Who ever said a couturier couldn’t be a fighter? Not Ralph Rucci; he happens to be both—designer challenged by a consumer who was once a conceptual devotee now turned fan of faster fashion. Rucci uses both brain and brawn to charge forward, instilling spirit in the very material that haunts him.
Ralph Rucci is a boxer. He stands in a ring with three parallel ropes that encase him in a square. His opponent, known for successive combos, seems to have more than just the usual set of fists. Rucci, of course, knows better but the illusion is intimidating. In this match up, the hands of an American couturier are pitted against the many of a commercial industry well trained in serial production. But, Rucci plants his feet firmly in the mat; the designer strengthens fashion with a body of intellect that is heavier to move than the mainstream’s disposable trends. “A statue is a mountain of power,” he asserts, though autonomy can be a lonely place, a corner with no one in it. It certainly has been for Ralph Rucci, America’s last standing couturier.
Round one—Rucci debuts his first collection in 1981, but after six years of successfully dressing a private clientele, his business shutters because of a large order cancelled mid-production by a major retailer. In his advice to the designer, Hubert de Givenchy describes the story of the last days of Germaine Émilie Krebs, known as Madame Grès, the legendary twentieth century couturier. In 1988, her business was liquidated to pay bills. “The morning the police came,” Rucci recounts in fresh disbelief, “the seamstresses ran for help because everything was being thrown in a bonfire.” Mme Grès, a woman who in the height of her fame dressed the likes of Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich, would later die penniless and alone in a sanitarium in Normandy with rodents running around the floor. The tales of isolated genius are not lost on Rucci. When asked about his own celebrity wrangling, he refers to the publicity as a “conveyor belt” that only serves to make the garments as interchangeable as those who wear them. “I would love to dress Lady Gaga, but in a style that befits her talent, not in costume that befits Middle America.” Rucci crafts clothes for women to wear functionally, even while vacuuming. “Couture clients see each other in their homes. You have to consider these clothes for being worn with other women in rooms, and that means you have to consider homes and rooms.”
So why, then, isn’t the Rucci name a household one? The answer is simple: a familiar story of the van Gogh that goes unnoticed only to be discovered a neo-generation later. Take Barnett Newman, for example, the well-known artist that was once considered contemporary to the Abstract Expressionists in the forties until most of his group denounced him. In 1950, his vertical “zips” hung in a gallery show challenging AbEx authority, criticizing their ego-driven gestural expressions. Newman’s art stood still and upright, sparking the beginnings of Minimalism and its call for perception. Later artists, like Donald Judd in the sixties, took the “zips” and released them from the wall altogether, kicking sculpture off its podium and placing art into the viewer’s immediate environment. Engagement transformed the viewer into an active participant. Since then, technologies have eliminated the physical participation from many day-to-day experiences, including the embodiment of a resilient outward identity.
Rucci clothes seem to counteract this tendency; they mean to inhabit an experience in a place that isn’t flat like a photograph or screen. “If anything, the audience I dress, they don’t want to be photographed.” They don’t want to be advertised like commodity. They want to exist in reality.
“The spatial element of time,” he explains, “equals the molecular element of intellect.” For the Millennium generation, who are beginning to realize the exhaustive impersonality of mass communication, Rucci’s clothes offer a respite to transience. Unlike the boomers who keep up with modernity to stay young or the newborns who won’t know any better, the eighties babies are apt to be Rucci’s Judd-like supporters because they are the last to have had childhoods of pure imagination, full of real knee scrapes and neighborhood kids. “Just tell them who I am,” Rucci says, tell the kids who used to go to each other’s houses after school, equating place with identity.
In fact, the tradition of couture is built entirely on the concept of residence. “I wanted to be a sculptor,” Madame Grès once said. “For me, it’s the same thing to work the fabric or the stone.” Her Grecian drapery would be later found in the antiquity halls of many museums. Similarly, Cristobal Balenciaga was once named the ‘architect’ of couture for his constructed volumes that surrounded the body in four corners. Charles James, an American, spiraled seams like the plumbing entrails of skyscrapers to create a kind of “human architecture” and tall trees. Rucci, as their heir, uses the same construction principles to raise his signature Infanta gowns that are used in the physics of suspension bridges. His technique (itself dubbed “suspension”) involves fractured pieces of material reassembled by bridges of hand-sewn stitches meant to elaborate anatomical motion in airy mimicry. One just has to glide along the corridor. “When I start collections, the first thing I do is look at interiors to remind myself how people live, how they wish to live.” A feeling of flou, or lightness, comes off not from the material itself (the most precious fabrics are not necessarily the most lightweight). But it instead comes from what can be called the mind of the garment, the collaboration between wearer and environment, that produces a thicker air, a spirit that haunts like ghosts who speak of memories wafting in perfume.
“It all begins with an emotion. What is the one emotion I want people to feel when they see the collection?” This is the logic of contemporary sculpture, to reject physical boundaries, like those of soft vicuna, for something—though invisibly—grander. And ultimately, this is the logic of Rucci’s way of life. “It’s essential that I work out everyday, and I mean heavy, because I need to suspend my mind.”
