After 40 years in business, Ralph Rucci still prizes uncompromising quality and the seriousness of fashion.
The New York-based designer’s fastidious approach to design hasn’t waned through the decades. In July, he returned to Paris for his ninth visit to couture and work is underway for another appearance in January. His first couture show took place in July 2002 because of an invitation from the Fédération de la Haute Couture. By his account, that postshow bow remains his greatest moment in fashion.
Rucci said, “That was major. I saw the most important press in the world sitting there, and clients that you only heard about. The reviews the next morning were startling. I knew my life had changed and my criteria for the work went even beyond. I think that’s when my psychotherapy went into full blast to allow myself the calm to be able to be creative without self-consciousness. But that’s been the lifelong work, I think.”
Last month marked the 40th anniversary of his first runway show in New York City. An aunt had given him $10,000 to make the samples for his first collection and Rucci wheeled the rolling rack of clothes from his studio apartment-work space to the now long-gone Westbury Hotel. Before that first show, Rucci cold-called the Zoli modeling agency. The founder later visited Rucci’s apartment-work studio and offered some of his leading models at no cost. (They carried books by Carl Jung in the show.) Without the financial backing for ready-to-wear, Rucci said he tested the waters with couture, because he had “witnessed the made-to-order audience at Halston.” One look, an homage to Madame Grès, required 103 yards of silk chiffon.
His company morphed into Ralph Rucci New York in 1984 and then the more luxurious Chado Ralph Rucci in 1994. The name refers to the ancient Japanese ceremony of taking 331 steps to present someone with a cup of tea. Over the years, Iris Apfel, Martha Stewart and Deeda Blair were regular front-row guests at his New York Fashion Week shows. Even his mentor James Galanos occasionally made an appearance.
During an interview, Rucci reflected on the opportunities and obstacles of weathering the fashion industry for much of his career as an independent designer. Nearly seven years ago, he exited his namesake company and parted ways with Nancy and Howard Marks, who invested in the company in 2012. Uninterested in rehashing the dregs of that fallout, Rucci spoke of how that “separation, time and not producing collections that are prescribed for you has allowed me to enjoy the work and my life, and not feel that either one is mutually exclusive.”
Until seven years ago, he said he had never thought in his career that the work was good enough, holding fast to the idea that the next collection will always be better. But looking back at the body of work, he said, “I’m so proud that I have been allowed to do this with my life for 40 years.”
Preferring to keep a low profile and focus on the work, Rucci has been the subject of a few documentaries and books, as well as the recipient of numerous awards including the Cooper-Hewitt Museum’s National Design award for Fashion and the Fashion Group International’s “Lifetime Living Legend” award.
Although he no longer owns the 600-plus pieces of his archives, Rucci has slowly been buying pieces through auctions and other outlets to build the archives back up. After his 2014 departure from Chado Ralph Rucci, he worked with select clients and over time introduced the RR331 label. Now the designer is once again using his name on his collection since his former investors have closed their company.
Adept at starting a collection where the last one left off, Rucci has interwoven a myriad of artistic references into his designs through the decades, having been inspired by such talents as Cy Twombly, Joseph Beiys, Franz Kline and Francis Bacon, among others. Those and other artists were also the basis of his art collection, which he sold following the financial crisis in 2008 to avoid layoffs. An artist in his own right, Rucci’s paintings have been exhibited in various shows, just as his designs have been spotlighted in museum ones, including “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” which is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
Interested in new categories, Rucci has started “somewhat vigorous” research about introducing a fragrance. Still pretty much “a one-man show,” his “key people” are back freelancing and his apartment is again more like a salon, he said.
As a literature and philosophy undergrad at Temple University, the Philadelphia native developed an interest in fashion and started sketching designs and draping fabrics directly on his sister Rosina. His studied approach to fashion included research, and taking out magazines from the libraries at Temple and the University of Pennsylvania. Through that process he discovered Cristóbal Balenciaga’s art-inspired fashion, as well as Madame Grès, André Courrèges and “a man from New York, who was from that same school,” Roy Halston, Rucci said.
