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Ralph Rucci: Cutting His Own Way

The designer was inducted into the Fashion Walk of Fame in New York in October.

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Ralph Rucci finds the ongoing and still-growing trend of celebrity designers alarming.

This story first appeared in the December 19, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“You see, when I entered the profession, collections were made by professionals making clothes,” Rucci said. “Today, lending the name just for People magazine readers is the norm, and I hope it passes us quickly.”

More specifically, he finds the success of reality television’s Kim Kardashian, who has a multitude of money-making deals including a fashion collection with her two sisters for Sears, staggering. When told that Kardashian’s celebrity has its origins in a sex tape, Rucci didn’t miss a beat. “I would do one,” he said. “It’s clearly an easy way to make a fortune. But only if I choose the other participant — or participants.”

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And that was on the record. Rucci’s candid, and facetious, talk is a far cry from the kind of luxurious, highly detailed clothes he makes, and even further from the more discreet path he appears to have preferred in his three decades in business. It’s no wonder that Rucci often feels that he is misunderstood.

“So many times people say to me, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect you to be like this,’” he said, sitting in the calm environs of his SoHo office, which is filled with books and photos and attached to an atelier with pattern cutters and seamstresses. “‘Well,’ I say, ‘What did you expect me to be like?’ They have this idea of me being in an ivory tower, creating clothes and only receiving social ladies — and I am not all of those things.”

He recently started tweeting to improve his communication, after the comedienne Sandra Bernhard implored him to do so. “She said, ‘Do you want to fix the imbalance? Start tweeting. Start talking. Nobody hears you talk like your friends do.’ In fact, somebody recently said I am grumpy. I am not grumpy.”

Tweeting is just one of several moves to give people — fashion types included — a clearer understanding of how the designer sees himself. As part of his 30-year milestone, there is also Bauer and Dean Publishers’ “Autobiography of a Fashion Designer: Ralph Rucci,” a fancy coffee-table book filled with photos of the designer’s home, documenting his love of art and his creation process.

Rucci, who was inducted into the Fashion Walk of Fame in New York in October, also recently hired an independent firm to expand his horizons and explore potential licenses. He is launching a home collection with Holly Hunt next year and mentioned accessories as a future goal. “Manolo [Blahnik] has done the shoes for almost a dozen years, but I should be able to do my own shoes, and handbags or leather goods,” he said.

These moves will mark the next chapter in the designer’s career, which has already seen its share of highs and woes, and during which he made a name for himself for luxurious, discreet clothes that appealed to a range of women as diverse as Deeda Blair, Patti Smith and Whoopi Goldberg. In a rare feat, he became the only American designer besides Mainbocher to be accepted by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to show haute couture collections under his own label in Paris.

The common thread in 30 years has been “cut, cut, cut and finding ways to make clothes in new ways,” Rucci explained, “so a woman becomes empowered and not decorated. I detest decoration. That’s why I detest superfluous effects of clothes. My clothes are not minimal, but they came, I suppose, from a minimal birth.

“My clothes are not architectural,” he added. “I detest when that word is used. They are biomorphic. We follow the lines of the body, and that’s why they become much more sensual.”

He cited several inspirations and mentors along the way, including Balenciaga, Pauline de Rothschild, Halston, Elsa Peretti, James Galanos and Hubert de Givenchy.

Galanos called Rucci “a terrific person.

“He is a very talented and artistic designer, and very thorough in what he does,” Galanos said. “He is second to none. I think he is the very best.”

Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, which carries Chado Ralph Rucci in five doors but does a high volume in special orders, with up to 15 trunk shows a season, said, “There are many beautiful clothes that are made in America, but ultimately, Ralph brings a couture hand to everything he does. The clothes are relevant and modern, but he has a signature point of view, a vision. He does not let current trends or other designers influence him. He is often influenced by art and Japanese culture, which is so singular to him.”

