Sunday, May 10, 2015

Two Evenings with Ralph Rucci

Outside Cooper Hewitt - still light out, post-lecture!

Two weeks ago, we were lecturing to students at Parsons.  This week, the tables were turned and for two evenings, we were students of designer Ralph Rucci. Cooper Hewitt's Design By Hand Public Lecture Series supported by Van Cleef & Arpels made it possible.

During Wednesday evening's program, as the designer talked to a room full of attendees about what influenced him, slides of those influences appeared on a large screen behind him. Brook Hodge  interviewed him one-on-one and then opened it up to questions from the audience. The next evening was Design by Hand's Adult Workshop: Inspiration with Ralph Rucci, where a much more intimate group of participants were to sketch three or four designs each.  Mr. Rucci first walked us through several of the designs in his Chado collection from story board to finished product on the runway.  He then turned us loose to sketch on our own, and sat with each of us for a one-on-one critique of our sketches.

The designer was a real trooper. Hospitalized last Friday with a ruptured appendix, he dragged himself out of bed to participate in the lecture series. Since he has such an extensive resume, we're going to intersperse information about him in between shots of his story boards and runway collection of Autumn/Winter 2003 which was the subject of his Thursday Design By hand Adult Workshop.

Rucci was an unusual speaker.  He said he'd brought about 140 slides, but as far as we could tell, very few of them showed his work.  Rather, he showed photos of things that influenced his work.  Among those were work by sculptors Richard Serra and Louise Nevelson, painters Francis Bacon and Cy Twombly, and singer Patty Smith, whom he referred to among others such as Elsa Perretti, Diana Vreeland and designers Balenciaga, Galanos, Rei Kawakubo, Charles James, Rick Owens (which he wore for the workshop) and Halston.  But there were also numerous photographs of room interiors.

A native of Philadelphia, Rucci got his undergraduate degree in philosophy from Temple and then moved to New York City to study at FIT and then train under Halston. He showed his first collection in 1981 and debuted his Chado collection in 1994. Below is his Fall/Winter 2003 sketch calling for black tulle with small pailettes and a sample of the material, which felt light as air.

The name of his haute couture collection -- "Chado" -- is from the Japanese tea ceremony hailed for its attention to detail, exactitude, sense of austere style, and expertise on the part of the practitioner.  It was the perfect name for his collection. "God is in the details" is an apt motto to describe his work. He favors double-faced cashmere, swing coats, cigarette pants, tailoring in broadtail and subtle micro-beading. An example is this sketch which called for pistachio caviar micro-beading.

A stickler for the best-of-the-best, Rucci insists on using Lesage in Paris for his sequins and beads. Below is a close-up of the pistachio caviar beading on chiffon. It felt as delicious to the touch as it looks.

Here's the link to British Vogue's coverage of his Autumn/Winter 2003-2004 collection.

The Ralph Rucci design that has remained seared in Jean's retina for over a decade is this tobacco colored alligator tunic with matching thigh-high boots, opera-length gloves and domed coolie hat. Outrageous on so many levels, it is emblematic of the designer's use of exotic, luxurious materials and his Asian influences.

More than a decade ago, Rucci was already extensively featuring models of color to show his collection. Alek Wek models this sable-lined coat with sable neck ruff.
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Note the detail in the stitching on the front of this jacket. He underscores his fine techniques by outlining each piece of fabric in raised seams or inserts or suspension of multiple layers of fabrics on chiffon.
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This cloth dress was made to look like ostrich skin.  The fabric was pinched and sewn to look like the pimpled skin of the plucked bird.
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As if that were not clever enough, the coat was lined in panels of chiffon to waft as the model sashayed down the runway.
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This silk moire gown has multiple layers of tulle under the hem to give it volume and transparent inserts at the neck ...
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and across the back, as counterpoint to the layers of ruffles.
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The designer described writing on fabric and said he even wrote an obituary on one piece. Here are the coat and scarf from the front ...
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and from the back.  Check the tiny slit in the hem at the back of the pants.  No detail is overlooked.
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The leather trim and neck treatment on this dress are phenomenal.  Here is the frontal view ...
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and here is the rear view.
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The designer spoke about his favorite techniques, including the suspension technique, the vibration technique, the thread of life technique and what he called "infantas" and "worms", so we thought we'd show you photos of work that we think embodies some of those ideas. This one, we think, might be an example of his suspension technique.  One of his dresses, he told the audience, had over eighty separate panels.  Like so many other people we have spoken to of late, Rucci referred to the "homogenization" of fashion.  Rucci, however, has no trouble keeping his work creative and original.