Determined to work for Halston, Rucci devised a plan to see the designer’s made-to-order operation on the Upper East Side. In 1975 or 1976, Rucci convinced his sample-sized sister to go there with him and to order something so that he could get a closer look and possibly a job interview. Startled by the prospect of a nearly $2,000 purchase (for an ivory cashmere backless halter jumpsuit and coordinating kimono), Rucci said he assured her, “You have a job. You have a credit card. Believe me — this is going to pay off in the future.”
So it did. “The vendeuse” who had assisted them later helped Rucci get a job interview. Noting how the “magnificent aerodynamic cuts” that Halston created were facilitated by his workroom’s lead Salvatore Cardello, who had trained in Balenciaga’s Paris atelier, Rucci said he was “thrilled” to be trained by him. That was up to a point. “Then within a year, my impatience was so terrible that I said, ‘That’s it,’” Rucci said.
After taking some technical classes at FIT, he opened his business in June 1981 and showed his first collection that fall. His small East 71st Street studio apartment was the company’s base with Rucci designing, draping on a live model, cutting the toiles, fitting and sometimes making the samples himself. At night after their day jobs ended, some Seventh Avenue workers would come uptown to help build the clothes.
With the help of Vivian Van Natta (who wound up working with Rucci for 30-plus years), the designer started the business and eventually moved from his studio apartment to a Seventh Avenue space. He introduced ready-to-wear and built a nationwide clientele with trunk shows. In the early 2000s those three-day ventures racked up serious sales, like a $2 million one at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills.
Always interested in timelessness, not trends, Rucci said: “Forty years later, it doesn’t seem that long. There are just so many, so many, different difficulties that had to be lived.”
After Wall Street’s “Black Monday” crash in 1987, for example, Rucci had “a huge six-figure order” with Saks Fifth Avenue canceled, a setback that he didn’t think he could weather. In 1994, the company took the penthouse at 550 Seventh Avenue. There he created a small group of related looks in “dreadfully expensive” double-faced cashmere in five colors, which turned out to be a winner at Neiman Marcus.
The designer’s high-quality standards were applied to building the company’s offices, products, embroidery techniques, paper for show invitations, the salary base for 67 employees, providing multiethnic catered dinners for employees at peak production times and car service for those who needed to work late. “All of the other great houses did the same. Michael [Kors] did it. Donna Karan did it. Everybody did it. This is how you treated people,” said Rucci, adding that he personally covered those costs at one point.
The most challenging part about being in the fashion business has been “keeping my criteria exactly where I need it to be, and never compromising,” Rucci said. “I’ve never compromised a collection in my life, not one. That’s why I left Ralph Rucci [and gave up the rights to his name and the Chado Ralph Rucci label in the process] because the compromise was a smorgasbord. I said, ‘Uh-uh, this diet doesn’t work for me.’”
The lack of coverage of his work by major American magazines was another matter that did not sit well with Rucci, during his career. But at this stage, the designer said he is not about to discuss or dwell on that.
Often asked by others when he plans to write a book, Rucci said he has started one with an established author that will be rooted in memories with a thread of biographical information. Rucci said, “It’s going to be about the wanderlust of the profession and my participation in it.”
For his couture appearance in January, an installation and salon like presentation are in the works. Citing how custom lace makers have been acquired by luxury conglomerates, Rucci said the financial undertaking has ramped up considerably since his 2002 couture debut. “If a designer is doing embroidery for couture, there is an unsigned law that it has to be done in Paris,” he explained, adding that an embroidered dress that cost 9,000 euros in 2002, could cost 45,000 euros today.
Over time his view of fashion shows in general has changed. He said, “The shows have become [about] who is sitting in your front row. The people sitting in the front row have almost become the sneakers that sell to the masses,” he said.