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.”

This story first appeared in the May 26, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

While guests viewed his work and enjoyed tours of the massive Salvador Dali exhibit nearby, Marjorie Deitch, couture director at Neiman’s nearby King of Prussia store, said Rucci calls his clients “collectors of art.”

His collection has evolved,” she said. “It has a youthfulness to it without being trendy. He is very passionate about each garment, and his clients respect the integrity he has for his clothes.”

Apparently so. The day after the event, Rucci held a trunk show at the store and sold 48 pieces at prices ranging from $2,800 for a blouse to $11,600 for a jacket. Bestsellers included a knitted sable jacket, a long scarf with leather fringe, a sable circular shrug jacket and a double-faced cashmere jacket with embroidery or alligator trim.

Rucci, who has been nominated by the Council of Fashion Designers of America for women’s wear designer of the year at its June 6 gala, donated sketches, dresses — one retailing for $14,500 — jackets and stoles that were auctioned at the event, benefitting the school’s fashion department and scholarship funds. About $250,000 was raised, including a donation of about $90,000 worth of fabric from Rucci.

The Drexel evening was directed by Emil DeJohn, who heads up fashion career development for the school. He contacted Rucci a year ago about mounting the exhibition.

“I wanted Ralph because he is one of the most creative designers I have come across in my 45 years in this business. His skill and knowledge of construction is astounding. And, I knew he was important to the students, because when I show his video at school, the students all clamor to see it.”

And although he shared this night with Dalí, Rucci will have his own show of his prints this month at the Serge Sorokko gallery in San Francisco. He is also moving from the garment district in Manhattan to SoHo in June. “The space will be part atelier, show space, fitting room, design room and gallery,” Rucci said.

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