Ralph Rucci is a name we all should know, but only fashion scholars seem to.
The Philadelphia-born designer, 61, is the king of beautiful tailoring and craftsmanship whose understated pieces have been purchased by some of the world’s most important women including first ladies — Laura Bush and Michelle Obama — and celebrities. We’re talking Martha Stewart, Diana Ross, Whoopi Goldberg, and yes, even Kim Kardashian. His work was featured in a 2007 exhibit at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.
But his most impressive accomplishment is that he’s only the second American designer to show a collection at Paris’ haute couture presentations, considered the most elite fashion shows in the world (the first was Main Rousseau Bocher back in the 1930s.)
Rucci hadn’t been to Paris in 12 years. And those were tough years for him: He lost the rights to his eponymous brand, the use of his name and his entire catalog of garments spanning back to the early 1980s, Rucci.
Now, under his new moniker, RR331, he returned last month to the Hôtel Ritz, where he kicked off Paris Couture Week with his latest 34-piece collection, signaling to the fashion world that he’s ready, and capable, to return to his former greatness.
“This is big for me, really big,” Rucci told me over the phone from his Upper East Side apartment, a few days after he returned back to the States. He’s hoping this show will reestablish his name in the industry. But instead of trying to do ready-to-wear, he’s focusing just on haute couture. “The past couple of years have been a great struggle and my raison d’être — my reason for being — is caught up with my work. Not being able to fit garments continuously or work with my individual clients … I was not myself. "
Even though we talked a few days after his show, Rucci is still exhausted from the grueling prep. But the looks, fashioned from double-faced cashmere, sable, and silk in rich hues, all erred on the side of amazing. In a twist, he delightfully paired each of the ensembles with a flat. To know Rucci is to know he prefers height and stature.
Still, these looks were tailored yet dreamy clothes that you can assume feel as soft as they look. But most of us will never know what they feel like because they have price tags in the tens of thousands.
Rucci may have been banished from his own kingdom, but he still orbits in his own “classic Ruccis” space.
Rucci’s couture show was dedicated to the famed Tiffany jewelry designer and — and longtime friend — Elsa Peretti. About 150 of some of the world’s most quietly powerfully people were in attendance, like Susan Gutfreund, the wife of the late John Halle Gutfreund, former CEO of Salmon Brothers Bank. Those with an eagle fashion eye may have recognized Josephus Thimister, former creative director of Balenciaga, and Marc Audibet, formally of Prada. Both men breathed new life into their respective houses back in the 1990s.
Couture shows are defined more, however, than the people who don’t come to the show. Couture is made-to-order, it isn’t mass-produced like its ready-to-wear cousin, so department stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue — stores that once sold Rucci off-the-rack — do not come. Neither do the stylists or influencers.
When you spend the equivalent of a luxury car on one garment, it’s gauche to talk price. As a result, couture is cloaked in a mystery that Rucci does his part to keep alive. “You can’t quote prices in couture,” Rucci said. “You can’t sell the same two items to people in the same city.”
This is also why Rucci is loath to talk about who his clients are. And more loath — if you can believe it — to let celebrities borrow pieces for the red carpet. Some might say this is why the Rucci label never made it to Dior or de la Renta heights, despite Rucci’s remarkable skill.
“I just don’t fit in,” Rucci said quite candidly. “I never wanted to fit in. I wanted to do things respectfully. Perhaps that was misinterpreted as being heady or dismissive…” His voice is now trails off.
That stubbornness is part of what makes him quintessentially South Philly.
Rucci attended Waldron Academy, now Waldron Mercy. He has a bachelor’s in philosophy from Temple. He studied fashion design at FIT, completing his studies in the late 1970s.
He launched his line in New York in 1981 and began building a name for himself as a couturier to the city’s rich and famous. In 1994, he renamed his collection Chado Ralph Rucci — Chado refers to a Japanese tea ceremony. During the 1980s, ’90s, and early aughts, Rucci said, he was able to "build a business for myself that was so handsome, I could pay for my first couture show in Paris without any investors.”
He built a reputation as a maverick much like his idol, the late Philadelphia-bred designer James Galanos. Rucci, for example, was one of the first designers to use a black woman as a fit model. (These days much of his work is inspired by pioneering black model Pat Cleveland’s daughter, Anna, who walked this year’s Paris show.)
When big-name designers were sending their pieces overseas, Rucci continued to make his collection in New York’s Garment District. And he continued to never give his clothes to celebrities. Then in 2008, the recession hit and it became hard for people to justify couture spending. In late 2012, he found investors in power couple Howard and Nancy Marks. But the relationship soured and in 2014, when it was over, Rucci — like Kate Spade and John Galliano — was a man without a label.
Rucci launched RR331 in 2016, the 331 represents the number of steps in the Chado tea ceremony, and has been quietly working on his new business.
One day during his mediation, Rucci said, God told him to return to Paris. He reconnected with Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, organizers of the couture shows, and secured recommendations from the Valentino Garavani — simply known in the design world as Valentino — and Giancarlo Giametti, Valentino’s business partner.
I told you Ralph Rucci was the real deal.
Rucci has plans to open a small salon/showroom in New York where he will carry small leather goods and accessories. And, Rucci says, he’s working on a signature unisex fragrance.
“I know I’m never going to be rich," Rucci said. “And perhaps I would have done some things differently in my life, but I’m proud to represent America as a couturier.”