story by Lisa Radano
photos by udor
It doesn’t happen very often, but occasionally someone in Ralph Rucci’s atelier will forget and hang too many Chado garments on one rack, thus prompting the designer to declare, “No no no. You can’t crowd the girls like this. They can’t breathe.” Never crowd the girls. This avowal might seem charmingly anecdotal, but if you know Rucci, you know he means it quite seriously. Each dress, skirt, gown, coat, or blouse isn’t just alive for him. Every one is adored as a dear friend or even a child, born more than made by not a team but a family. So please. Never crowd the girls.
What does a fashion reporter typically do backstage when given a moment with a designer? You ask that person or team, what was your inspiration this season? It’s a fair question to which you usually get a lucid if overly rehearsed answer. Rucci rarely gives interviews, but should you be lucky enough to get one, you’d be wasting the moment to ask him this customary question. It’s not a good enough question for him. Ask him instead, how did you do it again?
When you can hear the essence of an image or impression speak to you and you are smart enough to listen, then you have your mission. You listen. You don’t think about the result. For an artist trying to get back into the zone, result oriented work is the opposite of improvisation. And improvisation is how you connect with the divine. Rucci could easily hold forth on his starting point as a piece of fabric, a painting, a method, even a dream, but eventually all these convene in a private place where the anima of his inspiration materializes, and to that he remains steadfast and true as a knight or monk. These tenets may illuminate the mystery of what Rucci does, but he’s more likely to tell you that it’s simply about the work, about serving not just the season, never the trend, but always a devotion to craft, which is his absolute. “It is so important to me to show what the human hand can do,” he has emphatically said. It’s what he demands of himself, and all he asks from his enterprise. He has no interest in building a fashion empire; rolling out jeans and eau de this or that, eventually going public. Rucci just wants to be able to continue, and to each time, go further. And so the rack starts to fill. Like it has for thirty years. Everything done by hand. Right here in New York.
As the Fall 2013 show began, stillness fell over the room as we anticipated not so much the experience of a show as an entrance to a world of precision and beauty presided over by a true master. With lights up, Chado’s daywear, a variety of dresses and suits topped by an array of coats began to emerge but then hey presto! Before our eyes had a chance to absorb the first two passages, Rucci detonated an éclat of mink shirts, jackets and coats in a wild spray of colors starting with violet then nude then citrus then hot pink then chrome yellow! These bright firecrackers, a pullover, a jacket, a coat to the knee and longer, were followed by two more minks, a white jacket and a black coat, both festooned with feathers that seemed like enlarged flakes of white and black snow hovering along the aura of the fur’s nap.
Once our happy shock settled and the early applause quieted down, we refocused our attention to the girls. In wool jersey there were sheaths one in white another in black sectioned into quadrants with shots of violet. Fuller skirted a-lines in citrus and violet had frisky movement to them. A charcoal jumpsuit was adorned with a luxurious violet shawl. A black scoop neck mid-calf dress with black embroidered leather at the high waist looked like something a ballerina would wear on her day off. The leather embroidery throughout had a consistent, Asian inspired pattern, and that royal, mystical violet would reemerge several more times moving from day to night.
A chestnut sheath was the first of several wool crepe pieces with surgical cuts backed by silky, second skin tulle. In this same range came a black dress with dirndl skirt, a violet sheath with quadrant cutouts and raffia trim at hem and sleeves and a sober black jacketed dress whose backless-ness we did not see but would surely allow one to gracefully go from day to evening. A violet pantsuit had concentric clefts along the shoulder and rib. A violet, full-length, button down “Dalai Lama” gown was topped with a frosty white mink collar. A knock out black pantsuit had leather tiles suspended across a tulle swathed but otherwise naked bodice.
Proportion was explored via the coincidence of jacket lengths and hemlines. The play between divergent texture and transparency was also a theme. Certain poetic details had begun to recur by now, and bear mentioning such as Rucci’s matchless way with a hem, which for him is not a folded finish, but an opportunity. Just about every dress or skirt and several sleeves tendered a second hem of edged tulle, raffia or feathers. These whispery echoes to the hemline made me think of that moment when someone you love hugs you goodbye, but then turns to add a wistful wave. Regarding feathers, when and wherever they are affixed, they flutter in the airspace of the wearer, amplifying her presence in the most delicate way. These are but a few examples of the magic that Rucci makes with his hands, but what are we to do with ours (when done applauding)? Why not wear pinkie gloves? Nearly each girl was furnished with an elegant pair of scabbards, sheathing just that one dainty finger, laced to the wrist, some with dangling tassels or feathers – all fiercely innovative yet somehow genteel and utterly beguiling.
