Ralph Rucci Speaks Out About Leaving His Label

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"I needed to take a step into the future, to put perspective in the past, so I could redo the future." That was Ralph Rucci's cryptic response to a question lobbed by one of the attendees at yesterday's FGI Tastemakers Luncheon, where the designer — who just mysteriously departed his label — chatted with André Leon Talley. Rucci and Talley are two fashion legends currently at loose ends, since Talley's contract as artistic director of Zappos was not renewed. Luckily, the group Talley referred to as their "cheering squad," including Bergdorf Goodman's Linda Fargo, was in attendance and made their support heard.  ("I love this, it's like church," Talley marveled after one call-and-response sequence.) The two friends traded stories, with ALT averaging roughly ten words to Rucci's one. Here, some of the highlights of their confab, including the story of how Rucci smoked pot with Elizabeth Taylor and ALT got hand-me-downs from Karl Lagerfeld — not to mention Talley's choice words for the corporate "thugs" who run the industry.

ALT on being himself:
"Can you realize what it’s like to get up and be me? Do you realize what it’s like to make the choice of what you want to wear? How hard that is every morning, to get up? I don’t want to sound pompous, but it’s very difficult ... to continually struggle to present what I consider a respectful, dignified image of what people expect André Leon Talley is. Because the André Leon Talley you see is a man of many rivers that run very deep."

ALT chides the fashion industry:
"Everything is a struggle. The façade of fashion is still very important, what you decide to wear. But what’s more important is the legacy and what substance are you going to leave. Ralph Rucci has a great legacy and a great history based on the craft that comes with his mind and his vision. He’s struggled for over three decades to complete these wonderful, beautiful moments for women who love luxury. Who love beautiful coats, beautiful tailoring, beautiful evening dresses. It’s a constant struggle to get up and to continue in yourself not to be bitter. Because in fashion today, you can find wonderful moments of magic, but at the same time there’s a new kind of thuggery. The thuggery comes from the CEOs and corporate heads who do not quite understand the creative visionary, which is Ralph. A world of the thuggiest thugs. And I’m not calling any names, I’m not pointing any fingers at anyone. There’s a thuggery behind the world of fashion today that exists and it’s hard to overcome that every day."

ALT on his bibliomania:
"I’m constantly at home. My house now looks like a bookstore. I feel older than the Civil War. I just wrote the introduction to the Valentino book At the Emperor’s Table. When Giancarlo [Giammetti] asked me to do this, I didn’t say a word. I just said, “Yes,” and I started researching. Weeks and weeks of research. Weeks and weeks of finding that page. Weeks of finding that picture of Jackie O. And I’m very proud of that because Valentino’s fans are used to a certain kind of standard that we all love."

Rucci on adapting to the modern fashion world:
"You go day to day. You act the same way you acted when you worked 30 years ago, your influences were the same. You’re just trying to polish them, make them more current and understandable for a new audience. You really don’t know whom you’re talking about. So you erase those names and suggestions, adjectives. Because if you say Mainbocher, you isolate a whole room. And then you get labeled. I have a DNA within myself that I can’t abide laziness. Everything that I work on has to be at a certain criteria, at a certain level of expertise, or I don’t do it. That’s what has led me, throughout my life, and I think as André mentioned, perhaps you know, I’ve been able to do it for 30-plus years. I’m very proud to say I’ve never compromised ever in those years. Never. Not once."

ALT on his first encounter with Karl Lagerfeld:
"In May 1975, Andy Warhol took me up to the Plaza Hotel on a Sunday afternoon to meet Karl Lagerfeld. By the end of the tea, Mr. Lagerfeld said, 'Come with me, darling, come with me.' I said, 'Where are we going?' He said, 'Come with me to my bedroom.' And I thought, 'Oh, maybe I’ll — okay.' So I go into the big suite bedroom with Mr. Lagerfeld, and the gold trunks are open and he’s going through the trunks, throwing things at me. Throwing eight-foot-long crepe de chine mufflers, three-ply, crepe de chine shirts — 'Here, darling, this looks good on you, take this, take this, take this.' And I left with a full wardrobe of cast-off Karl Lagerfeld shirts from Hilditch & Key in Paris, custom-made, and that’s how we became friends. We wrote letters for years. Long, long handwritten letters. Then we went into faxes. And Mr. Lagerfeld doesn’t do email, so it’s difficult to reach him now."

