Mirror, Mirror: Designer Ralph Rucci's turnaround success a boon for Philadelphia

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Singer Faith Hill wore a Rucci lace shirtdress at the Country Music Awards ceremony last week. (Photo by Al Powers/Invision/AP, file)

Ralph Rucci's New York Fashion Week show attracts the industry's elite: Simon Doonan, the creative ambassador for Barneys New York; Ken Downing, Neiman Marcus' director of fashion; Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion reporter Robin Givhan; and the Rucci label's dear friend, Martha Stewart.

This is a discriminating, austere, almost emotionless bunch.

Still, when Rucci sends a dramatic piece down the runway, he manages to elicit a round of applause, sometimes a standing ovation.

But after the clapping, the backstage handshakes, and the reviews that praise Rucci's artistic genius, the love all but disappears. In between fashion week seasons, there are hardly any mentions of Rucci's gowns gracing the celebrity red carpet, and barely any glamorous spreads in the requisite glossies.

Even Boyds owner Kent Gusher, through no fault of his own, didn't know Rucci's name when I mentioned him last week.

That's unfortunate. Ralph Rucci's designs are brilliant. In 2002 he became the first American designer in 60 years to be invited to Paris' haute couture shows. His work is in the permanent costume collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And he's ours - a born and bred South Philly guy.

Still, there's a disconnect between his work and the public. And although that hadn't mattered much to his financial success prior to the recession, recently Rucci has canceled fashion week shows, and he's had a hard time paying his highly skilled dressmakers. It turns out that what Rucci once described as his "recession-proof customers" weren't so tough.

Rucci's design house is hoping to address this with a handful of significant measures. Last week, it announced the company was changing its name from Chado Ralph Rucci to just Ralph Rucci.

By dropping the Chado - a reference to the Japanese tea ceremony - the company wants to enter a new, perhaps more relatable fashion phase.

"It's a new beginning," said Jeffry Aronsson, CEO of both Ralph Rucci and the Aronsson Group, which specializes in helping distressed fashion brands. "It's an evolution into a new chapter."

From the looks of it, Aronsson is trying to build an aspirational lifestyle brand that appeals to a broader audience without compromising the artist's steely integrity. While the road will be much longer than the standard red carpet, there are already signs of success.

Rucci released a chic 16-piece furniture collection in late March through a partnership with Holly Hunt. Hunt, who has showrooms in New York and Chicago, often partners with boldfaced-name architects. This is the first time she is working with a fashion designer. Some of the pieces, like the rib-cage chair, correspond with clothing featured in Rucci's woman's wear line. 

Rucci is working with Roubini Rugs - which formed similar partnerships with designers Missoni and Roberto Cavalli - to turn his Asian-inspired prints into carpet designs.

Most significantly, there are more celebrity sightings. Rucci is known in the industry for not lending his pieces to celebrities - despite the notoriety that comes from a red-carpet mention. He thought it wasn't fair to give clothes away when customers pay tens of thousands of dollars for luxe Rucci pieces often made from double-faced crepe fabrics, trimmed in sable and adorned with crystals.

Yet in January, actress Julianna Margulies wore a modified version of his structured black and white color-blocked gown to the Screen Actor's Guild Awards. And last week, Faith Hill rocked his smart, black lace shirtdress to the Country Music Awards.

"We certainly won't turn away any celebrity that wants to wear his clothing," Aronsson said.

The company is trying to increase the number of specialty stores carrying the brand, which now includes select Bergdorf Goodmans, Neiman Marcuses, and Saks Fifth Avenues.

Finally, the company has lowered prices 40 to 50 percent, Aronsson said. That means the least expensive Ralph Rucci dress has gone from about $5,000 to $2,500.

Rucci is not the only luxury label making changes to connect with recession-weary shoppers and beef up its relevance.

In June, Yves Saint Laurent's women's wear became Saint Laurent Paris. The YSL logo had become ubiquitous and cheapened by reality TV culture.

Also last month, Saint Laurent's parent company, Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, also known as PPR, announced it will change its name to Kering - as in, we care about our brands and we care about the environment.

The company, which also owns Gucci and Puma, hired French fashion blogger Garance Dore to cultivate a new audience through social media.

Like these other luxury brands, Rucci has artisan cachet; he makes and manufactures all of his pieces in America.

And the glocal movement - the marketing of items whose design and manufacture in a specific locale adds to their global appeal - is starting to gain steam. Rucci is wise to swallow some artistic pride and strike while the iron is hot.

The Philadelphia fashion community - always struggling to prove its fabulousness - will thank him.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.