Interviewing somebody is always a special experience on a human level because you usually end up learning a lot in a very short time about the person standing in front of you. Interviewing Cinzia Ruggeri is a bit like being taken on a colorful tour de force of the best and quite often quirkiest designs ever created in Italy.
Born in Milan, Ruggeri studied design at the local Accademia delle Arti Applicate in the ‘60s. She then moved to Paris to work for Carven, and, upon her return in Italy, she settled down in Milan and focused on her own collections, becoming soon well-known for her creations that mixed fashion, architecture and interior design and reinterpreted them in a surrealist key.
Fans will definitely remember her "Abiti Natura" (Nature Dresses) with their backs covered in ivy or her "Abito Muretto” (Wall Dress), from her Spring/Summer 1983 collection; the "Dress with Octopus" (S/S 1984), a practical yet fun garment that turned the body into a surreal yet sensual sea creature, and the Piero della Francesca dress, a simple design with a strong art connection.
In many ways Ruggeri and her visionary creations that sometimes had the retro futuristic look that Rachael donned in Blade Runner, or the way she explored different themes and sparked collaborations that went beyond the world of mere fashion, meant that she was more like an '80s version of Schiaparelli, a free spirit with and open mind and a strong desire to grasp the essence of the future.
Ruggeri was indeed one of the first designers in Italy to use new technologies in her designs creating garments with integrated liquid crystals, offering kinetic solutions for dresses (achieved by means of chromatic sequences and a band of polarised light), and designing garments with micro-ventilators inserted so that the sleeves would puff out.
As the years passed Ruggeri began working in other fields: as an artist she designed theatrical productions, ballets and artistic events, venturing into interior and furniture design and designing wardrobes, glasswares, mirrors, pieces of furniture and home accessories for different companies.
In the meantime, fans kept on remembering her: Amanda Brown's LA-based record label 100% Silk released a while back a split 12" by Magic Touch/Ital with a cover featuring iconic designs from the '80s by Cinzia Ruggeri.
It's a joy to follow the trail of her scattered thoughts and discover the story behind her "Homage to Lévi Strauss dress" with its three-dimensional ziggurat-like motifs, or tales of friends who donned her "transdisciplinary" pieces, behavioural garments and performative dresses at parties marvelling the participants.
If you're lucky, at some point Ruggeri may pull out an old issue of Vogue showing the architectural correspondences in her designs, sketches of avant-garde dog-shaped cases that you could carry on a leash or hilarious accessories such as a pair of boots shaped like Italy with the Gargano sticking out, accompanied by Sicily and Sardinia clutch bags.
In a way spending time with Ruggeri is a bit like a therapy session: the Italian artist, interior and fashion designer is still a volcano of ideas ready to erupt every five minutes with designs that make you smile.
Some of her designs and fun pieces are currently part of the "Nerofumo" exhibition together with Aldo Lanzi's "Aliens" at the Milan-based E27 gallery space.
Throughout your career you worked as a fashion and interior designer, but also as an artist. Can you tell us more about how everything started?
Cinzia Ruggeri: As a child whenever somebody asked what I would have liked to become once I grew up I would say an artist. I loved painting and sculpting and I used to drench my hands in colour paint or sculpt at night. I did my first exhibition when I wasn't even 18. It was at the Galleria del Prisma, in Milan, and it was accompanied by a brochure with an introduction by Dino Buzzati. At the time I lived near the offices of the Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera and I had become a sort of mascot of the intellectuals and journalists who worked there since they went to eat at a nearby place where also some of my friends gathered. I hadn't told my family about the exhibition as I knew that these were the sort of things you had to do in secret otherwise you would have never got round to do them. I gave my father the invitation to the event the day before the opening. After the exhibition I received a lot of requests for TV and radio interviews and somebody even wanted to do an exhibition in Rome. I knew my personal limits and I realised that things were getting out of my hands too fast. Besides, I always felt I wanted to gradually get to things and I wanted to "suffer" to become a real artist, I didn't want it to happen so quickly. So I decided to stop and pull out. I guess I was just very coherent with myself and that's why I never looked back or regretted it.
Which were the funniest or quirkiest creations you ever designed in your career?
