At one point in our interview with fashion designer Ralph Rucci, we exclaimed that his story “was like the fashion version of Rocky” – at which he ruefully shook his head and muttered something about both stories even happening in Philadelphia, where he did indeed grow up and where he began making clothes. At his first show, a sole journalist turned up and almost nobody else. He labored in obscurity for years.
Today he is the first American in 60 years to have been invited to show in Paris by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture and he did so for three seasons. In 2007 an exhibition of his clothes, entitled “The Art of Weightlessness”, was presented at the Fashion Institute of Technology and his gowns are in the permanent collections of major museums including The Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Costume Institute at the Met.
Extraordinarily precise expressions of metaphysical, and even of intricately strange, ideas, his clothes do not offer the theatrical thrill of a McQueen Jack-the Ripper coat nor do they emit the hot blast of sex that billows from a Versace dress. These are beautiful, serious clothes from a humane and serious mind.
Each collection seems to be advancing the depth of his ideas rather than the breadth of them. Our joke about him being the Rocky Balboa of the fashion world was one of the few lighter moments because throughout our discussion he conveyed a visceral sense of how intensely he thinks and how very, very, very hard it is to sustain a career as a couture designer and keep an atelier running.
Although he is “vigorously” looking for a backer, he has never had one and admits that the stress of being both the dreamer and the business-minded realist has been at times, almost unbearable—we came away inspired and also sobered by how much courage this degree of creative perfectionism takes.
Ralph Rucci’s new book, 'Autobiography of a Fashion Designer: Ralph Rucci' (Bauer and Dean Publishers, $195) is released this week.
Hundreds of guests sauntered into Paul Rudolph's Modulightor Building on Wednesday night to celebrate the release of Bauer and Dean's Autobiography of a Fashion Designer: Ralph Rucci, a brand new pictorial biography that takes readers on a photographic journey of Rucci's life and his 30-year career as a couturier and founder of leading fashion label Chado Ralph Rucci. Susan Gutfreund and Audrey Gruss (above, left) and Steven Kolb (above, right) of CFDA were among the guests.
Ralph with Deeda Blair.
Ralph with Jack Mackenroth and Sandra Bernhard.
Ralph with Baldomero Fernandez, Martha Stewart, and her assistant Kevin Sharkey.
Ralph i with Carmen Dell'Orefice.
I started to read about you and then I started to really look at your clothes and I have to say it is so rare that you see an idea executed to this degree of perfection that I actually became a little intimidated by your clothes.
You’re just explaining something I’ve never realized—perhaps the reason why so many editors don’t grasp it is because there might be a little intimidation. Yet the clients become addicted. It’s all about building the confidence in the woman to realize that she has to assume the persona that she already has inside. I have to address the content within. My aspirations have to do with finding that myself and for you. So eliminate this idea of being intimidated.
But other writers have used words like “pitiless” and “rigorous” to describe your clothes.
“Pitiless” … well you have to understand—I know who used that word, Cathy Horyn [fashion writer; The New York Times] and she is one of my biggest supporters. I love her to death. She uses words like an author because she is a brilliant author but people get the wrong idea. If I have to get up in the morning and devote myself to this profession, this métier, then I have to make [clothes] as close to completion [as I can]—because perfection is not possible. They’re not meant to create a boundary. They’re meant to open a mind.
Photos of friends, family and 'legends' fill the windowsill of Ralph's office.
Wall boards for the current Spring 2012 collection.
Details of Ralph's inspiration wall.
The office bookshelves are bursting with art and fashion books.
Fashion awards stand atop the office radiator and windowsill.
Shots from the current Spring 2012 collection.
Your clothes are very respectful of women.
I idolize women. I’ve spent thirty years creating clothes for them.
Can I ask you …
You can ask me anything! Anything!
Well, I know that you are a good painter but why did you choose to mainly express yourself through clothes?
