Stylebook: Rucci saved best for last

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Martha Stewart, perched on a front row of Ralph Rucci's fashion show, would have called his autumn-winter preview "a good thing."

And that would have been an understatement.

Diane Bondareff/Associated Press
Supermodel Alek Wek shows an orange-hued gown and matching feather jacket from the fall 2007 Chado Ralph Rucci collection.
Click photo for larger image.

Mr. Rucci's Feb. 9 showing of his Chado Ralph Rucci women's line was the last official show of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York, and it appeared to be a case of saving the best for last.

The Philadelphia native enthralled more than 1,000 spectators, who sat mute -- except for several outbursts of applause -- as he sent out 46 pretty ready-to-wear looks and 19 fabulous ensembles from what he called his haute couture collection.

"In my workroom, as in my thoughts, there is little difference between couture and ready-to-wear," he said. "What I find most important is that we strive to create a product that is empowering and harmonious with the spiritual essence of a woman."

Although low-key compared to the likes of Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang and the other Ralph, Mr. Rucci is arguably America's top designer. Consider two major distinctions within the past five years:

In October, the Couture Council of New York's prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology honored him with the first Artistry in Fashion Award. And in 2002, the ?xclusive Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture invited him to show his first haute couture collection in Paris, making him the first American since the 1940s (Mainbocher) to be included in the 138-year-old group's official show calendar.

Next top models

The eighth season of "America's Next Top Model" kicks off Feb. 28 with a two-hour premiere at 8 p.m. on the CW network. Among 13 finalists settling into a Los Angeles mansion to compete for a modeling contract and other prizes are a Georgia bartender, an Illinois photographer, a Detroit band manager, a Brooklyn hairstylist, a Hawaiian stay-at-home mother and five college students.

Special guests in the fast-moving premiere episode are fashion designer Marc Ecko, music producer Jermaine Dupri and celeb stylist Phillip Bloch. By the end of the first hour, judges whittle 32 potential contestants to 13 finalists. And by the end of the second hour, one is sent packing.

Retired supermodel and talk show host Tyra Banks, who hosts and helps produce the show, was nowhere to be seen at fashion week. But her reality show's past contestants scored more high-profile modeling gigs than in the past.

For example, season six winner Danielle Evans walked for designer Zang Toi. And season seven runner-up Melrose Bickerstaff opened and closed for Malan Breton, a contestant in last season's Project Runway.

Mr. Breton, by the way, presented his fall collection the final day of fashion week. The 9 a.m. show, although at the most unpopular time slot, drew a respectable audience that included season two contestant Diana Eng and Project Runway mentor Tim Gunn, who recently left Parsons The New School for Design to become chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne.

A couple of other Runway alumnae also showed collections, including Zulema Griffin from season two. Laura Bennett, one of the three finalists last season, did some guest corresponding for a cable network. She also sent son Pierson down the runway in one of her designs for the Child Magazine fashion show.

Ms. Eng said she's been busy consulting, collaborating with Craft magazine and designing garments that integrate fashion and practical technology.

"A lot of stuff out there really just isn't wearable," she said.

Backstage, an exuberant Mr. Breton said he's weighing requests from 23 specialty stores across the United States that want to carry his line. He's also angling for rack space in Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and other high-end department stores.

His fall collection featured nearly two dozen red carpet-ready looks such as a gorgeous black antique lace dress with gunmetal silk detail.

"I wanted to keep it sophisticated and elegant," he said. "It's been a process of nonstop inspiration, sort of searching for the one element that would pull it all together."

What inspired him? A young Elizabeth Taylor, "iconic images in visual design, film and music" and "new friends, the limelight, the low life, the Jazz Age and the opportunity for a new world."

In September, he plans to show a spring '08 collection during fashion week that will include menswear.

Saturday: The 31st annual benefit and luncheon fashion show to benefit the scholarship fund of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs Inc. Hosted by Patrice King Brown of KDKA-TV, it's at 11 a.m. at Macy's, Downtown. Tickets are $30 at 724-733-4503.


Post-Gazette fashion editor LaMont Jones can be reached at ljones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1469.


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