By  on May 26, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — For a designer who paints his own prints, the Philadelphia Museum of Art proved a fitting spot to receive the sixth annual Crystal Star Award for design excellence from Drexel University.

Ralph Rucci, returning to his hometown, was lauded by a crowd of 450 design devotees this month. It was the first time the event was held outside the university. Past winners of the award, designed by Tiffany & Co., include Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera.

Rucci used the backdrop of the museum's Great Stairs to mount a dramatic tableau of 42 mannequins dressed in clothes from his couture and ready-to-wear collections. The event, chaired by local philanthropists Joan and Bernard Spain, drew a well-heeled crowd from Philadelphia as well as New York supporters like Marylou Luther; Tom Marotta, vice president and director of couture for Saks Fifth Avenue, and Joan Kaner, vice president and fashion director for Neiman Marcus.

"Ralph is a very important designer for our store," said Kaner. "In fact, I could say he is the premier designer with us." Neiman's carries the line in 12 stores. "He draws a young and old customer. Once they try it on, that's it."

Joan Spain, who met Rucci at another charity event here and wore one of his knee-length sculpted dresses to the event said: "The fact that he is the only American to show in Paris [at the couture, under his own label] says something about his work."

Before schmoozing with the benefactors, who paid $1,250 to $5,000 to meet Rucci at a private cocktail party, the native Philadelphian spent time with a bus load of Drexel fashion students. He shared his thoughts on the business in front of his display of past collections. While the students snapped shots of details, Rucci said, "It is important to do very special things. It took me two-and-a- half decades to carve out my spot in the fashion business."

He told the students of some garments that take 300 hours to make, like a jacket that had myriad patches of leather, suede and feathers or a pair of chocolate leather jeans with hand-scribed notes Rucci described as "cryptic messages — some of which are rather bitchy."

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