Readying for a return to the Paris couture calendar this summer, Ralph Rucci reflected about his career, the importance of inclusion and the state of American fashion.
The New York-based designer will be making his third appearance thanks to the Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. His last show was in 2019 and his first show was in 2002. The two-year lag since his last show was due primarily to the pandemic and the expense. “I could not pull it together to do a video to participate in the collections. And consumer spending, even in the couture, was horrifyingly finished. There was a moral awareness about being safe at home because no one knew about the infections,” he said.
Without the financial means to stage a live show, Rucci is making a film with David Boatman, who created the documentary “Ralph Rucci: A Designer and His House” in 2007, which was part of the Sundance Film Festival. Paul Podlucky will handle hair and makeup. Three models will also wear Dean Harris and Elsa Peretti jewelry and Jean-Michel Cazabat shoes.
Rucci and his assistant will travel to Paris in early July with the collection to meet with members of the press. That will also provide an opportunity to meet with clients, who are coming to Paris. The designer plans to stick to the mandated minimum of 25 styles. “Invariably, your client wants you to take something from your collection and develop it for them,” he explained.
Paris couture’s more inclusive calendar is important, Rucci said. “They really have opened the doors for so many invited guest members — young people, African Americans, Spanish [people] everyone from all over the world so it makes it multidimensional,” he said.
Upbeat about Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean-Raymond joining the group next season, Rucci said, “It’s good because couture needs less evening gowns. I have always felt that way. If you look at a collection of mine, it is usually 75 percent day clothes and 25 percent evening clothes.”
Partial to hand finishing, spiraling seams and other intricacies, Rucci said, “The effect of couture clothing, as I was taught years ago by Monsieur [Hubert] de Givenchy is it must never look like it was touched by human hands,” he said.
His career-long friend Peretti offered some sage advice before she passed away in March, Rucci said. “She told me, ‘You have to do this slowly.’ I said, ‘Oh, c’mon, I’ve never done this slowly in my life.’ She said, ‘You have to because that’s how good work and ideas come forth.’ She was absolutely right.”
Known to sketch 200 designs to decide on one, Rucci said he has to start designing for each season with raincoats or coats. “I don’t know why. It’s just my neurosis. Then I can do dresses or jackets — whatever it is. I do research and think of an idea before I put one pen to paper. I had to let go [of the preconception] that I was doing less and see that I was in fact doing more because it has more substance as opposed to just quick ideas for the possibility. That’s the way big ready-to-wear manufacturers work. Here’s the fabric, do 20 looks and choose the five best,” Rucci said.
This fall will mark his 41st year in the fashion business. During lockdown “when no one was buying clothes,” Rucci analyzed pricing. With silks from Taroni, cashmeres from Colombo and other primo fabrics, Rucci’s price points are one-quarter those of other couture houses in Paris. “There is no reason why the most famous couture house in the world should be charging an opening price point of $100,000 for a daytime suit with no embroidery.”
Couture, like other sectors of fashion, however, has adapted. But it still shocks Rucci that couture is “kind of an international made-to-order video with so many houses, but that’s the way it is.” That being what it is, he still needs to “feel the pins and look at the proportions and dimensions that he can study,” and in-person fittings are preferred.
But for now he sends toiles to clients in Qatar, and other locales, and leads a virtual fitting via Zoom or Skype. “I’m on the phone saying, ‘Lift the shoulder. Take in the armhole, extend the back — whatever it is. It is happening. The toile comes back to me, we take it apart, create another correct paper pattern, cut in cloth, baste and zip it back for a check fit. It comes back and the couture garment is made.”
As for critics who think couture is dead or dated, Rucci disagreed, “I want to know one thing from them, ‘What is dated?’ Having your clothes made to suit your body could be done at a neighborhood tailor or dressmaker. There is nothing archaic about that,” he said.
In regards to decries of couture’s conspicuous consumption, he said, “I don’t deny it in any way because of the conspicuous consumption that we see here in this country with sneakers selling for thousands of dollars and diamonds. And the conspicuous consumption of people in their 20s who have no relationship to these items for an intellectual balance.”
If a client comes to Rucci for a coat fitting, there are important subtleties of “building the neckline away from the neck in the front, dipping in the back ever so slightly like a Japanese geisha, the lift of an a sleeve so that it makes a women look chic, slimmer and taller. Or having a barrel effect in the back. Everyone wants to look desirable so the fit is necessary. That is something that myself and my team are obsessed about. I don’t make couture collections and show hot pink gowns with lots of sequins and feathers. It’s done much better in a drag show. I like a mysteriously cut double-faced crepe jersey sinuous.”
Decorative couture has never been Rucci’s game. His understated artistry is quiet. “You know what you’re looking at, if you know.”
Luxury for him amounts to great silk coats, double-faced cashmeres and cloth embroidered for days “so that it doesn’t look conspicuous.” Evening clothes can mean dinner dresses, “sexy things” and very dimensional draped taffeta or jersey, he said. Eveningwear more often than not requires tweaks, the designer said. “Very few women buy something from the collection the way that it was shown.” Out of 45 styles from the last couture [show], perhaps five were purchased as they were shown.
In addition to day clothes, fur-trimmed items, especially ones with Russian sable, are another opportunity, the designer said. Aware of the controversy about fur, Rucci noted how faux fur designs require wasting so much synthetic liquid substance to make acrylic. For 20-plus years, he has collaborated with Nick Pologeorgis on furs.
After parting with his financial backers six years ago after a two-year run, Rucci has been designing solely for private clients and has no interest in doing a rtw line again, although something like innerwear could be a possibility. “[During the split,] 14 people were fired, relationships were severed, people were made to fear, paranoia set in like a disease. This was all in the great family that I created,” said Rucci, who also lost control of his brand name — hence RR331. “There was the most extreme shock to have my business explode into a bloodbath. All of that didn’t have to happen. They closed their firm,” he said, declining to name the label, Sies Marjan, which folded last year.
Rucci claimed the greatest patternmakers and workers had to sign contracts to stay there. Now he has “all of his people back. I am working with the same great people so life is fantastic. It all comes around.”
All in all, Rucci is enjoying his career more. “I am able to have freedom. I never had a life before. I worked constantly because of schedules and deadlines. I worked every weekend and every night quite late.”
After Thursday’s interview, Rucci later texted, “You can never expect a business based in high art and culture to be married with one from Wall Street.”
The idea that American fashion is on its way back, thanks partially to The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute upcoming two-part show and the return of designers like Thom Browne to New York Fashion Week, is one that Rucci supports. “It’s a great thing that’s happening to raise consciousness and hope for young people from cities in the country, who want to get involved in fashion,” he said.
Having given three Zoom talks to different schools during the shutdown, Rucci said, “There was just a deep depression among these young people. What do we do? Where do we go? I do think that what’s happening in American fashion is going to help. I do hope that the standards can be maintained and that The Met show will be all-inclusive and there are standards for which clothes may be displayed.”
From his perspective, that means a Charles James, James Galanos or Halston designs should not be displayed near a style by, say, a John Smith. “You can’t just surfboard in.”