Ralph Rucci is the Virginia Woolf of designers. I’ll explain what I mean in a bit.
When I arrive at the designer’s pre-war building on New York City’s Upper East Side, I’m greeted by a stoic doorman who follows me into the elevator. “Oh, I can push the button,” I say nervously, thinking, Is this weird? “It’s my job to take you up,” he says, closing the iron gate and pulling the lever to take us to the penthouse.
Realizing I’ve seen too many Law & Order episodes, I blurt, “The only time I’ve seen an elevator this old was in Titanic in that scene when Kate Winslet says, ‘I’m through being nice! Take me down!’ ”
“Well, we’re going up,” he responds, then pulls back the gate at the top level and points me in the right direction.
When I step into Rucci’s apartment, I’m greeted with an ice-cold glass of water and a wooden chair that looks old and delicate but feels surprisingly sturdy. It makes perfect sense that a designer I’ve heard is iconoclastic and unique lives in a building that feels as if it’s from another time. The space strikes me as regal but livable, graced by the precision and thoughtfulness of everything occupying just the right corner or sliver of wall. The black leather wallpaper renders the room cozy, not limiting. Embroidered curtains move just so in the breeze through the open balcony door.
Enough light falls through the windows to showcase a couch Rucci describes as “a petrol green taupe” — arguably the best description of a color I’ve ever heard. It’s the stylish version of my parents’ beloved gold lamé couch from the 1980s, totally out of place in rural Wyoming, and which I tell him was an unfortunate shade of “disco sunshine yellow.” My color naming may fall a bit short of his, but the ice is broken.
As we settle in to chat, I notice coffee-table books stacked to create small tables, covering subjects ranging from photographs of Versailles to Grief Works by Julia Samuel, whose signing Rucci has just attended, to the history of Balenciaga, who Rucci cites as an inspiration (early in his career he studied with a patternmaker at the famous fashion house).
Even the dust looks artistic, floating over the dining table in the room off the kitchen, clearly a work space, awash in pencils and paper and sketches. Street life is audible below, the honks and snippets of strangers’ conversations mixed with the continuous nervous rush of city pedestrian traffic, but up here it feels like a sanctuary: relaxed, graceful, alluring. Rucci sits face to face with me, wearing straw slippers, exuding comfort and calm. He puts me at ease, although I’ve just walked for an hour in the pouring rain without an umbrella and am dripping water all over his very clean floor. He’s not a bit bothered by my wet boots or drowned-rat look, and his open face and friendly eyes make me feel seen. That I’m relaxed is even more remarkable given that I’m surrounded by breakable objects the very sight of which, as the mother of an active toddler, usually make me break into a clothes-soaking sweat.
“There’s an elusive quality that holds me in the world of fashion.”
The reason Rucci reminds me of Woolf is linked to the call to action immortalized in her book A Room of One’s Own. Woolf argues that every woman needs a place in which she can write, shut the door, and remove herself from the drama of the world in order to find the drama of her stories, untethered from distraction or the humdrum hustle of domestic life and quotidian worries. A whole house wasn’t needed, she reasoned, just a single room. I read the book when I was 19, on a beach in Miami during spring break, and it wasn’t until this moment that I understood how beautiful that room of one’s own might be, how important it is to have an inspiring space in order to be inspired. I actively resist the urge to ask if I can just write at his table for a few days, a week, a month, a year?
The connections to Woolf don’t stop there. She was singular in literary circles, and Rucci, too, is a genius in his field, scooping up accolades and awards through the decades; among them, induction into the Fashion Group Walk of Fame in 2011, two nominations for the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Womenswear Designer of the Year award, and the subject of a documentary narrated by Martha Stewart. He will be honored again at this year’s Fashion Week El Paseo, where he will show a new line. Rucci expresses excitement and nervousness about coming to the Coachella Valley runway for the first time.
A native of Philadelphia, Rucci studied philosophy at Temple University, moved to New York at 21 to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and in 1994 founded Chado Ralph Rucci, a luxury fashion and accessories line that received critical acclaim for its almost architectural attention to artistry and detail.
Like all artists, Rucci is always working. His career has been marked by extreme highs and lows. He admits to the traditional mercurial nature — yes, stereotypically, although often correctly — attributed to artists. “There’s an elusive quality that holds me in the world of fashion,” he tells me, although he also feels “defined by the work.” The friction and struggle he experiences in both private and public spheres have driven him to sustain a dedicated focus in finding “new ways to design and cut clothes.” His collections are spectacular but classic, wearable, meticulously constructed, and designed with movement in mind. The fabrics and cuts tell a story, allowing a woman to embody them, not just wear them.
