Jan 12, 2007 - Apr 14, 2007

Ralph Rucci: The Art of Weightlessness

The Museum at FIT

The Museum at FIT

Ralph Rucci
Like the master couturiers of fashion history, Ralph Rucci's work is a grand visual epic, an evolving artistic narrative. With his breathtaking creations, from lush ballgowns to the luxurious, exquisite daywear, Ralph Rucci employs methods of construction that make his sculptural, structured, and sometimes imposing garments appear to be weightless.

This retrospective exhibition, on view at The Museum at FIT in 2007, examined the two “hidden decades,” when Rucci quietly forged his profound commitment to perfection in the design and execution of every garment that left his atelier. The exhibition was also a celebration of the designer’s twenty-fifth anniversary of working in fashion.


Born in Philadelphia in 1957, Rucci earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy and literature at Temple University. Yet in his heart he longed to work in fashion, so he enrolled in and completed FIT’s fashion design program.

Left: “Dalai Lama” Coat and Pants
Black wool crepe
Fall/winter 2006

Right: “Vertebrae” Dress
Black wool crepe
Fall/winter 2004


Since 1981, Rucci's subtle oeuvre evolved, garment by extraordinary garment. In 2002, he presented his first haute couture collection in Paris and was suddenly “discovered” by the international fashion community.

Black wool crepe and silk satin
Circa 1987

Rucci often notes that it is his evening gowns, especially the Infantas, that have attracted the most press coverage, but it is with his daywear that he feels he has made his greatest contribution to fashion. 

The most compelling of Rucci’s daywear garments are his tailored suits, assembled from thick, amoeboid pieces of double-faced fabric called “suspensions.”


Suspensions are usually cashmere from the Italian firm, Columbo; each one of them is individually cut, sliced along the sides, finished off by hand to prevent unraveling, and lined. They are then mapped on a muslin pattern and numbered.

Left: Day Coat and Pants with Suspension Insets
Charcoal pinstriped double-faced vicuna
and patent leather
Fall/winter 2005

Right: Embroidered Day Coat, Pants and Bodice
Coat and pants: taupe brushed, double-faced cashmere
Bodice: alligator strips on taupe silk netting
Fall/winter 2004


The placement of each suspension is precisely calculated before they are joined using connectors made from modified French knots called “worms.” Part of the design, the worms are spaced approximately a half inch to one inch apart.

Left: Raincoat, Knitted Top and Wrap Skirt
Cinnabar silk faille and silk jersey
Spring/summer 2007

Right: “Sacque” Back Coat
Chocolate brown silk moiré
Fall/winter 2004


Suspensions began as small inserts sparingly set into standard-cut suits, but more than merely decorative or even technical exercises, they are functional and serve an essential purpose: they improve the fit. As a result, garments constructed entirely of suspensions are rarely symmetrical and most often are reserved for the haute couture.

Left: “Circular” Suit and Fluted Shell
Oatmeal double-faced cashmere and cashmere gauze
Fall/winter 2006

Right: Suspension Suit
Black, brown, and gray double-faced cashmere
Fall/winter 2006

Furs, skins, and feathers have been coveted materials for all of fashion history. Animal skins were crucial to the survival of man, and the manipulation of pelts is the first-known form of clothing construction. Ralph Rucci’s use of these luxurious, increasingly rare materials demonstrate his mastery of ancient techniques as well as his ability to reinvent traditions.


Rucci’s fur coats and jackets are made with only the best quality pelts and are produced in collaboration with furrier Nick Pologerogis.

Barguzine sable
Fall/winter 2004


A coat accompanies a “serape” made of sable – Rucci’s favorite fur – turned inside-out and painted, and for his “capillary” jackets, Rucci cuts paper-thin leather into strips, then rolls them into tiny tubes and sews them together in open, lattice-work patterns.

Russian honey sable, paint and leather ties
Fall/winter 2006


Equally creative is Rucci’s use of feathers. Some pieces are executed by Lemarié, the last of the grand Parisian feather-working houses, or plumassieres; other featherwork is done at Rucci’s New York atelier.

White burnt ostrich feathers and silk organza
Spring/summer 2006

An evening dress covered with spotted guinea feathers is one of his most lavish gowns, while quivering coq sprays trim his lace-topped, Mongolian lamb skirt.

