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Ralph Rucci makes a brilliant comeback in New York; Sander Lak makes a stunning debut

Sies Marjan Fall 2016 collection. (Stefan Knauer/MCV Photo For the Washington Post)

NEW YORK — As the fall 2016 season unfolds with designers bemoaning the volatile whims of customers and the new pressures of social media, one designer had an inspiring debut and another had an invigorating rebirth.

Together they served as reassurance that, for all the industry’s recent upheavals, fashion will endure.

Two different designers, separated by more than 30 years in age. The elder, Ralph Rucci, is as close as this country has to a true couturier in the Parisian sense of the word. He revels in precision and luxury. He strives for perfection; he paints with sable and cashmere. He glories in shades of black. After a nearly two-year hiatus, Rucci returned to present a fall 2016 collection. Skill and experience are still valued.

Sander Lak is the young man — only 32. He designs in searing shades of yellow and orange. He aims for ease. He had his debut as creative director for a new label, Sies Marjan. Talent still brings rewards.

[The fashion industry wants to disrupt the runway. It’s missing the real problem.]

The two men are connected through timing and optimism and the convoluted paths of the fashion business. Two years ago, Rucci left the label that bore his name — Chado Ralph Rucci, which he founded in 1994. (Chado is a reference to the Japanese tea ceremony. It is a meticulous process, and the name reflects Rucci’s mindful approach to crafting his clothes.)

Freedom comes with a price. And it meant that Rucci could no longer use his name on a fashion collection.

The investors in the Chado Ralph Rucci name hired Lak. The Chado name was retired. And for fall 2016, Lak debuted a collection called Sies Marjan (SEEZ mar-JAHN). The name combines, respectively, his father’s first name with that of his mother.

Lak was an unknown. He spent the earliest part of his childhood in Brunei, Malaysia and Gabon — wherever his father’s job for Royal Dutch Shell took the family. Lak’s father died when he was in his teens, and he moved back to his family’s native Holland, then studied at Central Saint Martins in London, the fashion school that produced John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. He worked for Marc Jacobs, 3.1 Phillip Lim, Balmain and Dries Van Noten before arriving in New York to build a new brand based on his own aesthetic point-of-view.

“It doesn’t happen that often that you can start something on this level,” he says. “A risk is a risk, but I was happy to take it.”

Suddenly, he is creative director of a 30-person company. “It’s big enough to get a lot of stuff done,” he says, “but small enough to keep control of the company culture. There are no rotten apples.”

Lak’s fall collection could easily be mistaken for a spring one as it is dominated by pale floral prints and shades of rose and yellow. “I felt like the world has changed and the old system of winter and summer doesn’t work anymore,” he says. “For me, I feel like the two collections you show should be one collection [aesthetically.]”

Fall will have more coats and heavier sweaters, and spring will have lighter dresses. But they will be based in the same color palette, and the same season-less core fabrics.

For his debut, he was not inspired by a particular muse or art exhibition. “First,we focused on each separate color,” he explained Tuesday afternoon in his showroom. “Once we had each color, we put them together and said f— it, it will work. Some of the colors clash, but they are interesting color clashes.”

One of the collection’s most dynamic pieces is a loose-fitting overcoat in a cacophony of pink, yellow, black and orange. On the runway, it looks as if the model is wrapped in an artist’s drop cloth. There are cotton and nylon jean-style jackets lined in fur, silky dresses with gracefully knotted bodices and sweaters with over-the-knuckle sleeves. The collection is youthful and informal but luxurious.

Lak, who is tall and lean, with brown hair and a garrulous personality, does not wrap his collection in pretensions or studied eccentricities. He is influenced by his own style of dress — a tendency to leave his coats unbuttoned, a fondness for layering sweaters atop shirts atop sweaters. Not only do trousers have cargo pockets, so does a slim skirt in silk gazar, because there “were girls in high school wearing these cargo pants and they were so cool,” he said. “I wasn’t a part of them in the ’90s. But in my youth that was the coolest thing.”

The showroom for Sies Marjan is the former Chado Ralph Rucci showroom. The furniture has changed and the books on the floor-to-ceiling shelves now reflect Lak’s interests. But the architecture remains the same. The elevator opens onto a white foyer lined with framed prints. And a glass wall separates the showroom from the workroom where pattern makers, tailors and seamstresses stitch up frocks.

It is instructional to be so closely situated to the folks who actually make the clothes. Rucci, when he worked here, was very attuned to the craftsman’s imprint on the garments — many of his clothes are hand-stitched or hand-painted. So it was only right to be able to put faces to that artistry.

To mark his return to fashion, Rucci took over a space on the far west side of the city. He turned it into his own art gallery, where his large-scale abstract paintings in black, white and gold hung on the walls behind his fashion.

The new collection is called RR331 — a combination of his initials and the many steps in a Japanese tea ceremony.

The room was filled with waiters passing champagne and hors d’oeuvres. Famous clients such as Martha Stewart brushed shoulders with museum curators, retailers, editors and young fashion aficionados who admire Rucci’s skill and his willingness to engage with fashion on his own terms.

“This is who I am at 60 years old. I’m not a fashion designer. I’m not a furniture designer. I’m not a painter. I’m an artist,” says Rucci, a muscular, dark-haired man who wears a uniform of a crisp dress shirts and black suits. Rucci has decided that he will not create the multitude of collections that the fashion industry now requires. There will be two collections a year. The cyclical demands, the corporate pressure, “I think it’s taking so much happiness and joy out of fashion.”

His clothes were displayed on mannequins: restrained black dresses with capelets of sable, a black taffeta gown with a billowing train, a black jumpsuit with a trim belt, fur coats that wrapped artfully around the torso and looked as light as a cloud. It was a beautiful collection displayed in a fully realized world that spoke intimately about the man who created it.

Both Lak and Rucci are trying to find their way in the fashion industry as it evolves at warp speed. Rucci has a great deal of experience, understands the demands of this new fashion industry. In recognizing what he is not, in rejecting the conventional wisdom, he has found who he is.

Lak has earned an extraordinary opportunity. For once, investors are looking to build a new brand rather than revive one that has become dormant. Lak is leaping into the future and finding that the only way forward is to trust his gut and avoid getting bogged down by what the system wants and when it wants it.

“Just make great clothes,” he says. And that’s what he has done. Retailers have responded enthusiastically and so have editors. “I find it amazing that my gut feeling has been right.”


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