SAN FRANCISCO — He is the last in a breed of gentleman designers -- the only American working today who can rightfully be called an haute couturier, having been invited in 2002 by the Chambre Syndicale in Paris to show his made-to-order collection there alongside a handful of others, mostly Europeans.
Ralph Rucci is sophisticated and discreet, someone who has been known to call a woman "madam" and mean it in the best way. He sells $80,000 alligator coats to those willing to pay for them, which is to say, he doesn't dress the red carpet set.
Rucci's technical abilities, his choice of fabrics and finishings, are awe inspiring even to others in his field, including his friend and mentor, L.A. designer and Nancy Reagan favorite James Galanos.
In the running Monday in New York for American fashion's highest honor, the Council of Fashion Designers Womenswear Designer of the Year Award, it seems Rucci, 47, is hitting his stride. He's been nominated before, but has never won. This time, he is up against brand powerhouses Vera Wang and Marc Jacobs. Does Rucci care if he wins? Well, maybe ... OK, yes.
But after more than 25 years in the business, and having to at first beg press and retailers to see the collection he launched in 1981, he's learned that success and satisfaction can be derived only from within.
Which is why he is immersing himself in a host of creative outlets. On the business end, he's contemplating how best to grow his company -- retail stores, a men's collection, his first fragrance -- while maintaining his own exacting standards.
"I don't know how to dress everyone," he says. "I know what I can't do and what I can do well. I think what has occurred in Hollywood is so disturbing. You have people called stylists borrowing clothing and jewelry to place on people who have no style. It's a conveyor belt of mediocrity."
Asked what he thinks of Jennifer Lopez's collection, shown at Bryant Park immediately after his in February, he says diplomatically, "no comment," but offers that he probably will not be showing there again.
But it is his artistic side that finds him here at the Serge Sorokko Gallery off Union Square, presenting his first exhibition of paintings and works on paper.
"I'm doing this for myself," he says, ascending the stairs past a dramatic mixed-media work in black and white titled "Passageway" that inspired a double-faced cashmere coat in his fall 2005 collection. "I spend about 80% of my time as an accountant, as a CEO and president of my company. It is numbers, numbers, numbers and meetings ... even now my hotel room is filled with fabrics because this is a moment when I can study them.
"But this," he says, referring to his art, "this allows me to float above the business."
Rucci has floated above the fashion business for some time now. He does not advertise, so his clothes are not regularly featured in magazines. Unlike today's celebrity designers, he eschews the spotlight, preferring to work alone, without design assistants. And rather than starlets in his front row, he has socialites -- Denise Hale, Deeda Blair and Tatiana Sorokko, the wife of Rucci's art dealer and a former model.
"Ralph's clothes are for women who don't need to prove much," says Sorokko, who modeled throughout the 1990s for all the top houses, including Rucci's, and owns more than 40 of his couture pieces.
At the gallery, about 50 works are on display through June 26, priced from $3,500 to $25,000. Completed over the past two years, they represent the creative beginnings of both his couture and his ready-to-wear Chado lines. "X-Infanta" is a screen print on chiffon of a woman's face, Botticelli-like, draped over a painted canvas. The design was translated into silk at a mill in Como, Italy, for the fall 2005 Chado collection.
Rucci stops to touch a daub of gold leaf on the abstract work "80 Days and 80 Nights," a precursor to a gold bullion bodice on a suede dress from his most recent couture collection. There are also several collages with pockets of cashmere suspended from thread. Rucci is fascinated by the concept of suspension, which shows up often on his garments. A shift dress shown in New York in February had tiny knots suspended throughout, like constellations in a night sky.
Art dealer and friend Serge Sorokko is sensitive to the blurred lines between fashion and art now that Giorgio Armani has been exhibited in the Guggenheim and Chanel at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "There are quite a few great designers making wonderful little sketches, but those are not serious art. And what Ralph is doing has nothing to do with that," he says. "If you believe, as I do, that some fashion can be art, then there is nothing wrong with someone being an artist/fashion designer, and going into another genre." Ten pieces have sold so far.