Ralph Rucci has paved the way for the many young designers with a glimmer of hope to have their collection walk the runway. His tale is a true American story, starting out a big dreamer as a boy in Philadelphia and going on to become the only American designer in history to show under the auspices of The Chambre de la Haute Couture in Paris.
Redia Soltis converses with the legendary designer about moving to New York in 1977 during the heyday of Studio 54, landing a job at Halston with the help of his sister, and using the latest technology to keep his Atelier Couture based in his beloved New York.
(All photos courtesy of Jennilee Marigomen)
Redia: What was growing up in Philadelphia like?
Ralph Rucci: As I suppose it is to grow up anywhere…odd to grow up in Philadelphia. Often feeling out of body, out of place, wanting to be somewhere much more exciting. It is not so much “Philadelphia”, but the space within myself that I needed to connect with the space outside of myself. I was born in South Philadelphia, which was a very warm, nurturing Italian neighborhood. I never placed the emphasis on the Italian, just the loving, caring, and supportive element of the place. My parents moved to a suburb, and my sister and I attended private schools which I adored. I adored the formality, the organization, and the stress on manners, behavior, and it was the beginning of the nurturing the individuality within. I, unfortunately attended St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, which was a complete emotional, regretful, setback to my development as a man. I was out as a gay young man, and this brought forth such fear amongst my peers that even the school hierarchy was unable to calm the interruption that I presented. I was a proud, young man who was a hippie, an artist, and showed my sensitivity. Saying that I was a threat is an understatement. I mention this at length because by the time I graduated, I was someone to know…but how unfortunate that young gay men must still experience prejudice….even today. Of course, this shot me out of a cannon directly to my dreams and to be in New York.
At a young age of 21 you moved to New York to pursue fashion. New York in the 80’s was a time of abundant opportunity in the height of change. What was it about New York in the 80’s that drew you here?
I arrived in New York in 1977. My God, this was probably the most exciting moment. Talent, imagination, and release were the entry cards into New York. I knew what I wanted to do, my energy was fueled by the worlds of fashion, style, art, and the intrigue. Andy Warhol’s world met Diana Vreeland met The Metropolitan Museum of Art, met the Black Cashmere World of Halston which ignited my fashion inspiration, which met the incredible new world of gay men as found at The Saint. New York was filled with wonder and possibilities and the standards were high in our professions. You had to work very hard. You had to be very good. There were no passes, and everyone worked and played into the night at the most magical electric blender called Studio 54.
How did you get the opportunity to work for Halston? What was your position their when you started?
When I was in college at Temple University in Philadelphia—which I adored—I was researching a paper for my Aesthetics class. While in the stacks I found the images of two David Bailey photographs taken for either Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue—I think Harper’s Bazaar. They were of a bride and her attendant. They were photographed from the back and the pure architectural structure, the purity of line, the monastic quality all shocked me. The image of “Clothes” reminded me of Robert Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic”. I was almost trembling, this was 1975 and I can remember it as if it were yesterday. I knew that I had touched on a turning point in my life…I felt it. I discovered that the clothes were designed by a man, the greatest couturier in the world—Cristobal Balenciaga. I found my key to my dreams. I began to research everything I could, and finally over the next few days I discovered that there was a designer in New York who was also from the school of Balenciaga, his name was Halston. As I began to discover more and more Halston information and images, I was converted to the fact that this man had changed fashion, and he was the only designer that I wanted to address.
The way the I acquired an interview is really quite amusing. My sister and I went to Halston’s made to order salon as I pushed and forced my sister that she had to order something and that would allow me to take one foot into this world. This is exactly what happened. While there my sister almost fainted when she realized what she was getting herself into financially, but the pay-off was that a vendeuse did arrange for an audience with one of the two greatest designers in my lifetime—Halston and James Galanos.
At Halston, I worked in the workroom expanding toiles into paper patterns..all technical, no glamour—which is exactly the way that I wanted it.
What type of skills did you develop during your technical design experiences that carried over to your own processes at Chado Ralph Rucci?
There was a great man who oversaw Halston’s atelier, Mr. Salvatore Cardello. As a young man he trained at Balenciaga in Paris. I worked for him at Halston, and perhaps a few techniques fell into my hands.
In the past, your collections have been inspired by various fashion leaders and painters including the work of Cy Twombly. Can you talk about this a bit?
If I speak about other fashion designers that I admire and respect, they become the touchstone of a printed article, and my specific work is overlooked. I use the art references since they represent our participation into a collective unconsciousness. We can all communicate and be moved by art, and thus I reference other artists and myself to draw emotions from my audience.
You are a painter and designer. Do you believe these two mediums work well together?
Yes, perhaps just for me at this moment. I love my process as a fashion designer, yet I abhor what has happened to my métier. The painting—the fine arts aspect is mine. It is totally mine and I have no one and nothing to consider when I begin a work. It is from my heart, my soul and I use the process as I psychological release, like lifting weights for the brain and soul.
Your career spans 3 decades. During that time what has been the main staples that trademark your collection?
This is a question for others to answer. But, I suppose the touchstones have been many new techniques—articulations, vibrations, worm techniques, controlled volumes with bias cutting, fossilized trapunto work, dimensional elements in the garments, always new ways to cut and make clothes, and a palette and approach that has nothing to do with fashion trends .
In 2002 you were the first American designer in over 60 years to be invited to show your collection in Paris by the French Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
Firstly, I must correct you. I have been the only American-based designer in history to show under the auspices of The Chambre de la Haute Couture in Paris. The other American, Mainbocher had already been based in Paris for 14 years. He was the editor in chief of French Vogue, and then he left to organize his own his own couture house.
Is it true that you showed your Haute Couture collection in Paris for 3 seasons after?
I did not show for only three seasons, but showed 5 seasons over three years.
Would you ever consider moving to Paris where craftmanship in fashion is set at such a high standard and is truly honored?
Now to answer your question—yes I intend to show a Haute Couture collection in Paris again, but I will always be based in New York. There is no need to move to Paris. Fashion is international and all of the great embroidery houses work with e-mail, overnight rush, and modern technology so that time and place are never far apart. Also, please notice what I show in New York. I am proud to say that my American atelier is extraordinary…it is a league of all nations, but all Americans…even our haute couture, made in America with such pride and emotion that you feel it.