By  on March 13, 2007

NEW YORK — Ralph Rucci stands out at an academic symposium much the way his designs do on the runway.

The spirited designer waxed on "Seeking My Vocabulary" and how his early education still shapes his work at FIT's "The Art of Fashion" symposium. Now marking 25 years as a fashion designer, Rucci received bachelor's degrees in philosophy and literature from Temple University before studying at FIT.

"At some point, I lost interest in the simple activity of fashion design," Rucci said. "If a young person wants to be a fashion designer and just thinks about the clothes, they are missing an enormous amount. Just to dive into fashion design is going to be ultimately disappointing. I approach fashion design as an academic. I wouldn't dare sketch a jacket without researching the history behind it."

According to Rucci, fashion design can take two routes: creating style or changing trends. He said he has chosen to make his career about the former, drawing on historical, iconic and artistic references in his designs.

"It's not just about finding the vocabulary," Rucci said. "The vocabulary has to do with the images that never leave me."

Those images come from legends in his field like Halston and Balenciaga, who "gave us a vocabulary of technique and behavior," according to Rucci.

"When I discovered Cristóbal Balenciaga, it was as though something was released in me and I had a future," Rucci said. "It's important, especially in fashion, to pay homage to the people who laid the groundwork. There is no such thing as anything dated, if it is important and inspirational."

Women, from style icons to his clients today (and the rooms in their homes), serve as another source of inspiration for Rucci. He pointed to Pauline de Rothschild, Tina Chow and Diana Vreeland as examples of women "who possessed great originality."

"I think about women a great deal," Rucci said. "Where did the idea of grace and finesse go?"

Art, which Rucci defined as "an attempt to understand unconscious elements in a visual, three-dimensional level," also finds its way into Rucci's own art, currently on display at the Museum at FIT. Da Vinci's pencil drawings serve as a regular source of inspiration for Rucci. In fact, the Chado Ralph Rucci label, a circle within a square, "emulates and pays respect to that image from da Vinci," the designer explained."I bring in the cultural references, but I calm it down a little so it is subtle and dream-like," Rucci said. "It's the idea of perfecting the alphabet you start with."

Even the name of his design house, Chado Ralph Rucci, reflects his respect for tradition. "In 1993, I took my name off the label because I became very depressed in the industry," said Rucci, who replaced his name with Chado, the Japanese tea ritual, which, for him, symbolized respect, tranquility, grace and integrity. "Three years later, Neiman Marcus convinced me to put my name back on the label for recognition, but I kept Chado above it."

Rucci's frustration with the fashion industry was a theme of his talk. "We need to encourage total eccentricity and originality," Rucci said. "There's been a mass homogenization in fashion. It's killing creativity in an effort to substantiate these few individuals."

He repeated the accusation several times, but never named names. The designer chided unnamed fashion houses for making high-selling accessories and cosmetics the focus of their business. "I wish they would have the apparel as the focus of the business endeavor," Rucci said. "The apparel, if taken on the right way, becomes a vehicle for press that allows the adjunct business to be successful, too."

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