An accomplished painter, Rucci also finds inspiration in artists like Cy Twombly for his collections.

Deeda Blair, who Rucci cited as one of his key mentors, saw Rucci’s first haute couture collection in 2002 in a hotel particulier on the Place Vendôme.

“There was just simply astonishment,” Blair recalled. “A very experienced and exposed-to-the-world audience was amazed and astonished at the workmanship, craftsmanship and the quality of the fabrics. He uses the fabrics Balenciaga and Givenchy used to use, whether it’s cashmere, wonderful wool crepes or gazar and fur trims.

“He is interested in a huge eclectic range: landscape art and architecture and detail, porcelain and ceramics, lacquer and leather, and art,” Blair added. “It’s wonderful he can put so many aspects of his life and thought into inspiration for the clothes, and that requires inventing whole new techniques.”

A native of Philadelphia, Rucci studied philosophy and literature at Temple University, and, while researching a paper on aesthetics, found a Sixties David Bailey photograph of a Balenciaga bride and her attendant.

“I thought, what is this?” he recalled. “They almost looked like elegies to the Spanish Republic. Through Balenciaga, I then discovered Madame Grès and Charles James, and then I discovered there was a man in New York who was from the school of Balenciaga — Halston.”

He became so obsessed with the idea of working for Halston that he tried to get an interview with the designer, with little luck.

“I devised a plan,” he recalled. “Halston had a great made-to-order department in this incredible salon on 68th Street and Madison Avenue. I told my sister, ‘We are going up there and you will order something. You are going to put it on my credit card and I am going to get my job interview through your purchase.’”

The plan worked, and before he knew it, he was seated across from the iconic designer and showing his book. “I was shaking out of fear,” he recounted. “He sat there with his sunglasses and his cigarette, and the way he spoke and would look at you…but he was a genius.”

He got a job but after a year — “The scene up there was insane,” he said — Rucci was itching to start on his own. He called on his friend Vivian Van Natta for help and started working on his first collection out of his studio apartment on East 71st Street. The designer didn’t know whom to invite, and so he and Van Natta hatched a scheme. At a charity luncheon given by the Musicians Energy Fund, which featured a fashion show by Madame Grès, they swiped the invitation list. Modeling agent Zoli saw the collection and gave Rucci some of his top models.

“I had blind ambition,” he remembered. “I thought, ‘This is it.’ I had the tenacity and idea that I wanted to make an haute couture collection. I cut and draped the entire collection myself. I was still a kid, and they were all draped silk jerseys, bias-cut chiffons and silk raincoats on the bias. I even made the models hold books by Carl Jung, to give it a twist for those people who say, ‘Oh the clothes are overly intellectual.’ What that means, I will never know.”

To be able to support his upstart label, Rucci moonlighted with several freelance assignments for Garment District manufacturers.

“I did everything I could to keep afloat. I didn’t have the proper space to see clients so I would see them in their homes. I was running around, on subways, back and forth, and I would meet my freelance sample or patternmakers in the lobby of their office building or in subway stations.”

After opening a small atelier in a photographer friend’s studio, he moved into a larger showroom at 488 Seventh Avenue in 1986 with the money he got from a near-impossible freelance assignment.

“There was a big blouse manufacturer, this big bragger and real garmento,” Rucci said. “To provoke me, he said, ‘I want you to design a collection of blouses for me. I want 150 pieces in 24 hours and I will pay you $30,000.’ I drank nothing but black coffee, chain-smoked cigarettes, and did the collection in 24 hours. I had to be a step ahead of him so I added accessories and all that. Of course he was blown away, and I got the check on the spot and called Vivian and said, ‘Tell them I want the space.’”

