Text: Zoe Settle
Photos: Antoine Bootz
"I SEE BITCHES BREW WITH THIS". Ralph Pucci says to his mannequin sculptor. Michael Evert.
about the mental soundtrack he's been playing as they conceive a winter show. To those familiar with Ralph Pucci and his eponymous New York gallery, this exchange captures part of the aura of the man and the unique business he has created. In Ralph Pucci's world, the boundaries between jazz, fashion, art and design tend to dissolve. What started in 1954 as his parents' mannequin repair shop has become, in Ralph's hands, a creative laboratory and showcase for a family of artists and designers now recognized as being at the top of their fields. The "family" includes talents like Andrée Putman, Hervé van der Straeten, David Weeks, Eric Schmitt, India Mahdavi, Paul Mathieu, Chris Lehrecke and Ruben Toledo, now well-established names that were practically unknown when they first collaborated with Pucci.
Ralph Pucci joined his parents' business in 1976, a time when most mannequins were very traditional. "They had eyes, hair, makeup they were what we call realistic mannequins, and there were some really great companies doing them," he recalls. "I thought, Why go in that direction? I can't say i invented the abstract mannequin but we ran with it. Even though we were going abstract, we weren't going minimal. We had people people create for us." Putman was his first collaborator, on a 1986 commission for Barneys. "Andrée did interior design and architecture but never thought of making a mannequin" says Pucci. "And she comes along with an erect, Olympian goddess when everyone else was into waifs. She kept saying, 'I don't want skinny arms!' She was very clear on how she wanted the back of the hair to be very Deco, which corresponded to her ideal beauty at the time."
Pucci's new collections are celebrated at what he calls "shows." lively openings where emerging talents intermingle with veteran names and a glittering cross-section of New York's creative and collecting community. To this day he remembers a spring launch years ago, when the business was still based in a SoHo loft. "I had asked Isabel Toledo, who was just breaking as a designer, to do the clothing for Andrée's mannequins, and Andrée wanted to know about the music and who was going to come she was nervous no one would show up. We had the space very pure and minimal, without props. David LaChapelle came with friends, then Keith Haring and Andy Warhol showed up and were signing everyone's clothing. I have a friend who framed his T-shirt from that night with autographs from all these artists who weren't quite the names they are today,"
Since 1992 the Ralph Pucci international galleries have resided on two floors on West 18th Street, an expansive setting that rivals the luxurious designs it showcases. sandwiched between gallery floors is the mannequin studio, where each mannequin begins as a small scale model that is tweaked and developed into a clay sculpture. Plaster is then applied, and finally the figure is cast in fiberglass. "We don't follow trends, we go on a gut feeling, "says Pucci. "If someone's done it, I don't want to do it. I want to do something different." The 1994 collection from artist Maira Kalman is one of his favorites. Defined by its colorful Pop-culture references, Kalman's mannequins "just made you smile at a time when fashion was way too uptight," says Pucci, "I remain very proud of that collection because it was really different, really unexpected, and when you do something like that, and it becomes a commercial success, you feel really good about it. That's what we're good at, reading what's needed, what to come out with at the right time."
The late Andreé Putman would remain a close friend and mentor to Pucci, and he credits her with ushering him into the design world back in 2000, when she wasn't happy with her U.S. dealer. "I told her i knew nothing about furniture, and she said, 'It doesn't matter, you have passion and style. "he recalls. Putman introduced him to several of the designers her business, Ecart, represented in France, including Patrick Naggar, the french designer who is currently at work on his October show for Pucci. "There is no one like Ralph, no one doing what he does his energy, curiosity, sense of style and instinct. "Naggar says. "He always wants to learn about art and be close to it, but he has the very realistic business sense that most artists lack."
Ralph Pucci seems to possess a sixth sense for spotting stellar talents and encouraging their work in other fields, because to him there is no distinction between fashion, art and design. "Really great artists don't want to be typecast," he says. "A painter might also want to be a fashion designer. The creative mind can't be satisfied by just doing one thing you've got to believe in the people you hire and just let them run."
Pucci opened a gallery in Los Angeles in 2006, and he plans to open a third gallery in Miami later this year. A retrospective of his mannequins was presented at Macy's Chicago flagship this spring, and he's published two books. Show and Wall, that document the two decades of collaborative fashion-design-art exhibitions that have now become synonymous with his name. Above all, Ralph Pucci is perpetually seeking new talent. "Several years ago, I saw some work by this young kid named Sirichai, and I wanted him to paint the mural for the next show, "he relates." He was petrified, and I said, 'Don't worry, if you give me what i'm seeing in your portfolio, it will be killer.' He said he hadn't worked on that scale before, and I said 'If it doesn't look good, i'll paint over it, its not the end of the world. The mannequin is the star of the show, and this will be the complement." it took all the pressure off. You can't pigeon hole anyone. If you're artistic, I really think you can do anything." With his cadre of talent, and seemingly uncontained creativity, the sky is no limit for Ralph Pucci.