“I love the craft,” Rucci admits, characterizing himself as “dedicated to the point of obsessive.” This kind of absolute commitment — which feels more like devotion — has made his professional journey thorny, with difficult turns that he is working to shift. He’s the opposite of prickly or bitter, although he has every reason to be both. “Nothing came easy,” he tells me, and yet he feels absolutely “defined by the work.” So a professional bump in the road is more than just a line break on a résumé: For Rucci, it is everything.
Unfinished pieces for a private client display Rucci’s signature “elaborate but minimalist” style.
Rucci brought in business partners around 2011, following a dip after the 2008 economic crisis. Although he initially felt “saved,” he quickly realized that the fashion world’s salient methodology of working on a forced schedule went against all his artistic inclinations. The situation wasn’t sustainable. Fashion is his “métier,” as he describes it; in that sense, it’s “not just your work; it defines your soul.” In other words, the art he makes with his hands — either paintings or dresses or suits — is the work of his life. Without it, he admits, he’d be lost. Pushing out compromised products that didn’t tell a story or match with his high standards of quality were literally tasks he could not do. Creativity follows its own time-consuming and meandering timeline, and the process is every bit as important to Rucci as the product, which is increasingly dismissed by the rise and popularity of “fast fashion” and the pressure designers feel to constantly produce.
When he’s in the crucible of active creation, he feels “taps on the shoulder from god.”
The process is so important to Rucci, in fact, that three years ago he left the partnership he’d created, which meant walking away from all that he’d built. “My name was on the door,” he says, but he was determined to take the risk and start over on his own terms and without compromising his artistic standards, no matter the professional and financial hits he took as a result. Now actively searching for partners for ready-to-wear collections, Rucci is inspired by Givenchy and Halston (where he worked early in his career); young designers like Francisco Costa and Zac Posen; artists like Cy Twombly; and fashion favorites Elsa Peretti and Pauline de Rothschild, career-long muses.
Couture, in which everything is fitted and made by hand, is not accessible to most people, and Rucci objects to the high cost of the clothes. I get the feeling that he’d like to dress the world if allowed — he simply loves seeing people shine in his creations, the way writers love Instagram photos of readers with their books in airport terminals, and painters love the idea of their work hanging on the wall of someone’s home. So I’m surprised to hear he’s more impressed with the quality and design of clothes coming out of Zara and H&M than he is with bigger brands that charge too much for too little. “You don’t have specific points of view coming out of the houses,” he says, believing that every item of clothing should tell a particular story. This is a designer as concerned with narrative as he is interested in luxury.
It’s no wonder Rucci finds that the “extreme egotism” of much of the fashion world runs counter to his experience of doing the work, which is nothing short of spiritual. When he’s in the crucible of active creation, he describes feeling “taps on the shoulder from God.” We talk about the joy of experiencing a rush of inspiration after years of arduous labor as an artist working in any medium.
As an artist, Rucci hardly needs the pressures of the fashion world to motivate him because there’s an internal engine always humming in the background. Just as a painter only feels as good as the last painting, Rucci feels the pressure to “live up to what I’ve created.”
Using fabrics like a double-faced white wool-and-silk blend and black double-faced wool crepe, Rucci describes his designs as elaborate but minimalist: a jewel-neck sleeveless sheath; a silk raincoat with an “albino negative” of a cashmere paisley; his original paintings printed on fabric and fragmented by the particular cut and the individual shape of person who wears them.
“I can speak in black most clearly,” he notes, allowing the “distillation of make, design, and fit” to showcase the movement of the body versus the body showcasing the structure and glam factor of the clothes. The lines of one dress follow the splay of a woman’s rib cage, with double-faced seams attached with thread loops called “worms,” revealing just 1/8 of an inch of skin, thereby “capturing a kinetic movement.” How the body is made influences the make and shape of the dress or coat, making it wearable art, yes, but also aesthetically functional, privileging — versus displaying — the full wonder and mystery of the body. It’s the difference between art and voyeurism.