Cinzia Ruggeri: The list is extremely long: I once did a series of garments such as trousers and shirts with a fabric that featured a photographic print of a lawn with a four-leaf clover scattered here and there. The clover was the key to the collection: since it was casually printed here and there, some lucky people would get it on their garments, others wouldn't. Then I did a menswear trench coat in a beautiful grey fabric, nice but ordinary looking. Yet it hid a secret: one pocket was lined in blue velvet and another in red silk; one featured an appliqued image of a champagne cork, another an image of a diamond. When the wearer was happy she could turn her pockets inside out and show everybody how she felt. I also remember putting little messages or objects into the lining of some garments so that when a hole would open in the pockets, the wearer would find them and smile or laugh. Some ideas were directly inspired by things I hated: women who played with the pendants on their necklaces inspired me shirts with an appliqued embroidery of a dog house on one side and a tree on the other and a little chain with a movable dog in between. In this way they had a purpose in that meaningless and annoying gesture they would keep on repeating with their pendants, they could take the dog out for a piss! I also hated clothes labels, so, rather than using my name on them, once I scattered bits and and pieces of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days on different labels of various garments. Even if you bought them all, you wouldn't have been able to read the entire thing anyway, but you would have still wondered what it was about and the doubt would remain.
And what about the quirkiest accessories?
Cinzia Ruggeri: Well there are hundreds of those as well: from boots shaped like Italy, with Sicily and Sardinia clutches, to gloves sprouting grass, violets or crystal tears from their fingers (check out the third Matia Bazar video in this post around 05:20 for the teardrop gloves and skirt suit), dog-shaped sunglasses and a case that could be divided in two in case the unfortunate couple on a weekend away or on a holiday together would quarrel and decide to split and go their own ways.
What prompted you to develop such pieces?
Cinzia Ruggeri: I love freedom and I hate prejudices, I just wanted to express myself and my ideas in a completely free environment and in different fields and make people smile. See, even tableclothes irritated me because they had to look the same with their symmetrical prints, patterns and embroideries. When I started selling my stuff in Japan, they always used to see a picture and ask for that dress, that hat, those tights, shoes and gloves, in a nutshell, they wanted the entire look as it were presented to them, something which I found appalling and terrifying because the wearers would have replicated themselves in that way, they would have annihilated their personality, while I wanted people to be free.
In your career you also developed some of the first behavioural garments, what inspired them?
Cinzia Ruggeri: Fashion allowed me to explore the wearer's intimate secrets, needs and desires, but also a person's crazes, fads and nervous disorders and I loved this aspect of fashion as the entire point behind my work wasn't to continuously and bulimically create, but to tackle and explore these issues also through behavioural garments. In some cases, I employed very rigid net-like fabrics that restricted the mobility of the wearer and allowed her to use only one hand. I found the idea of reducing or impairing the movement of the wearer very interesting. I also did garments that changed colour and dresses with a light fabric that featured holes or slashes so that the wearer could pull out the fabric underneath and create draped motifs or alter the shape and silhouette of her dress in many different ways.
Were the LED dresses also part of the behavioural garments?
Cinzia Ruggeri: In a way yes as they could be used by a shy wearer or a wearer who had some kind of speech impairment to express something and even open up. I remember lending my first LED dress to a friend of mine, a journalist, who had to go to a special evening to which also Umberto Eco had been invited. When she arrived she had her lights off, but when Eco walked near her she switched on the lights via an embedded button in the belt. The next day she became the talk of the town and she was all over the papers, because she had communicated through her dress and acknowledged the presence of a honourable guest.
You sometimes employed materials that changed colours according to body heat and liquid crystals that enabled you to create from a single model a number of variants of colours and patterns. Which was the most experimental creation fabric-wise?
Cinzia Ruggeri: It was a liquid crystal dress in which my beloved staircase motif was highlighted by a liquid crystal serigraphic print that changed colour when hit by light or when it came into contact with heat. I actually got a worldwide patent for applying liquid crystals to textiles, imagine that a while back a group of Japanese people came to ask about it since they wanted to apply this technique on windsurf sails.
What did you like about staircases, their connection with zigurrats and the fascination of the postmodernist movement with such structures?
Cinzia Ruggeri: Bidimensional and tree-dimensional staircases were always an obsession of mine and they quite often came back in my accessories from shoes and bags to necklaces. I once did a catwalk show that featured ziggurat designs at the Church of S. Carpoforo in Milan accompanied by an installation by Brian Eno. It was a catwalk show and music event all rolled into one and, by pure chance and without me suggesting it, he designed for that event sound-emitting luminous ziguratts.
In 2011, the "Homage to Lévi Strauss dress" was bought by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, officially becoming part of the extraordinary fashion design collection of this prestigious British institution. How did the V&A end up including your dress in the "Postmodernism" exhibition?
Cinzia Ruggeri: They contacted me to check if I still had the dress and then Jane Pavitt came to see me. I still had it in my rather chaotic archive, among all my fabrics, sketches, books and garments. I was very honoured they wanted to buy it, I wouldn't have sold it to anybody else. They were extremely professional and showcased it in an excellent way during the "Postmodernism" event, on a dummy that perfectly reproduced the look of the original model who donned it on the cover of Matia Bazar's "Aristocratica".
