“Fashion is always about eccentricity. Given our present cultural uniformity, that’s very important,” says Ralph Rucci. The American designer’s fashions are eccentric in the best sense – at once exuberant and austere, yet never loud or capricious. They are an ode to craft and to the grace of the female body. Rucci’s style follows laws of its own and creates its topicality over and beyond the daily round of the fashion business. “My clothes evolve one season at a time,” he says. “Every collection builds on the past.”
He draws his inspiration from a private aesthetic universe, a mixture of Far Eastern asceticism, modern art and ethno-folklore. His personal pantheon includes Cy Twombly, Francis Bacon, Cristobal Balenciaga and the Buddha. His trademarks are scintillating prints, which he designs in advance in watercolours, meandering Frankenstein stitches, and an unerring eye for volume and structure. But above all, he has an almost obsessive interest in materials. “I love unusual materials such as stiff horse hair and paper taffeta, materials that speak, such as piqué cotton and richly textured chiffon, atlas satin and heavy duchesse satin,” he says. The clothes that emerge from this are as magnificent as they are wearable. Despite their architectural precision, they look gossamer light. They are made for ladies of taste with a penchant for understatement, since Rucci’s idea of luxury is defined not in terms of opulence but of originality, costly fabrics and lavish processing.
Ralph Rucci was born in Philadelphia in 1957. To start with, he studied philosophy and literature, but in the late 1970s switched to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. After graduating, he established his own label in 1981. For his first collection he borrowed $10,000 from an aunt, and laboured for months at drapes and cuts, using the knee guards worn by ice hockey players as protection. A select clientele slowly developed, for whom he worked bespoke thereafter. In 1994 he renamed his company Chado Ralph Rucci, an allusion to the chado Japanese tea ceremony and its values, such as harmony, purity and respect, which he also wanted for his fashions. His international breakthrough finally came in 2002 when the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Française invited him to show his collections from then on at the Paris haute couture shows – an honour previously granted to only one other American couturier, Mainbocher.
Since then, his shows have garnered a steadily growing and enthusiastic clientele. Richly decorated ball gowns of silk satin, flowing fur tops, sweatshirts with alligator leather appliqués – Rucci is always finding new ways of reinterpreting familiar forms. He pays particular attention to workmanship and surfaces. He layers patchworks, braids leather, and draws patterns with ornamental seams. Pearls, precious stones and sequins are among his other stylistic resources. Rucci’s work has been the subject of several retrospectives, notably at the Costume Institute of the Kent State University Museum (2005/06), the Fashion Institute of Technology (2007), the Costume Institute of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2007) and Phoenix Art Museum (2008).