This ardent attention to and appreciation of the structural elements of a body reminds me of Frida Kahlo’s corsets and her elaborately decorated artificial legs, which were long hidden from public view but are now on display at the museum at her former home, the Casa Azul in Mexico City. These bespoke artifacts told a story, but only if Kahlo chose to allow someone to see it, to tell that story on her terms. I tell Rucci about the process of having my artificial limb made as a child, my first “couture” experience, long before I knew or understood the word. The prosthetist took the measurements, made a wet cast, than a solid cast, then fit the cast, then cut and sawed and maneuvered the limb until it was not moving for me, but with me. For the first time I realized that there was a real artistry to my leg, even if the makers didn’t seem like artists, and their workspaces were often filthy and cold; and even though my initial interest in fashion was sparked by a desire to hide my leg, not show it off as an expensive, made-just-for-me item. I’m suddenly self-conscious about making this very personal connection, but Rucci lights up. The definition of bespoke, he says, is “everything made for you that allows you to feel differently about yourself.” Exactly.
“Each piece has its own story … each piece becomes a possibility of how other things can be done.”
Given that his career journey has been unique and occasionally fraught, I ask Rucci about his pinnacle moments. He tells me about his very first couture show, in 2002 in Paris, made notable by the fact that it was the first time an American designer was asked to present in that fashion beacon of a city. It was a hot July morning at the Place Vendôme, and Rucci was “so nervous my teeth were chattering.” But as the models lined up to start the show, wearing the work, embodying his creations, Rucci tells me, they were weeping. They felt a part of something, he says, that was more than just an industry milestone or a key moment in one designer’s career. It was like magic.
“That was the moment my life was changed,” he says, a powerful turning point made even more dramatic by the show’s thunderous success. “The French went insane.” Rucci continued to show in Paris for the next five years.
Once he has an idea, he says, “it doesn’t leave my consciousness.” He makes concept books, sometimes hundreds of them, and these small volumes serve as “containers” for images, the bulk of which he ultimately rejects. Part of his ritual, when he’s ready to move forward, is to “reignite” his imagination by opening the concept books as if encountering what’s in them for the first time. This deliberate conflagration allows Rucci to face what he describes as “the terror of the blank canvas,” and as a result of his deep engagement with this multifaceted process, his designs come from a “very private place.”
In order to access that elusive, highly individual place, he has even manipulated himself physically. He painted himself black and then used his body as a brush, applying it to a dozen 7-foot-tall panels in order to fully and visually engage and study the kinesis and movement. It was a cathartic, unforgettable experience, he tells me, like shedding a skin, or wearing your inside on the outside. I can sense the philosophy behind his creations and the spiritual element that marks his work in an unforgettable way.
Raised Catholic but deeply influenced by Buddhist teachings, Rucci considers himself a religious man, although he rejects the dogmatic approach in organized religion. Instead, he believes that when he is the “flow” of creation, it’s like “taking dictation from a higher source.” I tell him that my teacher at Harvard, the late Gordon Kaufman, believed that all people participate in the creation of God by literally imagining God, shaping an idea of God. Rucci agrees. “I believe that we all share in the Godhead,” he says, and his way just happens to be the creation of exquisite clothes that, through a meticulous, full body-heart-mind process, “bloom into shape.” As a writer, this resonates with me. The moments when you’re in line with what you want to do, when words and ideas are filling those blank spaces, there’s no better feeling in the world. You are, in that unrepeatable moment, truly authentic and entirely embodied. These are the stories Rucci’s designs tell. “Each piece has its own story … each piece becomes a possibility of how other things can be done.” An opening, a blooming: a liberation by design.
After Rucci’s young Polish assistant walks me to the elevator (during which we manage to have an impromptu conversation about Polish poets), the doorman escorts me through the dimly lit lobby and delivers me into the well-heeled maw of 72nd Street. I walk back to the Upper West Side across Central Park, once again in a steady downpour, but this time in no hurry. There is no wind, and the rain is warm and soft. My phone’s GPS prevents me from getting lost in the Ramble for the first time in my life, and I walk along the path without passing a single person for a full 20 minutes. I reflect on Rucci’s singular genius within a world that is so fast-paced, so deadline-driven, so time-saving-obsessed. When you encounter someone who truly loves what he does, the whole world feels more interesting and generous, more textured and alive; the boundaries of what might be possible feel extended. In this way, art evokes hope.
In this positive state of mind, I am drenched and happy, floating in this park oasis within the chaos of New York City, blissfully out of reach and entirely alone, a feeling not so dissimilar from that of creating something new — you’re alone, but surrounded: by voices, opportunities, naysayers, champions, challenge, and your own distinct vision. Rucci’s process and clothes speak to that suspended, still space — that room of one’s own — that every artist must find in order to be, as he admits, “the only one. It’s a great responsibility.” And one he allows others to wear and live beautifully.