Ralph Rucci — By Alexander Aubry

As a fashion writer and editor I often wonder how detached the fashion world has become in terms of connecting to people. Not just with consumers, but with designers, assistants, editors, publicists and a multitude of individuals who make up this complex (though often misunderstood) business. A designer after all is a human being (no matter how famous). Yet it is easy to become detached in an era when editors have become brands, anonymous bloggers are increasingly shaping public opinion and designers are broadcasting their shows in real time across the web.

Weeks before the Fall 2010 collections in New York, I received an intriguing invitation from Ralph Rucci. That season, the designer had decided to shift his show away from the tents in Bryant Park to his Soho studio. At a time when fashion shows resemble Broadway productions or are going digital altogether, Rucci’s intimate version of a 21st century salon presentation could be considered subversive.

Models walked inches away from a tightly packed audience of faithful customers (Deeda Blair,  Joy Bianchi), industry heavy weights (Cathy Horyn of the NY Times, Vogue’s Hamish Bowles), and the unexpected celebrities (Patti Smith), all sandwiched between the designer’s friends and family. So close were the girls that guests could hear the swish of a skirt or the rustle of feathers on a jacket as they walked by (slowly).

The big rub of course was that I couldn’t make it to his show due to scheduling conflicts in Chicago. But when I emailed Rucci to let him know I wouldn’t be able to attend, the unexpected happened… he asked me to stop by his studio two days later to walk me through the entire collection from start to exit.

That a designer of his caliber would take the time out of his busy day (and a weekend no less) to open his door to someone who is relatively new to this business was mind boggling to me. But this is a man who actually loves his craft so much that it seeps through his every pore. Unlike some designers who fumble through interviews or speak obscurely about inspirations, I’ve never encountered anyone as articulate as he. He is able to bring the craft of dressmaking to life, and is so open about sharing that enthusiasm with those who appreciate what he does.

When I arrived at his studio the floor was still covered in the same watery vinyl used for his show. The entire collection hung along racks in the order in which they had appeared on the runway. He held each one from its hanger and explained the materials and construction; turning them inside out. There were wool jersey dresses that had been tucked, pleated, rusched and then applied with frayed pieces of taffeta to evoke smashed computer chips; reflecting craft and technology merging together, but in a very subtle way. There was a jacket composed of three layers of tulle that had pieces of cashmere nestled in-between.

One mind boggling stunner was a fur coat made from pieces of black-dyed sable that had been cut on the bias and then meticulously stitched between 3” woven strips of horse hair. (When was the last time you heard of a designer employing horse hair?) It was the lightest fur coat I had ever held in my hands; the strips of fur appeared to float on the body when worn.

The technique that generated that particular coat or any of the aforementioned pieces, took years of trail and error in order to achieve those affects. We’re always talking about modern dressing, and I think that notion sometimes gets confused with trends or the kind of over-styling that one sees at shows. But modernity today is also about a sense of ease and versatility in dressing. Similar to a designer like Alaia who is constantly refining ideas and techniques, what’s refreshing about Rucci’s clothes is that you want to luxuriate in them, not necessarily make a fashion statement one season and then throw them away. These are clothes to live in (and be pleasantly surprised).

That is one of the things I appreciate about Ralph, this couture savoir-faire that comes naturally to him. He knows of all the great Paris couture workshops and legendary Swiss fabric manufacturers such as Abraham (many of whom are no longer in existence). Towards the end of the rack he lifted a dress made out of what appeared to be knotted and rusched chiffon that created a tiered ruffle effect. Rucci explained it was actually done by a Paris embroiderer.

As he continued to pull pieces off the rack, it occurred to me that there wasn’t a single fabric, detail or feather that hadn’t been touched by human hands. I asked him how he could possibly call this ready-to-wear when it was at a couture level. He just smiled and confidently said “this is ready-to-wear, this isn’t couture it is a New Beginning."

When I visited Ralph’s atelier I got a strong sense of what the garment district must have been like at one point in time. His entire collection is literally produced in house, down to the last feather applied to a diaphanous evening gown. In this case it’s the garment district under one roof, yet it’s also a family composed of people who have been with him since the beginning. These include some very talented Russian seamstresses who head his different ateliers (for both tailoring and dressmaking, though I believe he has two that specialize in flou).

When I used to research couture houses, it wasn’t just the clothes that fascinated me, but the culture that surrounded such places and the people they attracted. It was an important element of the creative process and one could argue an essential part of a house’s heritage and DNA. You look at the house St. Laurent built with its mix of artists and muses from Paloma Picasso, to Lou Lou de la Falaise, Betty Catroux and even Zizi Jamaire and you’re instantly transported to another era. Ralph is no different in the sense that he’s incredibly cultivated when it comes to art and culture (both high and low) and you notice that in the people he surrounds himself with.

One of my favorite moments at his studio was when he pulled a streamlined caftan off the rack that he had designed specifically for his long time friend Elsa Peretti and decided to include in his fall line up. I love the fact there is a sort of history and emotional connection to his clothes (something that’s lacking in many ways today). Peretti and Ralph do share a lot in common in terms of design sensibilities, one that strives to be timeless and modern. (In his office one will find the famous portrait of Peretti in Play Boy bunny ears taken by Helmut Newton).

All of this is important to consider because fashion seems to be going through a period of much soul searching; one that not only includes notions of craft but also how to make an emotional (and human) connection through design. As I got onto the freight elevator after my visit, he gave me the kindest words of encouragement; something I will never forget.

A day later I went to the Cooper Hewitt Museum to see an exhibit titled “Design USA: Contemporary Innovation,”  which features outstanding examples of contemporary American architecture, landscape design, interior design, product design, communication design and fashion. Amongst this roster of talented individuals Rucci was one of a handful of fashion designers to have made the cut.

It hit me at that moment, as we sit here trying to define what luxury and modern fashion should be, maybe at the end of the day it’s not so much about labels, as it is about the actual act of creating and fabricating it. It’s the process of creation that may be the true measure of what modern fashion means today.

(aa)

Proposed by Dandyakuza on Friday 07 May 2010 at 01:44 AM

&mdash Comments &mdash

Nice piece and great writing style. AA makes it very easy to fill in the visual setting, the way a Tom Robbins novel reads.

By Chris Van Meter · 13.06.2011 · 04:51 AM

&mdash Post a comment &mdash