Round two—the designer launches Chado Ralph Rucci, his second ready-to-wear line, in 1994 and is picked up by Neiman Marcus. Though stable, the nineties prove to be difficult for the brand as dispensable wealth, accumulation, and Tom Ford’s “it” bags at Gucci dominate the American market. Little space is left for the conceptual rigor of Rucci’s work. As an alternative, he later contemplates creating an accessible line for the Home Shopping Network, but the opportunity fizzles when negotiations go sour. “They find that you sell the most between two and four in the morning,” he says. “[HSN] was charged up for me to go on, so that this woman who is unhappy—lonely and sometimes drunk—she becomes associated, and if I’m telling her how fantastic she’s going to look, she uses her phone and buys more product.” Rucci found disgust in this manipulation of the client, as if to “demand a piece of your death.”
Rucci ducked a jab, protecting his head from the blow. He would rather dress the subtle being, the deepest part of its individuality, connecting mind with body. “Nothing should be noticed,” Rucci says. “And if it’s noticed, it has to be very intellectual.” Ruccian taupe becomes the shadow of the mind, while Ruccian black as the movement of interstellar time.
Round three—Rucci is invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to show in Paris in 2002, the first American couturier in half a century since Mainbocher. After showing for a few years, including his ready-to-wear in Paris, Rucci is forced to leave. The Great Recession hits America, and the Chado Ralph Rucci business drops 60% of its revenue practically over night. “I didn’t realize the world had changed.” The crisis was so sudden that it wasn’t felt for over a year and Rucci continued to blindly spend on his expensive couture, which normally broke even under regular conditions. Forced to commit to the more profitable ready-to-wear, Rucci has taken more and more time out of being an actual designer to run a business in countless meetings.
“My dream is to get back to Paris to show the haute couture proper because I am not satisfied with myself unless I’m doing a separate couture.” They must remain separate, Rucci advises, because the customers themselves are different. HC customers don’t want to see the ready-to-wear, and RTW customers are intimidated by couture prices. Two polarized languages with different structures.
Covering both markets presents its challenges. These days, even the most successful couture house barely sells much of its own couture anymore. Considering their two billion dollar revenue, “5% of that is apparel. 5%, what does that tell you? It tells you that they are not selling clothes. And I’m sure out of that percentage, an eighth of that is couture.” Couture calculates less than one percent, beat out by nothing more than common accessories and licensed products from fragrances to eyewear. “Lift that dress up and I’ll tell you if it’s haute couture.” It most likely won’t be, yet Rucci doesn’t compromise. “In this depression, I have to think about selling clothes.”
The bell sounds—but Rucci isn’t tired, not a towel in sight. Even though his past is chaptered by struggle, it by no means defines him. “They can’t hurt me,” he says. “It doesn’t own me.” He sits reclined deep in his chair. His apartment is punctuated by ancient statues, some from the Han Dynasty. A Scavullo portrait of Diana Vreeland rests on a sill, her hands clenched ready to defend her way of life. “There is no such thing as me stopping doing what I do with my life because there is no separation between the work and me. There isn’t; the work is me.” He looks forward. The idea for his latest spring collection, a “presentation of extraterrestrial beauty,” came from an Egyptian bust, “a side profile of an alien, with an elongated skull,” clarifies Rucci. Aliens, he believes, came to Earth to teach the language of beauty in hieroglyphs and pyramids. Rucci, from Philadelphia, teaches us to find beauty in the present, when invention creates emotion in a conversation between material and spirit. Rucci is certainly no foreigner. Ralph Rucci is America; he’s the one with all the dreams.
The interview below reveals Mr. Rucci’s resonating soliloquy on spirituality, sexuality and resolute fighting spirit, which have run through his 30 years of dedication to the craftsmanship and “métier”.
Interview by Jason JaeHyun Kim, Ryan Yoon and Laurent Altier
What do you think has to be told in your perspective? What points do you want to make?
You should question my psychological state. You should question how I’m able to stay sane. You should question the fact that I consistently cry a combination of joy, awareness, and gratefulness that I’m able to do what I do with my life. But, sometimes I’m in shock of what I have to withstand. It’s inhuman at times. That’s why I guess I have great resiliency as a boxer; if you hit me I don’t feel very much.
Did you have a lot of difficulties dealing with your sexuality in your life?
I knew at a very early age that I was homosexual. By the time that I got to secondary school, I was a man very comfortable being a “man,” and I suppose masculine. So, I wasn’t feeding into a stereotypical victimized homosexual category. [But,] I went to an all-boys Roman Catholic prep school. The number of fights, the number of confrontations was ridiculous. I would try to explain to the priest and the teachers that they had a big problem here and they had to do something about it. It was horror, torture. I would go out for more aggressive sports so I could hurt them, which I did on purpose. But, it deeply affected me.