I was chosen. I didn’t choose. I was studying philosophy and literature and I didn’t know what I wanted to get into. It had to be something in the arts. I was painting while I was in high school and while I was in college. I was researching a paper—I’ve told this story a billion times—for a philosophy class and I came across that image [points to aphotograph by David Bailey] of a Balenciaga bride and her attendant and I didn’t know what they were. I thought, well it’s fashion but it reminded me of Motherwell’s “Elegies to the Spanish Republic” … I researched everything about Cristobal Balenciaga and then I discovered Madame Grès and then I discovered Charles James …
Showroom samples and duplicates.
Details of underpinnings.
Hem of an embroidered horsehair skirt done in the Manhattan workroom.
Details of caviar beading.
Details of a dress with a hand-beaded fringe hem.
Why didn’t you become an academic, then, say a fashion historian?
Because the hand had it. My mom had a sewing machine and I draped fabric on my sister Rosina. I started making clothes in Philadelphia. And then I discovered that there was man who came from that school of fashion in New York and his name was Halston. I said, “this is the only person I want to work for”. I sat down to sketch and I was all thumbs. But I forced myself. Then the metaphysical connection started … the connection with a higher self. It gave me courage to go forward, to go to Halston and ask for a job, come to New York and start my career.
Well, let’s talk about courage. I read in your book about the fear you feel, especially at the beginning of creating a new collection …
Every day … every day.
Details of a frayed edge shawl from dress that is part of the Resort 2012 collection.
The crocodile bodice of a couture gown.
A cuff edged in ostrich feather. The feathers are cut, glued and sewn by hand in groups of three onto the horsehair foundation.
Detail from a crème-colored jacket with horsehair inset.
Looking up from below at dress and skirts hems.
Detail of a garment made from fabric that has been screened with one of Ralph's paintings. The screened fabric is sent to India to be embroidered then returned to the workroom to be transformed into a garment.
'In my next life I will own this coat' says Sian. It's made out of hand woven leather strips.
Fear seems to be an integral part of making something, creating something.
The only standard is yourself. Because of that, if one has any sort of humility—where you know that triumphal greats have walked before you—and you want to meet the expectations that you have for yourself—and at the same time you’d like to participate and contribute with your own vocabulary, then of course there is going to be fear and self doubt. Am I getting better at it? No. But I have an incredible team as you’ve probably read about. Cathy [Horyn] called it the “greatest workroom in the world.” If there is one of my garments on the runway, it has to elevate you. When we as a company as an entity, as a force, when we present a collection we have already, in the work, ascended to another level.
That sounds almost religious. Are you religious?
Very. How can I not be? How can I not be? Thirty years doing this without a partner! Yes, it’s difficult, almost impossible. Yes I go through deep, dark depressions but how can I not be religious when every day a higher metaphysical force manifests itself in communication with me? Every day.
The sculptures of Arnaldo Pomodoro were the inspiration for this slip dress and jacket. Behind is the Chakra jacket from the Fall 2011 collection.
From left to right: The Helix, the Chakra jacket, the Spinal dress, and the Cloque dress.
Sections of Ralph's paintings act as a backdrop to the Spinal and Cloque dress.
Details of the Pomodoro dress and jacket.
From inside the Pomodoro dress.
Detail of the spinal dress.
How do you define this religious feeling?
My definition of religious belief has to do with participation in that entity. My involvement with a higher source, with God, is a dual participation. I have a trainer who happens to be atheist and I ask him to talk to me about it a lot because I don’t understand it. I know when I am here at one o’clock in the morning and I hit a stride and it is as if I am taking dictation … I become so excited because it’s almost as if I don’t even wonder [at it].
In the book you say you have an obsession with [the concept] of transparency and weightlessness—we can see this in the kinds of ethereal fabrics you choose.
Oh God yeah … you know I have been making for the past few years silk tulle clothes with fabrics on top. We have been making just silk tulle sheer clothes and layering silk tulle and putting fabrics in between those two layers … it’s incredible. The weightlessness—and a woman forgetting that she is in apparel—this came directly out of making couture and showing in Paris because of the technical levels of expertise expected. And then you begin to develop. It is in using so much handwork and finer finishing and weightless linings that a couture garment becomes a second skin.