Surface Splendor
Ralph Rucci reveres the legendary couturiers Cristóbal Balenciaga and Madame Grès, but their best known works, designed to highlight the purity of cut and form, are more often monochromatic and unornamented.  Rucci’s garments, on the other hand—intricate marvels of construction—are beautiful vessels, consistently rich in color and resplendent in texture. 


An ideal example of Rucci’s surface treatments is found in his cardigan and matching shell, commissioned from Lesage. Their surfaces—encrusted with stone-like beads of various sizes—imitate the mottled quality of sharkskin, or shagreen, but with a three-dimensional aspect that resembles an aerial view of a beach covered in shells and sand.

Left: Cardigan, shell and cuffs
Shagreen and shell bead embroidery
Fall/winter 2001

Right: Evening Ensemble with beaded jacket
Jacket: glass beads / Blouse: tattered chiffon, braided belt
Skirt: silk taffeta
Fall/winter 2004


A small number of highly specialized firms in France continually devise new embroidery techniques in order to achieve effects based upon Rucci’s aesthetic demands.

Left: Tiered Evening Dress
Chocolate brown silk chiffon embroidered with fire opal
Fall/winter 2006

Right: Embroidered Cocktail Ensemble
Black silk netting, chiffon, glass beads, sequins, and cellophane and silk chiffon strips
Fall/winter 2004


Rucci’s organza caftan is embroidered with tiny, matchstick-sized twigs, an image that recalls Japanese art: cerebral yet spiritually evocative depictions of gently cascading leaves and blossoms. Rucci’s embroidery likewise captures the fleeting beauty of nature.

Black silk organza and black leather sequins
Spring/summer 2006


Embroidery by the houses of Lesage and Ollier of Paris, and Jean Luca Bernardi of Lyon, allow the couturier to paint, bleach, ornament and otherwise embellish both the outside and the inside of a garment with the rarified details of exquisitely rendered clothing.

Left: Embroidered coat, microbraided bodice and skirt
Camel hair, beige chiffon and gold sequins
Coat: Fall/winter 2004
Bodice and skirt: Fall/winter 2002

Right: Jacket with hand-braided panel, sweater and skirt
Midnight blue cashmere
Fall/winter 2002

Art Influences
Fashion designers have long sought inspiration in fine art, but most designers who cite specific works of art or artists that inform their seasonal collections are unable, when pressed, to outline clear connections or to persuasively identify shared aesthetic strategies. Ralph Rucci is an exception. A lifelong student of art and a painter himself, Rucci is amply prepared to deconstruct his own influences.


Rucci’s ultimate tribute to the artist Cy Twombly is a suite of gowns entitled "Le Quattro Staggione." Based on the artist’s 1993-94 series of four enormous canvases, the dresses are emblazoned with color, movement, imagery, and even text from the Twombly paintings.

Left: “Spring”
Silk organza with polychrome embroidery
Spring/summer 2006

Center left: “Summer”
Silk organza with polychrome embroidery
Spring/summer 2006

Center right: “Fall”
Silk organza with polychrome embroidery
Spring/summer 2006

Right: “Winter”
Silk organza with polychrome embroidery
Spring/summer 2006


The “Twombly Swan” gown is made of white silk gazar and embroidered by the house of Lesage. Tumultuous swirls of black, gray, red and ivory evoke the 1955 Twombly works The Greeks, Criticism, Free Wheeler, and Academy.

White silk gazar, silk and sequin embroidery
Spring/summer 2002


For an evening gown inspired by Francis Bacon, a painter he greatly admires, Rucci completely ignored figurative elements to appropriate only tiny slivers of the color palette: acidic green, aqua blue, and coal black. One would be hard-pressed to note the connection to Bacon without prompting, yet despite the selective abstraction of elements, Bacon’s artistic sensibility can be felt in the dramatic dyad of gown and matching stole.

Silk duchesse satin and gazar
Spring/summer 2002

An examination of Ralph Rucci’s working methodologies requires an analysis of his choice of textiles, the basic building blocks of the fashion designer’s craft. Rucci was already working with the world’s most expensive and exclusive textiles when he presented his first haute couture collection in Paris in 2002. Since the late 1990s, his use of high quality materials fueled the ever-increasing sophistication of his oeuvre as it accelerated his evolution as a couturier.