Once settled in the showroom, his business began to grow rapidly, but with the October 1987 stock market crash, Rucci’s success came to a screeching halt. “I remember saying my life would change overnight, and it did,” he recalled. “An enormous department store had to cancel its order and it put me out of business. I did not declare bankruptcy, because I didn’t think it was the moral thing to do. We literally moved out during the night. I moved all of these sewing machines and equipment and figures into my one-room studio apartment and I continued. I worked in that manner until I was able to open an office again in late 1993, in the penthouse of 550 Seventh Avenue.”

He created the label Chado — after the ancient Japanese ceremony of 331 steps to present someone with a cup of tea — with hopes to mark a new beginning and underscore the level of effort and detail he put in his clothes.

“I wanted it to be very independent and I wanted the clothes to be seen as important,” he said. “I realized that this was going to be my last chance. I didn’t lift my head for three solid years. I designed, I traveled throughout the country for trunk shows, and cut and cut and cut, morning noon and night.”

And then Joan Kaner, the then-fashion director of Neiman Marcus, came to see his collection and asked him to make her five pieces for an upcoming trip to Europe. “You could say Joan discovered me after all those years,” he stated. “She wore those pieces throughout Europe, and people would ask her what she was wearing, and that’s how she got the Neiman Marcus team in. To this day, they are like family.”

In the mid-Nineties, Rucci started to work with double-faced cashmere, which added a new dimension to his business.

“I was absolutely frightened because it was so expensive,” Rucci said. “But I ordered a couple of yards and it became the biggest luxury draw. We found ourselves in the double-faced cashmere business. We outgrew 550 and moved into a building at 552, and took two floors.”

Even though Rucci’s business was finding a cult following, he still felt that the clothes did not receive the kind of attention and publicity he thought they deserved. So he embarked on his dream of making a couture collection in Paris. He called his friend Charles-Edouard Barthes, then managing director of Jean-Louis Scherrer, and asked him to put in a good word with Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale.

“I only wanted to do it under the auspices and permission by the Chambre Syndicale de Couture,” he said. “Charles calls up and said, ‘You’re in.’

“So we showed the first couture collection in Paris, and this was the biggest turning point in my life. When I came out to take a bow and I saw who was in that audience, it was a who’s who of world press and world society. It felt like I was taking my life into my own hands. It gave me the impetus to push forward.”

Then, another economic crash sent the business into a tailspin. When the recession hit in 2008, “We had a 60 percent drop overnight,” he said. “How do you justify bringing 22 people to Paris? The lights for the show that would ordinarily be $45,000 were $90,000. But I fully intend to go back to Paris to sell couture.”

Rucci declined to disclose his annual volume, but he sells to about seven retail accounts, including Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, Neiman’s around the U.S., Sanahunt in Kiev, Sauvage in Kazakhstan, Shinsegae in Seoul and Tsum in Moscow, as well as personal clients around the world.

Yet the business remains relatively small, and Rucci is itching to get it to the next level. Hence his interest in licensing deals — and the search for a possible investor.

“We’re meeting with different people that might become partners or investors,” he admitted. “You want to hear the most strange thing that I’m starting to accept? A lot of people say, ‘He’s an icon, he’s this…’ — all those adjectives that I can’t say about myself but others can — but [they tell me], ‘We’re really looking for somebody younger. We’re making investments in kids in their 20s and 30s, but nobody in their 50s,’” said the designer, who is 54. “What does that tell you? That tells you that you have to look at not only the possibilities in life anymore; you have to look at the limitations also.”

Rucci’s ready-to-wear can set a customer back thousands of dollars — a wool jersey kimono dress, for instance, retails for $5,600 at Neiman Marcus and a velvet skirt $3,000 — but the designer would like to expand his range in the future. “I’ve been offered things that I realized are not appropriate, but I would like to do a volume collection that people can relate to and work with and mesh into, especially in active sportswear,” Rucci said. “Everybody exercises. There’s nothing available outside of Adidas and Puma and all that, and I want to mix that together with great jeans, because I always say that there’s nothing as couture and as sexy as a pair of 501 jeans and a T-shirt.”

 

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