When you have this kind of White House, you can’t use the word ‘taste’ in any capacity.”

RR331  Fall 2019 Paris Couture Show Collection by Ralph Rucci
Photo: WWD

He has been nominated twice by the CFDA as womenswear designer of the year and been the subject of two books and two documentaries. (Much more on that later.) His exquisite haute couture gowns are part of the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art among many others. He was the first designer to be honored with FIT’s Couture Council Artistry in Fashion Award and was the subject with an exhibition “Ralph Rucci: The Art of Weightlessness” at the Museum at FIT. Fashion historian Valerie Steele penned a book of the same name.

To the uninitiated, every one of Ralph’s designs are created in the ‘haute couture’ tradition creating toile, then a paper pattern, fit on cloth and sewn entirely by hand. When I asked him to give me some idea what a coat (our mutual obsession) and day dress in a fine double face wool might cost me demurred saying, “It might scare people.”

Still, he told me, “I think it’s important for people to see haute couture to see what hands can do. There is a word for this is Paris – ‘métier’ – it’s not just the work, but the soul in the work.”

We’re talking about some serious artistry, here.

That’s why, in 2014, when Ralph announced he was walking away from Chado Ralph Rucci, the 33 year-old couture house he founded, the fashion industry was stunned. Ralph told me he “left unwillingly” and was no longer able to use his name on a collection.

But that hasn’t stopped him from designing for private clients. “My [company name] is ‘RR331,’ (His initials and the number of steps in the Japanese Chado tea ceremony.) My label is my signature – an abstraction. An iconic part of who I am.” But luckily, not part of what his former investors now own since he left the company. Ralph told me he’s grateful they’ve never raised any objection to his use of his signature as his label and added that he’d “like to open up a chain of communication” with them in hopes of getting his design archives back which he sees as a big part of his “self-worth” adding it’s been “terrible psychologically” to have been parted from his past work.

These days he sees many of his private clients at his home on the Upper East Side which he admits is difficult. “I find it depressing. You can never leave [the work]. My home has always been my sanctuary and right now it is filled with fabric.” He wishes he had a larger studio space where he could work and paint (His art has been exhibited in the city and at the Serge Sorokko Gallery in San Francisco). Ralph is also still mourning the loss of his English bulldog, Twombly (named after the artist), who died almost two years ago at 11. “He was the love of my life.”

Despite the current challenges he’s facing, Ralph has a vision for the future. “I want to introduce a line of better priced women’s clothes,” he said. In the past, he shipped a ready-to-wear collection whose craftsmanship was at “haute couture level” at prices that were “high, but not nearly as high as they should have been.”

To produce a new better priced collection, “I need a partner,” he said. “Not an investor, a partner.” For the moment, Ralph has several new collaborations that will sure to delight his legions of fans. He’s designed pieces exclusively for Iris Apfel’s boutique at Bergdorf Goodman opening next month and the store’s fashion director, Linda Fargo, has asked Ralph to do an all-black collection for another boutique opening in the fall. He has been invited to show at Palm Springs Fashion Week and will be presenting 20 new looks on March 24th and seeing private clients by appointment. He has also written the foreword for Norell: Master of American Fashion (Rizzoli), the new book on Norman Norell, by designer and good friend Jeffrey Banks.

With the Oscars less than a month away, I had to ask Ralph, who designed many pieces for Elizabeth Taylor, which actresses he’d love to dress for the red carpet. He answered immediately. “Judith Light (who has worn his designs) and Tilda Swinton. They’re both extraordinary,” he said. Then smiled, “But I’m open. For partners.”

Ralph is no stranger to Hollywood. He was the star of the documentary “Ralph Rucci: A Designer and His House” narrated by Martha Stewart which aired on Sundance Channel. Ralph also told me he was the subject of a “terrible” film by British director Christian Leigh. “I left the screening. I didn’t want people telling me it was fabulous when I knew it wasn’t.”

I asked him if he considered the possibility of doing his own film ala Tom Ford? “I think I’d make a good director. I’m a very good psychiatrist,” he said.

And what about writing his own story? He’s certainly got plenty of material. Judging by his reaction, Ralph has clearly thought about this a great deal. “Great question!” He explained he had to sort out two things in his mind before he could undertake such a task. “I have to have a great achievement to talk about from what’s next and I have to find a way to talk about my past – somewhat politely.”

After being famously outspoken on what – and who — ails the fashion industry (Google it), Ralph has become much more circumspect, but still says he feels a “responsibility” to reveal the “horrifying” politics that control the fashion industry in whatever he may write at some point down the road. “The fashion magazines don’t sell fashion, they sell ads,” he said. The rest, I’m afraid, is off the record.

As we finished up our salads, I sensed that revisiting all the highs and lows of his career had left Ralph feeling nostalgic. “I’ve never compromised,” he said as we hugged goodbye. “Life could have been much easier.” Perhaps, but a lot less interesting, too.

Seen & Heard Around the Room

Star Jones celebrating the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women’s initiative with a table full of pals on Table One. Star also made a welcome return to The View yesterday and weighed in on this week’s Hot Topics (We can’t imagine what she was talking about) … Former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine on Two … Andrew Stein on Three .. Attorney Bob Barnett in from Washington, DC for lunch with his client Cynthia McFadden on Four and for the second seating agent Boaty Boatwright and Academy Award-winning director (The King’s Speech) Tom Hooper took over the table … Ted Hartley on Five … Sharon Hoge and Patrick Murphy on Six …Mellody Hobson (that’s Mrs. George Lucas to you) on Eight. Earlier this week on CBS This Morning, Mellody, a financial contributor for CBS News, tried to reassure jittery viewers about the stunning stock market plunge by explaining, “This is to be expected.” I feel so much better, don’t you?

And there’s more … NBC’s David Corvo on Eleven … Christine Taylor on Fourteen …British Heritage Travel’s CEO Jack Kliger with Nico Bossi, founder of The Exchange, on Fifteen .. LAK PR’s CEO Lisa Linden and New Criterion’s James Panero on Eighteen… PR maven Judy Twersky with a group of fashionable gals on Twenty-two. In attendance: Anne Gravel, manager for Tory Burch’s Tory Sport boutique in East Hampton, Sheila Fruehauf, who is in town for the AMFAR gala, BB Jewett McCloud (who was Candice Bergen’s ‘right hand’ for many years and fashion industry vet Kristin Stewart. … CBS Televsion’s David Stapf on Twenty-five … And Perri Peltz (looking fabulous in jeans!) who decided to move her large party which was originally to be seated in the center of the front room to an quieter corner of the Garden Room.

Sometimes there is just too much news for one columnTwo weeks ago, I ‘Lunched’ with Sandra Luckow and Stu Zakim to talk about Sandra’s new film “That Way Madness Lies” and we covered so much ground, I could have written two columns on our conversation. So here’s a little extra helping of dish from our chat: Besides being associate producer on Sandra’s film, Stu was part of the PR team that successfully scored Golden Globes and PGA awards for the hit Amazon show, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”  Stu told me his firm, Bridge Strategic Communications, “has taken a leading role in PR for the recreational cannabis industry” and helped organize the recent NJ Cannabis Symposium at Newark’s NJPAC. So now you know.

Diane Clehane

Diane Clehane is a leading authority on celebrity and royalty who has written for Vanity Fair, People, and many other national outlets. She is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, including Diana: The Secrets of Her Style and Imagining Diana. She appears regularly on CNN.

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