You might expect a book on the designer Ralph Rucci to have a scholarly appreciation by the fashion historian Valerie Steele; swooning testimonials from society clients of Rucci’s like Deeda Blair and Susan Gutfreund; and romantic color plates of his high-wire dresses by a princeling photographer on the order of, say, Patrick Demarchelier.
But Autobiography of a Fashion Designer: Ralph Rucci, a US$195 slipcased and cotton-clothbound doorstop from the upstart art-book publisher Bauer and Dean, nominally by Rucci, is a pie in the face of conventional designer monographs. There are no baby pictures, no timeline, no biography (Rucci, 54, is the son of a Philadelphia butcher, but you won’t learn that here). There are nine pictures of his dog, at least five pictures of his dog’s toys, but no page numbers.
The press run of 3,000 coincides with the 30th anniversary of Rucci’s company, Chado Ralph Rucci, as well as the news that after four years of production, the documentary A Quiet American: Ralph Rucci & Paris is to be screened at New York Fashion Week next month.
The film’s director, Christian Leigh, is a former curator whose unpaid bills at the 1993 Venice Biennale led to works by Louise Bourgeois, Roy Lichtenstein and others being held in storage by creditors for about five years. Leigh disappeared during this time.
An exhibition, Notorious (Christian Leigh), an exploration of his career, is currently at the Castillo/Corrales gallery in Paris. “Leigh has made a habit of burning bridges, vanishing overnight and of reinventing himself anew in a different milieu,” the gallery says on its Web site, adding that Leigh’s biographies include trails of “angry creditors, ripped-off artists, bamboozled collaborators.”
It remains to be seen whether the Rucci project will redeem Leigh’s reputation. Reached at home in London, Leigh denied cheating any artists. “I felt I did everything I could,” he said, then, “Well, maybe not.”
“I don’t really accept that I disappeared. Most people could reach me if they really wanted to.”
He proclaimed himself a great fan of Rucci. “I didn’t know him, but greatly admired his work,” Leigh said. “He’s one of the great artists working today. If he wants to work on one dress for 16 weeks, he won’t compromise.”
He suggested his documentary had equal integrity. “It’s not gossipy or bitchy,” Leigh said. “It’s not ‘How hissy fits make fashion,’ like the Valentino movie.”
Until A Quiet American is unveiled, there is Autobiography of a Fashion Designer, which — depending on how one looks at it — is either the ultimate tome for fashion insiders or maddeningly presumptive, with names dropped and left floating without explanation.
Rucci, the only American designer besides Mainbocher ever to show in Paris with the blessing of the French haute couture sanctioning body, and one of the few not to have succumbed to mass production, said: “I don’t have much perspective on myself. The book and movie are like psychological blackboards.”
As he tweaked sketches for his new furniture collection for Holly Hunt in his SoHo office recently, Rucci was surrounded by talismans: a liquid Joe Eula drawing of his old boss Halston in a fitting with Jacqueline Onassis, another by Kenneth Paul Block of Diana Vreeland in a seal coat with a stand-away Balenciaga collar.
Rucci said he gave Baldomero Fernandez, the book’s photographer, carte blanche, “drawing the line only at a basket of my underwear.” Gutfreund, he added: “shamed me into redoing my apartment. She was over one day and asked, ‘How can you expect a woman to sit on that?’ She was gesturing to a Mies chaise.”