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Couture

American in Paris

U.S. designer Ralph Rucci alters runway history while making a hit

July 12, 2002|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA and ACHRENE SICAKYUZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PARIS--As the first American designer to show an haute couture collection here since before World War II, New York designer Ralph Rucci was greeted with quite a commotion minutes before his debut Thursday. But little did Rucci, 45, the son of a South Philadelphia butcher, know that the noise came from bank strikers who work inside the Hotel d'Evreux where his collection was presented.

The strikers--yelling, stomping and creating quite a ruckus on a floor above Rucci's runway room--stopped a few minutes before the designer showed 54 outfits of his fall/winter 2002-03 couture collection. Leave it to the French to be respectful of fashion history--even though most are too young to recall Chicago-born Main Rousseau Bocher, known as Mainbocher, who took couture by storm in 1929 with what he called "the modern full dress."

Rucci's looks ranged from his signature double-faced cashmere ski sweaters to a stunning laser-cut knitted sable kimono and a blood-red matte jersey fluted gown and stole.

The intimate group of fewer than 100 guests, including close friends, buyers, the press and mostly women 50 and older, seemed to recognize and appreciate Rucci's technical expertise and restraint in design. They applauded his refined creations that paid attention to subtle detail and minimal glitz. Crowd pleasers were a bronze duchesse satin gown, a black-silk velvet and moire gown and matching stole, and dark green Russian broadtail pants teamed with a cashmere tunic and cape worn by top models that sported somber makeup and chignons.

Rucci's bow at the show's finale in a room bathed with sunlight was met with "bravos" from the audience, many eager to congratulate the designer as he headed backstage followed by clamoring camera crews.

Later, in a private interview, Rucci, a deeply religious man, was the picture of calm sophistication as models packed up and workers tore down the set. "Calm because this is always the way I feel after a show," he said, and then admitted that being in a city that is "passionate about fashion" has been "almost a religious experience. I could just cry in front of you. I am so honored, proud and humble because it's been a dream" to be here.

A designer for 22 years, Rucci has worked in relative obscurity--even in the United States. His clothes haven't been featured widely in magazines but they command prices in the thousands of dollars--this spring's sweater set, hand-beaded by Lesage, goes for $76,000--at exclusive specialty stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.

"I was prepared," Rucci said about the show, adding he felt "so confident and peaceful. That's how I feel before every collection because before anyone can see it, before anyone can judge, I am the judge. So, I don't show it unless I know it's correct. Then I meditate a great deal."

Rucci, who earned degrees in philosophy and literature in the late 1970s while practicing the fine arts of acrylics, screen printing, watercolor and collage at Philadelphia's Temple University, moved to New York in 1978, where he studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology and began his formal career in the made-to-order Halston workrooms.

Three years later, using his one-room apartment as his design studio, he set out to establish himself as a couturier, influenced by the design, technique and discipline of his fashion heroes Cristobal Balenciaga, Madame Gres and Charles James. In 1994, he launched his ready-to-wear collection, Chado, named after a centuries-old Japanese tea ceremony consisting of 331 distinct steps that, when performed, create an overall sense of grace and elegance--principles Rucci brings to his designs and that were clearly evident Thursday.

"Technically, I think we surpassed ourselves," he said of the couture collection. Of his staff, he added "emotionally, we have all invested a tremendous amount of ourselves collectively."

Rucci said his motivation to show here was also about business. "I've been making haute couture but I've just not been showing it in Paris. By bringing it here we are going to increase our business, and growing our haute couture business will help us support our ready-to-wear business."

But, he added, fashion is not just about money. "A Chanel jacket, for instance, is a piece of art. Turn it inside out and frame it."

When he showed his first collection, he said he only had enough money to create 13 outfits--a collection that was an homage to Madame Gres and Balenciaga. But on Thursday, he said he felt "like I have achieved something" and was exactly where he had to be. But he knows, too well, that he has "a lot more to do." And that's perfectly fine because "I do this for me and only for me."

And because, he says, "We must keep the rigor, the discipline of haute couture alive because, to me, it's very emotional and it's very specific. It cannot and will never die. It's against things that are mediocre.

Michael Quintanilla reported from Los Angeles and Achrene Sicakyuz reported from Paris.

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