Visual Arts

"Chado Ralph Rucci": an exhibition of haute fashion at Phoenix Art Museum

After watching reality shows like America's Next Top Model and Project Runway, trash-TV viewers (myself included) may think they know a thing or two about fashion design. But the garments on display at Phoenix Art Museum's "Chado Ralph Rucci" put the likes of Runway winner Christian Liriano to shame.

Given the detail of his work, Rucci could easily be pinned as an obsessive compulsive. In fact, he took the name of his company, Chado, from an ancient Japanese tea ceremony that follows an exhausting 331 steps. With so much attention to every stitch, this guy obviously doesn't want his clothes to end up in Paris Hilton's dirty-laundry pile of one-time-only garments — he never gives designs to celebrities in exchange for glitzy red-carpet exposure.

So Philadelphia-born, Fashion Institute of Technology-educated Rucci and his reputation have flown under the mainstream fashion radar. He survives thanks to a small, international clientele — his most famous fan is Martha Stewart. In 2002, he was invited by the exclusive Chambre syndicale de la haute couture to show his collections in Paris.

That's why you'll find the guy in a museum, not Target. Based in New York, Rucci's known for a clean, architectural aesthetic with luxurious fabrics and original textiles, and his pieces range from youthful gowns to super-conservative trouser and coat combos.

Rucci has said he hopes his garments will be proudly worn and cherished like a masterpiece painting. And they should. One visit to this show proves that his works are, indeed, serious art. Each design, conceptualized and led by Rucci, involves dozens of workers and hundreds of hours to complete.

Gown and Gauntlets (2004) is an all-black piece made of silk jersey and leather. The design is bold — dominatrix meets sci-fi. The epicenter of the gown is a panel of ribbed, black leather that reaches up the middle of the bust and grips around the neck. The chest is covered on either side with fine horizontal gathers of black silk. A braided leather rope hugs the underside of the bust line, and a flowing cascade of silk jersey drapes the rest of the body with six inches of fabric resting on the floor. It's irritating to see it on an immobile mannequin because this dress begs to move. I want to see the fabric sway and swell as someone (oh, all right — me) glides through a room.

Other garments employ a strict structure. So, I was content with the motionless mannequin that displayed Top, Skirt and Belt, a breathtaking bell skirt that looked starched and sculpted to maintain its shape even as it's being worn. The cream silk is covered with layers of loosely woven, translucent ribbons. The ribbons twist, curve, curl, and loop to create energetic texture. With so much movement in the arrangement of the ribbons, Rucci brilliantly kept the skirt's base fabric as static as possible — a necessity for the success of the design.

Evening Dress (2006) is so beautiful that it felt as if I'd been punched in the gut when I saw it. A simple spaghetti-strapped square neckline balances the color, a bright kelly green. The bust is a masterpiece, covered in intricate embroidery of every shade in the green spectrum. PAM is smart to include a detail photograph of the needlework that, up close, reveals what must have taken hours of arthritis-inducing stitching. From afar, it looks like an aerial picture of a lush landscape after a rain. The rest of the gown is made of printed green silk and flows to the floor, sweeping back to a dramatic train.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi