NEW YORK — To thrive for 30 years in the fashion industry is a milestone for many, but for designer Ralph Rucci, it is only the beginning. The insiders who are aware of Rucci know that in 2002 he became the second of only two American designers to be invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to show a collection in Paris. (The other, Main Bocher, had lived in Paris for more than a dozen years and served as editor-in-chief of Paris Vogue before he was invited in the 1930s.) While most luxury labels are backed by behemoths like LVMH and PPR, Rucci’s remains independent. He signs all the checks; his company has no CFO.
Rucci, 54, has a penchant for exquisite materials like Mongolian lamb, silk gazar, and paper taffeta. His talent rivals that of Halston, who he worked for briefly in the late-’70s after conniving his way into a job interview; Madame Grès, whose fashion show he snuck into to snag an interview in 1978 (she told him to come back to her after he had 20 years of experience); and even the great Cristobal Balenciaga. But for some reason, much like Madame Grès, Rucci has so far failed to become a household name.
“He is very much respected by people who know fashion,” said Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Steele, who wrote the catalogue and curated the museum’s 2007 Rucci exhibit, told ARTINFO that “it’s really kind of a puzzle” that he hasn’t gotten more attention during his career.
Yet Rucci’s celebrity admirers include intelligent women who have a strong sense of their personal style, like Sandra Bernhard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Martha Stewart, and Whoopi Goldberg. “Wearing Ralph for me is lush,” Goldberg told ARTINFO via email. “You feel you look smart and elegant and it doesn’t matter if you’re rail thin or have a butt – the clothing makes you feel fantastic.”
Last month, during New York Fashion Week, Rucci cancelled his February 12 runway show, holding showroom appointments instead to save on costs. “It was disappointing, but after it happened I said, ‘next!’ because I had to finish the collection,” Rucci told ARTINFO at his Soho office, where photographs of artist Joseph Beuys hang on his inspiration wall, along with a prized 1970s Joe Eula sketch of Halston fitting Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Then ugly rumors started to surface. A New York Post article last month reported that Rucci was considering filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “He doesn’t have a diffusion line or a fragrance deal — he doesn’t seem to be interested in the commercial side of this,” Catherine Moellering, executive vice president of the trend-forecasting group the Tobe Report, told the Post. Rucci insists that Moellering is entirely wrong. While he did consult with experts to learn more about what Chapter 11 meant, he said that he isn’t looking to file for bankruptcy.
In fact, Rucci said that he couldn’t be more interested in the commercial side of fashion. His turning point came last summer when he was honored with a star on New York’s fashion walk of fame. “It’s time to brand,” Rucci said. “It’s time to share.” The designer wants to shed his reputation of catering to women of a certain age and income bracket, and plans to expand into luxury sportswear over the next year with a $75 to $250 price point, far below that of his ready-to-wear, which retails in the four-figure range. Rucci also intends to use materials that fit lower price points and to restructure the company and instill a CFO. “We’re working on an infrastructure here that would allow me to take a lot of the financial pressure off of my plate and focus on more of the design end, and hopefully allow me more time, or some time to concentrate on painting,” said Rucci, referring to his hobby — he’s had several solo gallery shows and his paintings are priced up to $110,000.
With the unflattering Post article came an outpouring of support — and financial backing. “It’s almost like I want to send that journalist a thank you because everyone came forth with support and literally that article turned my business around,” said Rucci. “Serious money came to me and said, ‘do you want to play?’”
To mark Rucci’s 30th anniversary in the fashion industry, “Autobiography of a Fashion Designer: Ralph Rucci,” a limited edition, $195 coffee table book, was published by Bauer and Dean last December. With text by Rucci and photographs by Baldomero Fernandez, the tome presents a portrait of Rucci’s business and home. It includes images of his immaculate Upper East Side apartment, which houses a Cy Twombly suite, an erotic piece by Beuys, Elsa Peretti sculptures, and statuary from the Hung and Tang Dynasties.
The designer is also the subject of a new documentary film, “A Quiet American: Ralph Rucci & Paris,” by disgraced former curator Christian Leigh, whose unpaid bills during the 1993 Venice Biennale cause works by Roy Lichtenstein and others to be held by creditors. The film, reportedly near its final version, was screened last Saturday at the Scandinavia House. “I wanted to make a film about fashion unlike any other that I know of,” Leigh told ARTINFO. The movie, which was far from seamless, showed a series of interviews with people who know Rucci, including his client socialite Lee Radziwill, fashion personality André Leon Talley, Calvin Klein designer Francisco Costa, and the late François Lesage, whose embroidery atelier Rucci used in Paris. While the film was poignant and funny at times, the narrative could have been better constructed. Cuts during interviews were rough, and rather than weave the subjects’ remarks throughout to illustrate Rucci’s story, the filmmaker chose to stack the interviews side-by-side.
The reason Rucci has kept such a quiet presence over the years? “What I witnessed happening in fashion was enormous egos growing at the expense of product,” he said. “I’ve always felt that humility was the most aspirational quality to develop within your soul.” But now Rucci is working to make sure that the world knows his name and that the brand will survive past his lifetime. “We’ve accomplished too much for this métier for it not to be,” he said.
Click on the slide show to see highlights from “Autobiography of a Fashion Designer: Ralph Rucci,” published by Bauer and Dean.