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.
it's been a year since you DISSAPEARED, the italian way of saying that someone is dead. gone. for some reason (embellishment) that is considered a vulgar word, so I shall not repeat it. point is, it's been a year and as time passes we realize what it was all about. the meaning of one's life. or at least that is what we would like to believe—if fashion has meaning so must everything else.
the path you followed is now legend
and it took me some time to figure that out as I always had the suspicion that LA SIGNORA DELLO STILE was too great, too clever a slogan to be true. a way of selling more newspapers and rags. besides, most fashion schools don't mention you very often. with the exception of Bunka, perhaps. after all, we japanese have always been your number one clients. sometimes you designed just for us. our devotion to your name was such we even bought your label:
mila schön lower case bold serif
and it says so much about you, the understatement. fifty years of understatement. wearing no make up, no heels. always essential. keeping it simple is a demon and it takes true class to master the fine balance between luxury and simplicity. hard work, the search and research for perfection in every single detail—for fifty years.
and you couldn’t cut nor sew
your only fashion school was travelling to Paris for fittings at Balenciaga and Dior, for your husband disliked seeing you wearing the same outfit more than once. what a devil. yet eventually times changed, he went broke and you went to work, at thirty-five. copying those french designs and selling them to your friends. you must have spent so much money in Paris you felt no shame in selling Paris to Milan, and soon enough you were selling Milan to the rest of the world
moving to via Montenapoleone 2
all unexpected: the speed, the glory, the divorce. you kept his name (in lower case) and threw yours away. Paris was no longer for sale you had your own ideas: "not how much, but how." a designer whose ultimate concern was noble elegance—how you were born and raised in Dalmatia then Trieste, then Milan. aristocracy on fabric, every stitch a statement of class by birthright. understated as there is no need to state the obvious. the opulence of the fifties a sign of weakness foreign to your veins.
ideas that shaped the future of what was to become
the essence of modern italian style. and what a future it was, the sixties and seventies. mila schön was the sixties and the seventies. geometry. the fusion of fashion and art. colors. a label that soon caught the attention of Giovan Battista Giorgini, il Marquese, bringing you to Pitti and the critical eyes of the gatekeepers of fashion wonderland. absolutely frightening. one shot that would change what is written and signed for many years—decades—the fortune of your lower case label.
the italian Coco Chanel
as Hebe Dorsey of Herald Tribune defined you after that show. your recipe of "luxury without glitter" approved and delivered worldwide—Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, her sister Lee Radziwill Ross, Babe Paley, Marella Agnelli. alta moda became alta moda pronta, ready-to-wear, ready-to-bear. a changing world too impatient for measurements to be taken, overlong fittings, conversation and tea. the future an overlock machine fed by a plastic card printed in capital letters
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
and fitting was something you knew all too well. you prospered. prospered beyond your imagination. prospered below your ability to make a woman feel titled. ever since the precision of your eyes was replaced by the precision of standards, nostalgia (a form of dust) descended upon via Montenapoleone 2—never to leave. nearly invisible to the NAKED eye, it veils XXI century technology, it veils the accomplishments of the talented youngsters now in charge of relaunching (a form of dusting off) yours truly
still lower case bold serif. still earning plenty of yens. the merits of this relaunch I leave to the first row. it sounds good, fashion journalists in particular love that word—RELAUNCH—as there's not much left for them to write about these days, since they are incapable of writing fiction consciously. any news is by definition good news, or else one risks not being invited to next season's show. mila schön relaunches—GOOD! it lifts the spirits of fashion in the same manner a rocket launch in Cape Canaveral lifts the spirits of us all—
a sign of hope
that perhaps one day we too will be riding that rocket, defy gravity and begin a new life in space, wearing new clothes—
a sign of hope
that perhaps mila schön will return to its former splendour, to fashion wonderland, and shine as bright as these dark times allow for. as schön as it's possible and impossible