Before he became able to buy the best textiles, Rucci yearned for deeply dimensional damasks, silk velvets from the Venetian firm of Bevilaqua—woven on baroque-era looms—and petersham, a stiff, quadruple-weight gazar. Rucci is credited with reviving interest in gazar, a costly and unforgiving material.

Left: Ribbon Cocktail Ensemble
Woven ribbons, perforated leather and cotton pique
Spring/summer 2006

Right: Cocktail Dress with Bubble Skirt
Bodice: alligator strips and silk tulle
Skirt: black silk damask and feathers
Fall/winter 2005


Rucci also commissioned textiles that were printed especially for him. Images of natural objects (planets, rocks), of man-made design (Chinese furniture, Indian architectural details), and even Rucci’s own artwork were printed onto silk organza, chiffon, and gauze by firms like Bucol and Luigi Verga.

Green printed silk organza
Spring/summer 2006


The printed textiles were used to make gowns as well as large scarves and shawls. Occasionally, the more dramatic prints were further enhanced with embroidery.

Printed double-faced cashmere
Fall/winter 2006

Rucci’s gowns and suits may give an initial impression of impenetrability, but when worn they are mobile and pliant. In the past, Rucci has been incorrectly faulted for failing to embrace 'flou,' a French term for draping. 


Inspired since his student days by the fluid garments of the great couturiers, Rucci’s draped evening dress and hammered satin pajamas reflect Halston’s early influence.

Left: Evening Pajamas
Black hammered silk satin

Right: Evening Dress
Black silk jersey
Spring 1982


The bodices of the two jersey evening gowns, and the one hanging on the wall, borrow a pleating technique known as fluting, perfected by Madame Grès.

Left: Fluted Gown
Taupe silk jersey
Spring/summer 2006

Wall: Fluted Bodice (on wall)
White silk jersey

Right: Fluted Gown
Black silk jersey
Spring/summer 2005


Gauzy caftans, knitted jersey dresses, and chiffon evening gowns became staples of Rucci's collections, and his runway presentations came to routinely include a few significant flou creations. Rucci’s high-waisted, wool jersey dresses, ornamented with contrasting insets, were client favorites.

Left: Gray wool jersey and leather belt
Fall/winter 2002

Right: Black wool jersey, leather insets and braided belt
Fall/winter 2006

The Infanta
The Infanta ballgown is Rucci’s most spectacular garment. Its audacious design draws on the histories of both art and fashion: paintings by old masters such as Diego Velasquez portray the original Infantas, daughters of Spanish kings wearing extravagant, voluminous dresses; then in the late 1930s, the Infanta gown was revived by Cristóbal Balenciaga and other leading couturiers.


The process of making a Rucci Infanta begins with the silhouette: a jewel neckline, small, high armholes, a raised and canted waistline and similar hemline, and a skirt that forms a shape somewhere between that of a right and a scalene triangle, with greater volume in the back.

Graphite gray silk duchesse satin
Fall/winter 2004


Proportions are mathematically calculated using the “Golden Mean,” a classic Greek formula. More complex algebraic equations, like the Fibonacci sequence, are utilized when calculating graduated insets for gowns such as the “Ripple Effect” Infanta.

Ivory and bronze silk duchesse satin
Spring/Summer 2006


A major challenge of the Infanta lies in engineering its voluminous skirt. Ever the modernist, Rucci dislikes heavy, cumbersome petticoats with rigid understructures that impede a garment’s fluid and graceful movement. In order to support the skirt, Rucci underlines each pattern piece with organza and Filogil, a fabric prized for being both lightweight and stiff.

Black and apple green silk paper taffeta
Fall/winter 2006

Credits: Story

"Ralph Rucci: The Art of Weightlessness" was organized by Patricia Mears, together with Dr. Valerie Steele, director and chief curator, and Fred Dennis, associate curator.

Accompanying the exhibition was a full color catalogue, published by Yale University Press, with more than 150 images and essays by Valerie Steele, Patricia Mears, and Clare Sauro.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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