I come from an Italian American community that didn’t accept homosexuality. It wasn’t what a man did. I might have been comfortable within my own mind of this fact, but I wasn’t comfortable with actually acting upon my sexuality. I’ll be frank with you. When I got to New York in the 70’s, I lived very promiscuously. But I lived very promiscuously without being conscious of all the guilt I harbored. And, I used drugs so I could have sex that felt guiltless. At 54 years old, I’m finally getting normal. I’ve had a lot of sex in my life and I say, “Thank you God that I’m HIV negative.” I’ve been to places you can’t even imagine. Gay men are bred not to love and respect one another, so a lot of the sexual performance that we do with each other, initially, especially if there’s guilt involved, is hurtful. It plays into the work; you don’t see me making clothes with a décote to the navel. The essential elements I put in clothes have to do with more intellectual ways of seduction.
So how do you deal with all of that? What keeps you going?
Today, the work is my focus. I’m [also] starting to get into a serious relationship that’s incredibly supportive, and it gives me great strength and optimism. I meditate, I talk to God, and I talk to spirits that live with me. My space is a church; it’s very spiritual for me. Here, perfect example, these two Japanese lacquered dowry chests. Look at the pure energy from them because some young girl left her parents’ home to go live with a man that she loved. She probably had this idyllic life, married, and majorly in love. Then, she passed away and they found these in her home. God knows where they went, but her power is still in them.
Can you describe some of the spirits you feel?
They are presently here with you as we speak. Their scent moves by me; I know they’re here. Some are beautiful spirits that are attached to some of the statuary. These are individuals that have come into this space to show us a new direction, correct some problem, educate us, give us higher levels of knowledge. I guess I have that sense; they make themselves known to me.
I had an apartment on Seventy-first Street off of Park for many years, and I had to get out of there. It was a very small studio with a pull out sofa. There was a very dark negative poltergeist in there. One night, I was just trying to go to sleep, I was on my stomach, and this entity placed this small dog on the side of the bed. I felt the footsteps of the dog walking up the side of the bed next to me and I was frightened, and then the dog was lifted off. A couple of nights later, this entity laid down on the bed next to me, and I went sort of down on one side. That’s when I said, “I’m more powerful than you are; you are not permitted here. I do not want you in my home.” I realized this was serious a couple of weeks later.
I was going to sleep and I was awoken—I have chills telling you this—and I knew they were staring at me. It was a male spirit. I knew he was at the foot of the bed starring at me and I said, “You must leave, you have to leave, you can’t stay here.” He laid on top of me. I was on my stomach, and I said, “You have to leave! I don’t want to cause you any alarm but you can’t stay here. You have to leave.” The next day, I called someone to help me clean [out] the apartment. See, if you’re a person of great strength, they can be attached to you, poltergeist that haven’t been able to cross over because of sorrow, because of unexpected death. They can linger and they seek the strength of the living. Part of what you have to do is give them the space to help them cross over. When I moved in to this [current] apartment, as soon as I walked in, I knew that I was filled and I brought spirits with me. That’s why sometimes [my dog] barks. He sees things.
In the office, they follow me. I could be waiting on a subway platform and smell their fragrance. I know they just came there because I’m worried about something, and they’re there to say, “Don’t worry, you’re being taken care of.” This spiritual awareness is essential to the way I live and have lived ever since I was a child.
Is that why you have an interest in Eastern culture?
It could be, and because I’ve had so many past lives in the Orient. I’ve done past life regression therapy where you’re taken through hypnosis into past lives. Of all the regression sessions I’ve had, most of them were in the Orient. This season, two prints came down the runway. There was the jacket and the kaftan and if you come and look at it up close it’s a photograph called, “Men in White Robes.” In the Orient, there’s a belief that if you go into deep meditation you’re greeted by men in white robes. They give you answers and directions. The spiritual element for me is the most important thing because that is the future. I’m talking about a spiritual awareness that connects the dots between the arts and society and your lived life.
Do you remember when your first encounter was?
There was a very dark spirit in my house (I couldn’t have been more than eleven). I watched this spirit in my room, and it left and it was going to my sister’s room. I chased it. I was screaming for everybody to come. It got into her room and I was chasing it to get out. We had this very large house in a suburb in Philadelphia and there was a staircase at the bottom of my bedroom. You had so many dark entities living up there. That’s where they would all go and I would go up there alone. I was very unafraid because I always had this strength. I would go up there and I would just sit there with this tenacity like, “You can’t stay here, you can’t hurt my family.” My parents didn’t know what to do. Can you imagine? They took me to a psychiatrist. I accept them because I can tell you we’re basically on this planet surrounded by beautiful spirits in harmony with all of us.
All of this is only here for us to enjoy in this moment. It’s all borrowed. It’s all borrowed for our enjoyment. And that’s being the perfect psychological athlete. That’s a perfect intellectual form. You know that’s pure Gandhi, and that’s pure Dalai Lama, and that’s my big aspiration. I hope I can get there someday.
THE GROUND ISSUE #2