Ralph Rucci: The Art of Weightlessness
Published in 2007 by Yale University Press in association with the Fashion Institute of Technology.
“‘Editing is the key. Elegance is a state of mind that carries you through absolutely every situation—problems, happiness, depression—it has nothing to do with money. Elegance is the quiet, secret cloak that separates those who have it from those who do not.’”—typed note in Ralph Rucci’s office (Steele 24)
I first heard of Ralph Rucci in 2008, when the exhibit from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York came to the Phoenix Art Museum. I had a solid foundation of construction knowledge from my years of sewing costumes at home, followed by two years in my university’s costume shop, but it’s fair to say that at the time I hadn’t had much exposure to couture fashion. In fact, if you’d asked me then, and this is still somewhat true today, I wasn’t all that interested in the whirlwind of the fashion world, with styles changing year to year. Yet the exhibit explained that Rucci was inspired by the rigorous Japanese tea ceremony—a reference that reminded me of theatre production meetings, not fashion editorials—and on a visceral level the details and line quality of the pieces on display resonated profoundly with me. So I tucked the name Ralph Rucci in the back of my head as I turned back to the much more accessible world of costume history and design for the next several years at school.
That being said, ever since I decided to write book reviews as a kind of independent “professional development,” I have been looking forward with great anticipation to reading this book, and it definitely didn’t disappoint! It’s easy to find images online of numerous designers, especially now with personal websites featured by the artists/designers themselves, yet I don’t think that it negates the importance of a publication like this one. Each of these three essays provides an excellent understanding of Rucci as an artist and of his design practices, divulging more delicious details than a casual visit to his website.
As mentioned, the book is divided into three essays, written by Valerie Steele, Patricia Mears, and Clare Sauro, respectively. The first essay, “absolute fanatacism,” by the estimable fashion historian Valerie Steele, examines Rucci’s life, and the many years he spent working in fashion even before the established industry took any notice of him. She looks at the various reasons for this relative obscurity, the root of which seems to be his unique philosophy of fashion. Rucci first formed his line, Chado (named for the Japanese Tea Ceremony), in the 1990’s, and while his contemporary “Gucci[,] produced flashy clothes that screamed sex and money, Rucci was all about discretion” (16). She notes how his collections tend to evade typical fashion journalistic descriptions. Part of that comes from his process, and the way he approaches fashion. Steele quotes Rucci: “‘I approach it as an academic. I begin with my research. That is the most important part of my work.’ By ‘academic,’ he means that ‘you conceive a thesis and draw your conclusions.’ In other words, ‘I try to translate the ideas into wearable clothes. It’s not just sketching’” (4-5).
There are so many gems that Steele includes, collected from interviews, and from Rucci’s notebooks:
“‘I can only suggest clothes that dress a person’s mind, […] This may seem philosophical, but [….] clothes are just another language we use to help communicate the structures and contents of our minds’ “(22). In stark contrast to mass-produced, ready-to-wear that most people are used to, Rucci seems to suggest that “the garment only really comes alive when it is worn by the right woman” (23)
“’ I am dressing women,’ Rucci writes in one of his (undated) notebooks. ‘Femininity is perceived subliminally through their gestures and visibly through their figures, their legs, necks, breasts, hips. Overtly feminine touches on clothes do nothing but make a woman effeminate. A modern woman of the twenty-first century does not need a petticoat. […] Modern feminine clothes are about sensuality and fluidity. The cloth is closer to the body.’ Yet he can certainly be inspired by images of women from the past. ‘Think of a woman from the court of China or Japan,’ he says. ‘The poise, the grace, and the female dignity. It’s just so seductive!’ (Steele 41).
Steele quotes Hamish Bowles (International Editor for Vogue), ‘So much of fashion today is about constantly changing trends, and his fashion is more evolutionary, less revolutionary’” (44, my emphasis). Not shock-and-awe, but the inner development of the self, of the individual.
The whole book is punctuated with a mix of full-page photographs, as well as smaller images that illustrate examples in the text. In between the first and second essays there is also a 28-page series of photographs and sketches selected from the fall/winter collections of 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2006.
The second essay, “couturier and connoisseur,” is written by Patricia Mears. She touches on his fashion influences of the past, such as Balenciaga, Halston, Charles James, and others. She also addresses the numerous ways that the art world intersects with his designs; his influences range from Francis Bacon to Cy Twombly, among many others, and include many arts from East Asia. Mears also delves into the more technical aspect of Rucci’s atelier. She describes his design process, from inspirations boards, to patterning in his atelier, and even having specialized work done outside the atelier. She names many of Rucci’s talented staff, and the organization within the atelier. As she describes all the technical work that happens to bring a collection together, it’s clear that Rucci’s work is an undertaking of thorough collaboration.
Mears continues to describe in great detail many of the luxurious fabrics that Rucci uses, obtained from all over the world, although mostly from Italy. Part of the luxury/cost is that some of these textiles, known for their fabulous textures, are created using very old methods, or on antiquated looms. Not only does he serve his clients by choosing quality materials, but also by buying from these rapidly disappearing manufacturers, Rucci is preserving these pockets of the history of textile production.
One of my favorite Rucci construction details are his “suspensions,” where one or multiple pieces of a garment floats within the whole like an island, connected by regularly spaces ties or “worms.” Some garments are made entirely of suspension, like the green suit from the fall/winter 2006 collection. Another innovation comes in the form of his Infanta gowns: an homage to his fashion heroes. The volume of these gowns makes support a challenge, which is usually met by hefty foundation-garments that only give the illusion of weightlessness. Rucci comes even closer to this ideal, in an attempt to restrict movement as little as possible, by lining pieces of the garment with Filogil, a type of marquisette that is very light and woven to great stiffness.
In the last essay, “the artful accessory,” Clare Sauro revisits Rucci’s influences, but in their application toward the accessories that supplement his collections and runway shows. As one would expect by this point, he does not overload a model with accoutrement, but chooses a few, very distinctive pieces that echo a recurring texture, and an underlying philosophy. Sauro also notes the different artists or companies that work in collaboration with Rucci to bring him these accessories. Within this section are three full-page photographs of different accessories, and eight smaller ones. Each one has the description of the materials, the originating artist or company, the season/year, and a few have elaborative notes following.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen the exhibits of two masters of garment design and construction—exhibits that have left indelible but profound marks on my imagination: Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011, and the aforementioned Ralph Rucci’s Art of Weightlessness in 2008. I adore the books that cover these exhibits, as I adore many fashion/costume history texts, but the sharpest photograph in the world cannot do justice to three dimensional garments such as these. The experience of scrutinizing and letting my imagination run wild over the details and textures up close was incomparable. I note this to remind myself and others to patronize local museums and other places where historical/artistic garments are displayed. Their pieces won’t last as long as our records of them will, and you won’t regret the experience.