When I first got to Paris and showed the first couture, it was majestic. It made me cry. It still makes me cry. I cry a lot by the way … you can touch on that later. I cry when I’m making collections and they [his team] just roll their eyes.
Details of the Chakra jacket.
Inside the Chakra jacket.
Close-ups of the cream helix jacket.
Details of the Cloque dress. The dress is made out of double-faced, embroidered cashmere with a rolled waist and popcorn pleated skirt.
So how do you begin a collection?
I begin with a raw emotion. “Suspension” was one of the worst ones that came to me one season.
Do you mean “suspension” or “suspense”?
Well, then I had to wrestle with suspense in the clothes and technically, how do I create suspension in the cloth, you see? What came to me now for the fall collection is—and don’t ask me how or what I’m going to do with it—but you know if you look at the old kingdom Egyptian statues, how all the skulls are elongated? Well there is this great theory or possibility that these were extra terrestrials that had visited the planet and created the Egyptian culture that we know today because the technology was just so advanced. This was my starting point … the acceptance of awareness that they’re living amongst us already and they walk in and out. Ruth Montgomery wrote a book in the 50s called Strangers Amongst Us suggesting this. Remember it?
A view into the workroom.
More views of the workroom.
Bolts of fabric at Manuel's cutting table.
Bolts of fabric fill the workroom wall shelves.
Spools of thread.
Twombly, Ralph's most cherished bulldog.
No, not really. You’re quite wacky it seems to me …
Well, I guess you let your mind fly …
You have to.
I thought you were going to be priest-like … well perhaps you are!
Everybody thinks that! No, I have a big past too … a lot of drugs, a wonderful 70s and 80s in New York City and now I’m committed to my career.
Samantha in her vibration jacket. Hand stitched wool crepe tubes were sewn on to a tulle fabric foundation.
Monica making a sample.
Halina (left) and Sai-Ling, hand finishing dresses.
Hercelia (left) and Janet, making samples.
Monica working on a beaded detail.
Tulle fabric is being inserted into a wool crepe garment.
Hercelia is working on the beaded cerise back panel of a while silk, crepe column gown.
Hercelia working on the details.
Details of hand finishing.
Carlos at work.
A hand finishing detail.
So what do you when you’re not designing clothes?
I don’t do fashion events. I find standing there, arriving at an event, very embarrassing because that’s self-promotion. It’s not necessary when my clothes look the way they do. My clothes talk. I don’t have to.
You love your home, don’t you? You can see that by the pictures in the book.
Oh my God … sanctuary! I love my friends and I like to see my friends. I need a great deal of downtime. I need a great deal of solitude. I haven’t had a serious relationship in a number of years and I’ve recently started to see somebody, and I’m falling in love. That’s been a great reawakening in life. I have to be able to go home and talk to somebody—or listen.
A pair of forms flank Luz Maria at the pressing table.
Luz Maria at the pressing table.
Daniel, sample maker 'par excellence,'pressing a jacket.
A sketch of a dress.
Irina making a pattern.
A detail of Irina making a pattern.
Pieces of a pattern.
Paper pattern pieces are organized in manila paper envelopes
Rochelle, assistant to Irina Atanasov, making a pattern.
A raincoat from 2012 collection
Larisa working a toile.
How do you find that solitude if you have a business to run?
When I’m working on a collection, they know. I’m in lockdown. I don’t take any calls—there are three people I’ll take calls from, just three. I find that financial discussion depletes the concentration level I need to be in the moment. I don’t socialize while I’m working on a collection because I don’t want to speak about the work.
Yes, you can talk the life out of an idea.
When people say, “What does it look like?” it really is annoying. I want to say, “How the hell do I know? I’m finding my way in the dark.”
• Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge • Photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch