Being Ralph Rucci

Rick Guidotti

America’s greatest unknown couturier.

To know Ralph Rucci for ten minutes is to feel as if you’ve known him forever. Unlike the cool, elegant clothes he designs for Chado Ralph Rucci, he talks openly, cries easily and appears to lack the two essentials for survival in the fashion business: artifice and armor. Even before the waiter takes our order, he’s told me about his new relationship (with Jack Mackenroth, an HIV activist and former contestant on Project Runway), his high blood pressure, his meditation and workout routine and his penchant for slathering black paint all over his nude body while attacking a canvas. (Rucci is also an accomplished painter and collagist.)

We’re at Balthazar restaurant, around the corner from Rucci’s atelier in downtown Manhattan. The designer, 54, is dressed in his uniform of white shirt and Levi’s. Though he used to wear his dark hair long, with flared sideburns, it is now short and flecked with gray. His brown eyes are mournful. He rarely smiles. At times he resembles Al Pacino; at others, a Renaissance saint. Fashion design isn’t so much his profession as it is his spiritual calling. Even after more than 30 years in the business, he still professes bewilderment at its crass commercialism, decrying the trend of celebrity designers and much more. In many ways, he’s a 19th-century aesthete, with a devotion to all things exquisite, from Elsa Peretti’s biomorphic designs to Asian art. The words “rag trade” and “Rucci” do not go together.

“I understand you collect art from the Han Dynasty period,” my luncheon companion says above the deafening noise.

“Yes, I designed hats for Dynasty,” he replies.

Rucci, who showed his haute couture in Paris, designed hats? For the campy 1980s prime-time soap opera?

“But only for Joan Collins,” he explains.

Rucci, as it turns out, is full of contradictions: humble and arrogant, spiritual and worldly, modern and old-school. Though he’s one of the world’s most talented designers, many have never heard of him—which has as much to do with favoritism in the fashion industry as it does with Rucci’s creative temperament. “Ralph approaches the medium as an artist,” says Harold Koda, curator in charge of New York’s Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “He isn’t trend-driven. It’s about his evolution, his introspective practice. It’s rare to find someone who won’t compromise in this business. But real artists can’t compromise.”

It’s no secret that times have been tough. Rucci’s business is self-financed, and he runs it himself. “The stress is killing me,” he says. “I need a partner. Valentino had Giancarlo Giammetti. I have no one. I can’t do it anymore.”

“Are you worried that you’re going to lose the business?” I ask.

Suddenly St. Ralph recedes and Pacino, eyes blazing, comes to the fore. “There’s no such thing as the business and me,” he says. “If I lost my business, I’d lose my mind. And I have no intention of doing that.”

I’m at a Rucci trunk show at Bergdorf Goodman, but Rucci isn’t here. He’s selecting the fabric for his fall 2012 show, as well as finishing 12 pieces of couture, including a sable coat for “a very public woman” who needs everything in four weeks. The spring collection, which received some of his best reviews, is displayed in a small fourth-floor boutique. Photos don’t do the clothes justice. They really do need to be seen—or, more ideally, worn—to be believed. “His clothes are among the most beautiful in America, or, indeed, anywhere in the world,” says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “The craftsmanship of his atelier is unparalleled.”

Rucci is drawn to sumptuous textiles, labor-intensive weaving techniques and what Koda describes as “obsessive ornamentation,” such as “suspension” embroidery, which can take 30 hours for a single jacket, or ostrich feathers that have been burned with acid and then applied by hand. None of this comes cheap. His prices start around $1,200, with made-to-order soaring to six figures. “When you sit in his workroom and watch the attention to detail, you realize the cost is a value,” says Ron Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer of Saks Fifth Avenue.

Even so, his customers belong to an elite cult whose high priestesses include Lee Radziwill, philanthropist Deeda Blair and society decorator Susan Gutfreund. As for the other clients, John Lindsey, Chado’s sales director, describes them as “quiet billionaires.” Though the clothes are refined, they are not “safe.” Rucci’s offerings for spring include a pink caviar-beaded catsuit with a feathered tunic, a metallic-silver alligator jacket, a glacier-white suit with clear vinyl insets and a horsehair-and-chiffon Infanta gown that is airier than a cirrus cloud. “More and more, he’s lightened up,” says Cathy Horyn, The New York Times fashion critic. “The spring show really sucked you in. He showed a lot more flash, kinkiness even.”

“Kinky” isn’t a word one normally associates with Rucci, but in his own sly, subversive way, he’s always played against elegance by adding tantalizing hints of transparency, or by referencing S&M with leather braids and knots. “I think of him as a wild Catholic,” says Koda. “There’s a religious quality, a purity of form to Ralph’s clothes. At the same time, they’re very sensual and hedonistic.”

What they’re definitely not is girly. As a result, they flatter women of any age, from 80-year-old model Carmen Dell’Orefice to Maya Haile, who is in her twenties and modeled for Rucci before becoming a customer. She and her husband, star chef Marcus Samuelsson, were in the front row at Rucci’s spring show. “The way I’d wear his clothes is different than the way an older woman might wear them,” Haile says. “But different isn’t better, and Ralph knows that.”

As a Bergdorf saleswoman whisks away half a dozen pieces to ship to a client in Texas, Naji Batanian, a sales director, shows me an ethereal caftan embroidered with glittering sequins and silk-screened with pictures of monks in white robes. “Ralph truly believes in a higher power,” Batanian tells me later. “Just when you think things are going to end, something miraculous happens.”

Several days later, I’m in Rucci’s office, which is at the far end of his atelier, where some 30 people work in almost total silence. He approaches practically everything he does with fanatical intensity. Being interviewed is no different. He doesn’t receive phone calls or touch a bite of his food and only takes three sips of coconut water, even though his voice is hoarse and he looks as if he might faint. “I want you to get beneath all the twisted stuff,” he tells me. “I’m raw for it.”

Rucci grew up in southern Philadelphia, the son of a butcher, who’d dreamed of becoming a doctor, and a housewife with a “great sense of style.” She’d bring her young son to her dressmaker’s, where he’d look, listen and, most importantly, touch the fabric. Using his mother’s sewing machine, Rucci taught himself how to make clothes. Though he was never sexually attracted to women, he was hypnotized by their poise and grace, particularly the Sisters of Mercy at his grade school. Their black-and-white habits evoked Chanel. As for the Jesuits in high school, Rucci found many of them cruel and hypocritical. “I wasn’t open about my homosexuality in the beginning,” he says, “but there was so much persecution, I had to take a stand.” When his Latin teacher gave him a humiliating gift in front of the whole class, he hit him in the head with it.

After high school Rucci enrolled at Temple University, in Philadelphia, where he experienced the fashion equivalent of St. Paul blinded by the light. In the library one day, he came across two David Bailey photographs of a bride and her attendant dressed in Balenciaga. Falling in love with their sculptural shapes, he became infatuated with the Spanish couturier who, along with the designers Madame Grès and Charles James, would become his patron saint. He left Temple after three years to study at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Two years later he was interning with Halston, a Balenciaga acolyte, though clearly no saint. Rucci couldn’t handle the designer’s drug-fueled lifestyle and left after a year. In 1981, with $10,000 borrowed from relatives, he showed his own collection at the Westbury Hotel. By 1984 he’d opened his own ready-to-wear company, designing predominately black clothes that were severe and monastic, a reflection of his self-imposed “cleric’s life.” The hard work paid off. By the mid-’80s Rucci had 22 accounts, including with Martha, the elegant Park Avenue salon, which attracted the most prominent socialites in the world.

In October 1987, though, everything fell apart with the stock-market crash. A major department store canceled a $200,000 order, leaving Rucci deeply in debt. For the next several years, he worked out of his one-room apartment, meeting sample makers on subway platforms and clients in their homes. He didn’t want them to see where he lived. “This was a horrible, dark period,” he says. “The depression was overwhelming. I got heavily into drugs. It was the only way to buffer reality.” He tells me the struggle was so great that he felt the “flesh burning off my body.”

He asks if he can take a sip of coconut water. I tell him, “Please do.” Meanwhile, Samantha Storto, who’s been his design director for ten years, comes in to ask a question. She’s wearing one of his sleeveless tunics with black tights and boots; with her edgy haircut and lithe frame, she makes Rucci’s clothes look very hip and downtown.

“How’s everything going?” she asks.

“Well, he’s no day in the park,” I say.

She smiles. “But he’s so worth it.”

In 1994 Rucci started a new company, using the word “Chado” above his name. It refers to the elaborate Japanese tea ceremony that involves 331 steps, a highly choreographed ritual he compares to the arduous process of making one of his garments. Championed by Joan Kaner, who was then the fashion director at Neiman Marcus, he began building a clientele through trunk-show appearances. With the exception of Horyn, he received very little support from the major fashion press. For whatever reason—and plenty of conspiracy theories abound—he was, and still is, dead to American Vogue. Even so, the business flourished; by 2002, he had made the audacious decision to show his clothes during couture week in Paris, becoming the first American since Mainbocher in the 1930s to win acceptance by the rigorous Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne.

“The morning of the show, I was horrified, terrified,” he says. “I didn’t want to leave my room. My teeth were chattering out of fear. The models were crying. I was a mess….But by the end of the show, my voice was clear. We were in the couture business the very next day, with a who’s who of women.”

For the next five years, Rucci continued to show in Paris, along with doing ready-to-wear collections in New York. In early 2007, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology staged a retrospective of his work, with about 100 garments, some suspended from the ceiling. But by the end of the year, the recession had hit, and his business dropped 60 percent. “Husbands told wives to stop buying,” he says. “It became worse with the Madoff scandal.” Despite his financial worries, or perhaps because of them, Rucci became even more daring. “My collections are an outward extension of where my mind is at that moment, not just an artistic mind, but the soul, a sexual self, the person, me as a man,” he says.

And where’s his mind for the fall collection? He points to a picture of an elongated Egyptian head. “I am now enamored of the fact that extraterrestrials visited this planet originally and created what was known as Egypt,” he says. “I don’t know where and how it will translate into the clothes, but when I start a collection I like to challenge myself with concepts like that.”

“That’s certainly challenging,” I say.

“They’ve been more challenging,” he replies. “With ‘Suspension [spring 2005],’ I had these pieces of double-faced fabric that were all individually cut and then suspended by small threads we call worms. The idea of suspense, as in ‘What was I going to do?’ gave way to ‘Suspension.’ It was one in the morning when I started to find the idea. I get chills when I tell you. It was like, My god, stay calm, they’re here among you.”

They?

“I also happen to have a seventh sense, where spirits come to me,” he says. “I’m able to receive information. I’m convinced so much of my work comes from this part.”

Maybe because Rucci is such a compelling storyteller, or maybe because I haven’t eaten much, the interview is starting to feel like a séance. I’m getting goose bumps, and I can practically see spirits floating over Rucci’s head. I tell him I think it’s time to stop.

The following week, we meet at his Upper East Side penthouse, which is next to St. John the Martyr church. Rucci lives there with his English bulldog Twombly, named for the abstract painter Cy Twombly. The apartment, which was decorated by Gutfreund, is dark and atmospheric, with embossed-leather walls and a chocolate-colored-thatched-lacquer ceiling. Like a pharaoh’s tomb, it is filled with talismans and treasures, such as photos of his idols, Diana Vreeland, Chanel and Pauline de Rothschild; jewelry and objects designed by his friend Elsa Peretti; an extraordinary Khmer torso from Angkor Wat; a pair of Chinese lacquer corner cabinets from Bernard Steinitz in Paris; two Italian bronze statues made for the Medici; and, yes, a Han Dynasty horseman. Books are carefully piled everywhere, Marcel Proust next to gay erotica next to Five Centuries of Indonesian Textiles.

Rucci tells me that the past week has been totally illuminating for him. At an Out magazine party he and Mackenroth attended to celebrate the most influential gay men and women of the year, he realized how few people were familiar with his work. Part of the issue is that his higher-profile clients tend to be older social types. “Being typecast as someone who makes clothes for elderly, wealthy women has been strangling me. I’m willing to leave that cloak behind. I’ll always have clothes for that audience, but this is one of my big problems in the press. They think my clothes look a certain way, but, in actuality, they don’t.” His relationship with Mackenroth has opened his eyes to all sorts of possibilities. In the past he refused to use a stylist and didn’t like to lend his clothes for the red carpet. “Why should I give clothes to movie stars?” he told me at Balthazar. “They can buy them.” But now he’s rethinking that strategy. Faith Hill wore one of his dresses to the Country Music Awards, and he thought she looked beautiful. Lady Gaga’s stylist recently called, and he’d love to work with her. (“Really? Lady Gaga?” Frasch said when he heard.) He’s planning an active-sportswear collection. And he’d also like to show his couture in Paris again, but he says he needs the right partner for the miracles to happen. “We can have it all,” he says.

Several weeks later, I’m at a book party for Rucci. He’s signing copies of Autobiography of a Fashion Designer: Ralph Rucci (Bauer and Dean, 2011), a lavish coffee-table book. As he signs my copy, he says, “Remember what you told me? That I was no day in the park?”

I do, and I may have been wrong. He is a day in the park—a brilliant sky with high-altitude winds. I hope Rucci’s miracles happen, but even if they don’t, he’ll make them happen, one scorched feather at a time.

Ralph Rucci’s designs can be found at Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. For more details on Chado Ralph Rucci, go to chadoralphrucci.net.

30 Years of Ralph Rucci

In 1981, using $10,000 borrowed from family, Rucci created and showed his first collection of about 25 looks channeling “luxurious ease.” Twenty-one years later, he became the first American designer since Mainbocher to be invited to show at Paris Haute Couture. This year, he garnered some of the best reviews of his career with his spring 2012 collection, with ethereal looks like a feathered skirt and jacket made from horsehair.

Ralph Rucci’s New Step

In October 2011 Rucci joined the likes of Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta and 25 other designers when presented with a bronze plaque for the Fashion Walk of Fame, which stretches from 35th to 41st streets on Seventh Avenue, in New York City.