He referred also to the lost art of the hand made.  You can see how intricate this back is, and how much detail work had to go into it.  During the second lecture we attended, Rucci referred to "costume-y" looks in clothes, making us wonder where we stood on the designer's "costume-y" spectrum.  We have our own opinion on that (doesn't everyone?!), but no doubt one person's costume is another person's perfectly coordinated outfit.

Ralph Rucci is the only American accepted to France's Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in the last sixty years (preceded only by Mainbocher).  Detail is probably the most highly regarded ingredient in couture, and Rucci spares no expense - in terms of time, material or technique - to outdo himself in pursuit of its perfection.  In this photo, we can't see all the details, but we can see the elegant line that moves in a wave from the wrist across the back and down again; we can see the angled trapunto stitchwork across the midriff, and hints of ostrich and beadwork on the dress, all most likely added by hand.

Rucci referred lovingly to how his "infanta" dresses embodied "majesty".  This might be one of those.   He told numerous anecdotes over the course of the two evenings.  One of the most vivid was of his visit to Liz Taylor, where she had him trying on her jewelry.  That must have been a fun evening.

Rucci also referred to his "worm" technique.  We were both perplexed, try as we might to follow his explanation, but we found this picture, and wonder if this might be an example of that.  Rucci also spoke at length about his desire to evoke a feeling of weightlessness, and these cords definitely appear weightless on the dress.

In another show of luxury and detail, this dress has a sheer panel at the chest, a galaxy of sequins, and an intriguing photo print on the underside of the skirt -- of a Pina Bausch dancer!  What doesn't show on the outside is an exquisite little hidden luxury that few will actually get to see unless the wearer flourishes it, as the model is doing.  (And be sure to look at her little glovelets.)  "I would do these things so I could show what could be done by hand", he said of his extraordinary workmanship.  Rucci also makes a habit of cutting, ripping, puncturing and otherwise "destroying" expensive material, "taking the precious effect out of the clothing", thus giving it an entirely different aspect.

Asked how it felt to see his finished work on the runway, of his best work Rucci said it felt like "you just took dictation from a higher source."  The words of a man who clearly loves his work.

For the workshop, Mr. Rucci wore his own alligator jacket over an apron, shorts and high-tops by Rick Owens. He was sweet enough to pose for a shot with Jean before calling it a night.  He had already taught a class of high school students earlier in the day, before leading our class from 6:30 to 8:30 pm. When she asked him how he was doing, he confessed that he was exhausted. We, on the other hand, were exhilarated.


  1. Thank you for giving your readers the opportunity to see a few of these gorgeous clothes. I missed reading about what you wore, am intrigued with Jean's black and white pants in the photo at the top.

  2. Wow, Rucci's work really brings to life the adage "God is in the details". The talk and workshop sound very interesting, and it's not often one gets a chance to learn so much about a designer's inspirations. I can see why the crocodile leather outfit is burned into Jean's brain. The tunic and the gloves would be on my "if I was a millionaire what would I buy" list. As would the dress with the leather trim and fab neckpiece.

  3. I too feel exhilarated by the breathtaking photos that you include in this amazing post. Rucci's work is brilliant!

  4. I hadn't heard of this designer before reading your post. What a wonderful workshop it must have been….seeing and hearing about such luxury is always special….and meeting the designer/artist himself must have been exciting.

    Just recently I attended an evening learning about the wondrous and luxurious fabrics of Jakob Schlaepfer!! Mindblowing fabric house…that sells to Chanel, Balenciaga, Gaultier etc etc (all the very top fashion houses and royalty) and probably to Rucci.

    Love you blog! Merci beaucoup!