The last collection that made Talley cry:
"Marc Jacobs’s train collection [for Louis Vuitton]. I really cried. I don’t cry often, but I cried then. You know why I cried? Not for the train, but because he was an American in Paris. For me it represented the best of America when Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton got them to pay for this custom-made train that moved — a locomotive, lapis-lazuli blue, moving in the Cour Carrée. No one knew this was going to happen. He kept it a secret, the show started, and the train came into the train station, and the girls got off the train that moved. I thought it was one of the greatest moments."

Rucci on showing couture in Paris (which he did from 2002 to 2005):
"It was Cathy Horyn who said, You’re going to learn how to make clothes softly. Whether it was for the runway or for clients, to make a garment that feels like it has no weight at all, that looks like and feels like it was never touched by a human being, that is what a couture garment is."

ALT on new Rucci convert Whoopi Goldberg:
"Whoopi went to her first Ralph Rucci show, and six weeks later she had ordered about 11 pieces, and paid for them, okay? And she even responded to a black horizontal-band mink coat, with a band of horsehair. She responded to the clothes. She went to the White House for a state dinner, and she wore a black Ralph Rucci jersey [gown]."

The two on their experiences with Elizabeth Taylor:
Rucci:  "1999. I was at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills. They said, 'We're going to close this store early. And Elizabeth Taylor wants to come in to do her collection.' Well, 6:30 ran into 7, and Elizabeth was tired: 'Would you bring the entire collection to her house?' So we go to the house, myself, an assistant, and someone from Neiman Marcus, and it was a complete movie. Little, teeny, Elizabeth, no makeup, in her dressing area at the top of the steps. Anyway, I left the house at 1:30 in the morning. Elizabeth absconded with a violet sable, and we had the best time, we smoked pot, and she told me about all the great loves of her life, and she showed me all her jewelry."

Talley: "I had a shoot with her once. She came at 5 o'clock, she was supposed to be [there] at 11 a.m. We were sitting there waiting for her to show up. This was in L.A., for Vogue. Her people would call every hour. 'Ms. Taylor is now at the hair sink.' She had her own hair sink in her bedroom. She washed her hair, set it, in her home. 'Ms. Taylor is now about to get into the car.' Two o'clock. 'Ms. Taylor is momentarily leaving the house.' Three o'clock. The light's going. It's 4:45, and Herb [Ritts] and I decide to sit down for lunch. And there I am with a fried-chicken drumstick in my teeth, and the doors swing open. And it's Dame Elizabeth Taylor in a bottle-green Chanel cardigan with the Duchess of Windsor's fleur de lis diamond pin stuck in her cleavage. Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, skintight like sausage casing. And little black boots. She walks slowly into the room, and says, 'I feel like shit! Give me some of that chicken!'"

ALT on John Galliano:
"I had discovered him making these clothes in a garret, like a Charles Dickens sort of atmosphere, with a Bunsen burner burning food out of a tin can, and they were making the most extraordinary ball gowns, and I said to Vogue, I said, 'Anna, this is the collection.' And she said, 'Do whatever you have to do.' His partners [financial backers Amor] took out the money. This is where you struggle with thugs. After his groundbreaking show [in 1993], they took the money away, John was sleeping on the floor in [his then-business partner] Steven Robinson's  house in a sleeping bag. Then we had to create a John Galliano show quickly. So he showed me the sketches. He told me the vision of Amanda Harlech, his then-muse, and we said we have to put on the show. All the models were doing it for free. Manolo [Blahnik]'s making his shoes for free, and we had no pageant show. Seventeen looks with Kate Moss, Nadja Auermann, Naomi Campbell — it was done the way fashion used to be done. This was the beginning of John's great career, and I'm happy he's now going to have another career."