Master Craftsman

Ralph Rucci
Ralph Rucci

I have a very funny, charming dog, a five year old, white French Bulldog. He catalyzes lots of conversations everywhere I take him in New York. And, this being New York, on occasion those conversations take place with celebrities. My personal rule of thumb for these encounters is to roll with the moment, resist temptation to turn them into anything other than exchanges about my dog.

On Tuesday this week I broke that rule. I was in Ricky's on Broadway in Soho, standing at the cashier. I looked up to find fashion designer Ralph Rucci saying something to the effect of "You have a beautiful dog." This would be the equivalent of Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas or Richard Rogers complimenting an architecture aficionado on her hound. Not a household name celebrity, but to someone in the know--a legend. Time stood still.

I learned about Ralph Rucci's work in 2002 or 2003, during the time he was showing in Paris. I saw photos from one of his collections in Women's Wear Daily. They were stunning. I was smitten. At the time, I didn't entirely understand the import of those collections--that he was the only American designer to have been invited to be a part of Haute Couture since Mainbocher was in the 1930's. I did know, however, that his clothes were utterly exquisite.

Since then I've continued to follow him and have had the fortune to attend two of his runway shows in New York, where he now shows twice yearly. My understanding is that he decided to stop participating in Haute Couture--in 2004--because doing four collections a year, two for couture and two for Ready-to-Wear, proved to be more than he wanted to juggle creatively. I don't know if it's true, but it fits with all else that I've come to learn about him, since I first saw those photos in WWD.

Ralph Rucci is a smarty pants, a deeply intellectual designer, and he is almost the diametric opposite of the other smarty pants designer I admire--Miuccia Prada. For me, he is the yin to Miuccia Prada's yang. Where Prada is often crazy, exuberant, Rucci is graceful, elegant; Prada sometimes wacky, Rucci serious, serene; Prada rule-breaking, Rucci respectful of fashion's traditions; Prada large, global, branded, everywhere, Rucci exclusive, an elite atelier, a name even many in fashion don't know--he doesn't have a website, let alone an app.

In addition to being a designer, Rucci is an artist, and his designs are often inspired by other artists--of course, not household names: Pina Bausch, Arnaldo Pomodoro, Louise Nevelson. Although he's abandoned the Haute Couture shows, he's retained the technique and detail in his Ready-to-Wear line and is by most measures the closest thing New York has to a couturier. His clothes remain drop-dead sexy elegance.

When I found myself, on Tuesday, on the opposite end of my dog's leash from him, I debated for a split second: keep the silence or break the rule? And I leapt, managing an approximation of what I wanted to say: Thank you--for all of the beauty, season after season. I found myself the caricature of tongue-tied fan. And he really was completely taken with my dog--mostly, I learned, because he has an English Bulldog. I would have expected a Weimaraner or a Greyhound--something elegant and sleek. It turns out there's a little bit of silliness in Ralph Rucci after all.

The best way to learn about Ralph Rucci's master craftsmanship is to view his collections. You can do that here (Look at that red in his latest collection--and those boots! Yum.). The New York Times' fashion critic Cathy Horyn has been a long-time supporter of Ralph Rucci's. Her 2002 article heralding his arrival in Paris is here. Even pre-couture he was charging $76,000 for a twin-set. And this 1963 Time article on Mainbocher--Rucci's Paris Haute Couture predecessor--could have been written about Rucci himself, right down to the details about society clients, sleeveless sheaths, Sable-lined coats and atelier viewings.

In February modaCYCLE released Dream to Seam an hour long conversation between Seth Friedermann and Rucci. Friedermann is an insightful interviewer, and in it you get a sense of Rucci's rigor, integrity and intellectual and spiritual depth--he is deeply personal and expresses great reverence for his predecessors (and he hints that someday he'll return to couture. We can only hope!). If you are an aspiring designer, or simply interested in creative processes, it's terrific viewing. A New York Times video of Rucci in his studio, which includes a few great closeups, showcasing the beautiful detailing in his garments, is here.

Photo: John Huba for Philadelphia Style