By  on May 7, 2009

They laughed, they gasped, they listened.

“People were captivated,” said Timothy Long, the curator of the costume collection at the Chicago History Museum, which hosted a Tuesday luncheon that featured a 45-minute chat with Ralph Rucci, who was in town for a trunk show Wednesday at Neiman Marcus on Michigan Avenue.

During a late afternoon visit to the School of the Art Institute, Rucci minced few words, addressing many of the same themes, telling students and faculty intimately about his love of and displeasure with elements of the fashion industry.

Known as one of two American fashion designers invited to show collections at the haute couture in Paris, Rucci quickly clarified that description. “So many people say couture,” he said, “and I don’t use that word anymore.”

After showing in both Paris and New York, Rucci decided to make one collection twice a year, as well as resort pieces fusing elements of couture and ready-to-wear, noting either label is polarizing. Couture buyers don’t want to buy ready-to-wear and ready-to-wear buyers are scared off by couture.

“The words haute couture, they banish you to an island,” he said.

When asked about his creative process, Rucci said he used to sketch endlessly, until he labeled it procrastination. Instead, he told students to pull back to allow the idea to crystallize.

“I don’t sit down and put [sketches] on a wall,” he said. “One [piece] has to give birth to another. I used to need to do a dozen coats before I got a dress.”

Rucci tries to stay calm and let the inspiration hit him, noting that he believes a “higher power” is involved.

“I see passages in my mind,” he said. “It’s like being on the best drug in the world.”

He said at those times he feels like a sieve, albeit an isolated one. While he’s working on a collection, he avoids other distractions, becoming in his own words “a difficult person,” speaking only to his staff.

“[At times], I’ve missed out on a separate life,” he said, urging students to find a balance between life and work.

Rucci applauded the school’s interdisciplinary approach to fashion, in which many students study sculpture and other artistic pursuits.



Rucci, who came from a conservative Catholic family in Philadelphia, said he was a closet painter. “There was no such thing as [being] an artist,” said Rucci, who graduated from Temple University, where he studied philosophy and literature.

And while his paintings feed his fashion, they also provide an outlet and a “trapdoor,” if he exits the industry.

But pity those who do leave, Rucci said, because they immediately become yesterday’s news — or worse.

“You are disregarded like trash at 90 miles an hour,” he chided, saying, “We don’t respect our elders in fashion.”

Many designers today take themselves too seriously, Rucci said. “It’s annoying. I think they should just work. Some designers are spending more time getting photographed than on their work.”

In turn, some of the designers who are devoted to their craft don’t receive the same press, Rucci said, including himself in that group.

American fashion, he said, has become, for the most part, boring.

“It’s an homogenized message scrunched down to 12 names in New York,” he said, later cautioning students against rushing to start their own lines. “Please, please get experience,” Rucci said. “You don’t get second chances in this industry.”

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