By  on November 7, 2006

NEW YORK — Well-wishers marched into Ralph Rucci's SoHo showroom Saturday night to celebrate his company's 25th anniversary.

Friends and supporters included Joan Kaner, Iris Apfel and Amy Fine Collins. Among the other guests were Martha Stewart, Vogue's Hamish Bowles, Bergdorf Goodman's Roopal Patel, The New York Times' Cathy Horyn, Town & Country's Pamela Fiori, Celestina Wallis and Mary McFadden.

Although many designers have tried to hinge their fame on licensing deals and photo ops, Rucci has preferred to focus on his craft, staying under the radar. In 2002, his competitors took note when Rucci became the first American designer since Mainbocher to be invited by Paris' Chambre Syndicale to show as part of the haute couture.

More recently, Rucci's profile has risen again, partly because of a retrospective bowing Jan. 13 at the Museum at FIT. He was picked to receive the first Artistry of Fashion Award from the Museum at FIT's Couture Council. And in the past few years, Rucci has been honored by the Fashion Group International's Night of Stars as well as Kent State and Drexel universities, among others.

"I feel so lucky to do this with my life,'' he said. "I do this for myself and for my business first, and if other people enjoy it, that's fantastic."

The recognition was a long time coming, said Kaner, retired fashion director of Neiman Marcus, who championed Rucci's work for years.

"It's been 25 years with lots of ups and downs,'' she said. "It's been a long, hard road for him and I am so thrilled that the last 11 years have been so good and positive. He's all about elegance and grace and women looking beautiful. He's not about trendy, and his clothes are never of-the-moment. His work is very individualistic. Every woman here who is wearing Chado Ralph Rucci has picked out her color, her shape and her silhouette."

Getting people to look at his clothes was the greatest challenge from the start, Rucci said. Gazing at the crowd, he continued, "There are some people in this room who were at that first show 25 years ago at the old Westbury Hotel at 69th and Madison. The collection was entirely cut on the bias. I draped and made everything myself because I wanted it to be a couture collection. But here I was this nobody, a kid trying to make everything entirely on the bias."Some celebrants did not have such a lengthy history with the designer. Stewart joined the festivities with her editorial director of decorating, Kevin Sharkey, who first took her and daughter Alexis to one of Rucci's fashion shows five years ago.

"His workmanship is incredible,'' Stewart said. "His designs are incredible. His patterns are incredible. You like wearing his clothes because you feel terrific. I think women look a little different in his clothes."

Thom Browne turned up with the person who introduced him to Rucci, Ulla van Zeller. "I'm such a huge fan of his; it's so inspiring to see he's been in business for 25 years at the level he is at," Browne said. "His designs are so beautiful, so unique and so exquisite and they express things. I know it's not so easy to keep that level for such a long time."

McFadden had seen Rucci's collection in Neiman Marcus three or four years ago, but only met the designer a month ago after being impressed by his paintings on display at the Chinese Porcelain Co., which offers Asian and European works of art and furniture. "They looked like ancient calligraphy from the Tong Dynasty or the Han Dynasty. I didn't know he was the painter," McFadden said. "I think his clothes are remarkable. I think he is the greatest living working designer in America."

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