Why you should care

Because this was the big business story you missed last week.

Fashion is one of the few industries where the soul and name of the company are closely intertwined. There’s the auto business, technology, chemicals and real estate — and then there’s fashion. Apple foundered when Steve Jobs left and rebuilt its muscle when he came back. Howard Schultz’s return to Starbucks heralded its revival.

The idea of designer as auteur, the soulful imaginer of a brand, is still a seductive concept.

But it’s even harder for fashion companies to survive when talented designers leave — let alone a talented designer whose name is on the door. To be sure, when such a design lead leaves, there’s an opportunity to shape a more commercial enterprise than many designers might be comfortable with, but there are real challenges including defining the brand in a way that connects with customers. These challenges are what await Ralph Rucci, the company that lost its namesake and leader last week. Rucci’s sudden departure, 20 years after he founded his company, was a surprise for even the most astute fashion observers. Talk of tension within the house was dismissed as little more than Rucci being … er … difficult or exacting about his high standards.

Ralph Rucci and Iris Apfel at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week on February 10, 2013

Iris Apfel and Ralph Rucci in February 2013

It was a double shock to the heart because Rucci is a rare talent, like Barbra Streisand or Whitney Houston; he is technically proficient, bearing exquisite gifts and an ineffable artistry. Rucci was fashion’s Thomas Keller, his shows four-course meals with layered sensations that fed the brain and the heart — a feast unlike any other in America: restrained but ultimately satisfying. With his exquisite craftsmanship and purist tendencies, America’s style cognoscenti and the artists who swirl around its outer edges loved that Rucci could go toe to toe with the French, a rare bit of fashion provincialism that will now have no assured outlet. No less than London-based fashion doyenne, writer and editor Suzy Menkes crowned him “American Fashion’s National Treasure.”

Can the treasure’s house continue now that he’s gone?

The company wasn’t without problems. In recent years, there were attempts to raise the brand’s profile. The company dressed young starlets and hired longtime fashion and cool factor publicist Kelly Cutrone of America’s Next Top Model and The Hills. It seemed to work. But Rucci’s creations thrived in rarified environments like museums and tony Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus rather than on the red carpet of this or that award show. And Rucci is still not a household name in the same vein as Michael Kors or Prada or Giorgio Armani.

Rucci (the company) didn’t just have struggles by happenstance. The cerebral Rucci (the man) is known to be highbrow and exacting, traits that don’t lend themselves to unfettered expansion — as Kanye West found out when he tried to woo the designer to ghost-design West’s women’s collection, according to a story Rucci related to Teri Agins in her new book, Hijacking the Runway.

Ralph Rucci in his office.

Rucci in his office

Source Jeff Grossman/Alamy

Yet the Rucci executives believe they can carry on without him. And yes, his departure opens the gate to creating products aimed at the masses or at least the mid-tier. But the fashion world is littered with names dead or barely limping after the departure of the heart and soul of the brand. When Calvin Klein walked away from his company, he was a pop icon. But there’s a big difference between being a pop touchstone and a national treasure. Jil Sander, Ungaro,YSL, Geoffrey Beene and Halston have struggled with fashion lines once the founder departed. Halston has been resurrected more times than an Egyptian mummy. It’s been painful to watch the numerous revivals of America’s most storied fashion brand since its founder, the late Roy Halston Frowick, “sold out” to J.C. Penney.

The world has changed since then, and few luxury designers take a hit for peddling affordability. But it’s difficult to see how a relatively small brand will navigate the turbulent world of designer fashion with the line’s namesake lurking in the wings or competing with his own brand. Next up: Rucci (the company) will need a backer. Whatever goodwill Rucci (the man) had going for his company is officially out of play now that he’s left. Indeed, BCBG faced a similar challenge when it took over the small French label Herve Leger. But BCBG did manage to overcome the travails thanks to marketing cash and a brand loved by celebrities. The Rucci company has neither asset.

What Rucci does have — finesse aside — is a brand and a history of putting people in the front seats of its fashion shows. Much of the business in high fashion is done on a personal level and Rucci’s was no exception. Customers expected and received face time with the designer. Who will cater to them now? It’s doubtful (though not impossible) that they will accept a replacement. What Rucci, for his part, has to say is simply this: “I am working on something. It will be ready in two or three months.”*

The idea of designer — or any artistic visionary at the top of a company — as auteur, the soulful imaginer of a brand, is still a seductive concept. In this age of big fashion businesses, it remains one of the surest routes to brand success. Once that covenant between leader and consumer is broken, however, the road is less sure.

*This story has been updated as of Wednesday, November 19 to include Rucci’s comments at a luncheon.

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