Layering was another key facet for Chado Fall 2013. A chestnut crepe pantsuit with a silky violet tunic floating under the sharp jacket went all the way to the knee. A charcoal suit had a silver lace tunic, and a black cashmere coat had citrus silk bands laced into the shoulder and sleeve to complement the matching tunic beneath. That black leather embroidery returned in a pantsuit with black lace tunic beneath. A golden sable caress of a jacket had a latex lace tunic-over-pant combination. For evening embroidered or feathered chiffon drifted over chiffon pajama pants. If the layering of slips or dresses over pants was made cool by the grungy coffee drinkers of Seattle, then Rucci staged a take back of this ultimately ancient fashion, making it modern by means of opulence.
Having presented the innovation in earlier work, this season’s continued use of double bonding in coats of citrus, beige, violet and black was possibly an invitation to a younger customer to discover classic cashmere via cutting edge neoprene. Rucci’s signature style – curved through the body, narrowing at the hem, with mandarin or no collar, extra wide button holes and fluted bracelet length sleeves – was offered in lengths from cropped to full. Black leather embroidery trimmed the lower quad of one coat, and turned up as an obi belt for a cape. These days many women define themselves by what bag they carry or what shoes they wear. No accessory could possibly speak louder than any one of these coats to command respect for its wearer.
And what’s true for cashmere is all the more true for Chado fur. Rucci’s way of bringing (only the best) pelts of sable or mink together with visible hand stitching and embroidery, creates space between each and punctuates a signature lightness. One violet sable’s panels were assembled as such, but also on the bias so this dream didn’t just float, it swathed. The bulk of conventional fur coats often wear the woman, but in the world of Chado, it’s only ever the reverse. A navy broadtail was so fine it was steps from being sheer, and nothing glows or fits like Barguzin sable, which Rucci tasseled and tossed over a khaki green wool crepe “uniform” suit. A Zurino greatcoat over creamy white slacks and cashmere polo neck was reminiscent of Angie Dickenson in old style Beverly Hills but a jet sable collar over a vinyl trench caught the light like a full moon over the sea, and possibly a younger Chado customer with it. For her or anyone else who takes issue with fur, Rucci’s black faux defied comparison with any garment bearing that same descriptor. Worn over a black and fuchsia lace cocktail dress, this coat twinkled and glittered the way our city sidewalks once did at night. And so on to Chado’s night.
Fourth of July fireworks often pop an early burst to incite, but the big guns always come last and while thrilling, they sadly signal the end of revelry. Not to skip ahead of delight – an open weave, fragile knit embedded with paillettes was adorable as a feather hemmed flapper dress, but was downright practical when applied to a tunic or a twin-set. Either of these pieces could be thrown over simple black slacks, or even jeans but Rucci showed them with shiny, liquid matelasse pajama pants in pink and pale violet. Lacquered and embroidered lace, streamers, fluid bugle beading, tassels, feathered chiffon, pow pow pow and then — the powerful peace of a slim, violet cashmere halter gown, or the clean calm of a black column – in wool with tulle slivers or in sleek velvet with leather trim. Then finally the ball gowns; a violet, duchesse satin full skirt with cashmere polo neck, or a black velvet with embroidered white lace strapless bodice might charm that younger Chado devotee. For the stronger of heart: a violet double face wool had such severe tulle infused slashes, it looked as if one more might cause the dress to fall away, or perhaps a gown with chiffon bodice embroidered to illustrate DNA’s double helix with also a slit in its gazar skirt from which peek a boo-ed a hand-painted version of Francis Bacon’s iconic “screaming pope” image. Happy Fashion Fourth of July. There are some flags that when waved, you best only salute. And so we did, with a standing ovation.
At the opening of Rucci’s new furniture collection (he’s also an accomplished painter and I suspect not much of a sleeper), which was held at Holly Hunt’s marvelous eastside showroom, I got to study a room full of Chado as worn not by models, but by his beautiful friends. A dress from Fall 2013 that particularly captivated me was now across the room from where I stood. The embroidery on leather oft repeated throughout the collection was here advanced by deconstruction. Individual shards and shapes of the embroidery were cut apart and then sewn onto tulle. When this dress stunned its way down the runway, it moved not like leather but like silk. I walked over to the woman and chatting her up, I asked her what it felt like to wear. “It feels just like a nightgown,” she replied. Could something this divine also be comfortable to wear? The responsibility he feels to make his clothes feel delicious to the skin of the wearer is just another of Rucci’s many skills.
Should this review seem overlong or sycophantic, try to fathom that this outrageous leather dress was just one of sixty-five looks presented in this magnificent show. I challenge you to find fault with any one of them. They may not be your preference, they may never be in your price range, but you cannot argue that any one of these pieces did not live out the full and glorious measure of what its creator intended. Or maybe that’s not true. Maybe Rucci sits somewhere now thinking damn, this is what I should have done, could have done, here or there. But soon comes next season, and when he parts the mists, he will work again.
His mission statement bears repeating, “It is so important to me to show what the human hand can do,” Simply put; Rucci’s hands make love.