With contemporary fashion and its creators getting more media attention than Hollywood players, 45-year-old Ralph Rucci occupies an unusual—if not oddball—niche: He's a fashion designer who is slowly earning fame by deliberately not courting it.
That doesn't worry Rucci at all. Asked how he feels about influential fashion editors and potential customers who may be unfamiliar with his work, he is positively zen: "When the time is right, they will find me." This is hardly surprising from a designer with a habit of telling fashion reporters, "I don't like to talk about clothes; I like the clothes to speak for themselves."
Subtlety and modesty are Rucci's signature, both in his exquisitely cut and minimally adorned clothing and in the label sewn into each of his designs. "Chado" it reads in capital letters, with "Ralph Rucci" in small type beneath.
Chado, the designer explained, is "a centuries-old Japanese tea ceremony consisting of 331 distinct steps, which when performed properly create an overall sense of grace and elegance. Chado represents all the talented people I work with, and the ceremony is our product." The principles of the Chado ceremony, he added, are "harmony, purity, respect, tranquillity, and integrity—the same principles I try to bring to my clothing design."
He succeeds. Working only with the most luxe materials (double-faced duchesse satin, sequined wool tweed, and cashmere lavishly embroidered by the venerable Parisian house of Lesage), Rucci turns out designs that are deceptively simple: ready-to-wear clothes that have the refinement of couture one-offs. And prices to match: A silk wrap is $1,400; his sable coat, $62,500.
Each garment is a marvel of construction, an intricate network of seams and darts that appears easy as a shrug. The artistry lies in the cut, which is executed so masterfully as to recall the sublime architectonics of the late Cristobal Balenciaga, the most famously publicity-shy designer of them all.
Deceptive simplicity is a virtue Rucci shares with his heroes, modernist artists like Antonio Tapies and Cy Twombly, whose work he not only collects but looks to for inspiration. One Chado ballgown, a column of white gazar, is embellished with Twombly-esque swirls of gray, black, and pink rocaille beads and matte sequins. In a recent collection, he accessorized a flannel trouser suit with a gray felt homburg in homage to the similarly hatted conceptual artist Joseph Beuys.
Because Rucci is inspired by artists, art collectors are naturally drawn to his clothes. Tatiana Sorokko, whose husband Serge Sorokko is an art dealer in San Francisco, is a longstanding client; in addition to paintings, she collects examples of vintage couture by the likes of Balenciaga, Patou, and Madame Grès, and she believes that Rucci, whom she calls "fashion's best-kept secret," is in that league.
"It's virtually impossible to find dresses by [American couture legend] Charles James," Sorokko said, explaining a lamentable gap in her collection. "But I have Ralph Rucci! He's that good. With Ralph's clothes, the cut is so amazing you could wear them inside out and they'd still look fantastic."
This artist of cut and drape recently displayed his talent in what, for fashion designers, is the ultimate exhibition space: the Paris Haute Couture. In July, Rucci became the first American to show his designs at the venerable Fédération Française de la Couture. "I'm completely honored," Rucci admitted upon hearing he'd been invited. "This has been a fantasy for my entire life."
So, this best-kept secret is a secret no more. But it's highly unlikely that fame will spoil Ralph Rucci. "The importance of humility in fashion cannot be overstated," the designer said with a smile, his eyes focusing on a photo of the Dalai Lama pinned to his inspiration board. "I never take anything for granted."