Italian electro band Matia Bazar often appeared on television, live gigs or on their albums wearing your creations characterised by sculpted staircases and ziggurats (for the Cinzia Ruggeri's designs as donned by Matia Bazar check out the following videos; the second one from around 01:19; the third one from 04:42 and 07:18). How did you get to collaborate with them?
Cinzia Ruggeri: Their singer Antonella and another band member asked me to create something for them and we reused some of my garments from my collection and I also designed the staircase ties the band member wear in the picture on the back of the "Aristocratica" album (View this photo). Studio Alchimia did the cover for that album that also featured a model in my "Homage to Lévi Strauss dress". The inside album cover featured the lyrics and I played around with them as well, highlighting some words. If you read them one after the other, they formed a fun text, it was a little joke, a sort of divertissement.
How did you get in touch with the Memphis Milano and Studio Alchimia groups?
Cinzia Ruggeri: Some people say I was a member of these groups, but I actually wasn't as I had my own business and practice. The thing was that one day I saw on a publication the "living room of the century" by Alessandro Mendini's Studio Alchimia with the "Proust" armchair and the "Kandissi" sofa. I wanted to buy the pieces for my studio, but the designers didn't know where the pieces had ended up. I eventually recovered them and, in a way, that was the reason why they became famous. The Proust armchair that was in my possession travelled so much for photo shoots for interior design magazines that, in the end, because of the requests they kept on getting, they put it into production. I also met Mendini and the others and sometimes when they did an exhibition and they needed a dress we would collaborate together. Mendini also directed Domus and they sometimes used my dresses for the magazine covers. There was an affinity between our practices but I never worked for them and they never worked for me.
Did you also design garments suspended between fashion and architecture?
Cinzia Ruggeri: In the early '80s Vogue published some features drawing comparisons between my collections and architecture. This was a first since before then they had never combined the two disciplines. There were themes in some of my garments that linked them to architecture, such as deconstruction, diagonal cuts, a garment with half a collar that hinted at asymmetry and so on. After that feature on Vogue about fashion and architecture people started producing ties with the Empire State Building and tried to make them pass as "architectural" accessories, but that's not architecture obviously since the real architectural reference in a garment is always hidden away in its structure.
Were you aware of such architectural connections at the time?
Cinzia Ruggeri: No, not really, these were casual coincidences, but they were maybe prompted by a certain architectural mood that was hanging in the air at the time.
Which were your best markets at the time?
Cinzia Ruggeri: The US and Japan, but also Germany, the UK and France. The collections were produced with the best textiles and they were all made in Italy.
Over the years some of your creations like the bed dress or the LED gown were reinterpreted and reappeared on different runways, did this bother you?
Cinzia Ruggeri: No, I'm not usually bothered. In fact that makes me usually sigh and say "well, not everything went lost!" There was something that bothered me, though, and it was when a red leather round flat bag with an integrated glove - ideal to practically carry stuff, protect your hand and, in need, also slap somebody, it was indeed called the "Schiaffo Bag" (Slap Bag) - was stolen at an exhibition. I used to love it.
Why did you stop designing?
Cinzia Ruggeri: I never stopped creating for myself. Whenever I couldn't find something that I liked, even a tablecloth, I would make it for myself, as a reaction to global and mass markets. An example was my "Una sola moltitudine" (One Only Multitude) armchair. I would define it as a "democratic" armchair. It is characterised by a simple structure, but includes a series of different cushions stacked one on top of the other. You can change the cushions in accordance with your guests: you have a friend over for a cup of tea? Get the informal cushion with the chicken print out; a distinguished elderly gentleman is coming over? Opt for the tartan print and so on. Or you can change the cushions in accordance with your mood.
In your opinion, what's missing in today's fashion?
Cinzia Ruggeri: Fluxus' Gianni Emilio Simonetti - the director of my catwalk shows - used to say that if you're a chef and you don't feel like cooking, your food will be tasteless, but if you have genuine passion then your food will always be amazing. If you feel like communicating something to other people, your efforts will always produce something extraordinarily postive, but it's clear that this is not the aim of today's fashion that could be compared to a mirror that is reflecting itself. I never came out on the runway at the end of my catwalk shows, even when the models would push me and drag me there, I would just turn and step away. I thought there was no point in doing it. I had just done my job and that was all. Nowadays there are dedicated fashion programmes on TV about the backstage of catwalk shows that follow the designer around. I saw one that featured Marc Jacobs preparing a Louis Vuitton show and I found it utterly ridiculous. He kept on ordering his assistants around asking to bleach this or corroding that and other silly things. It lasted for more than one hour and it ended up being a sort of vouyeristic trip through a crazy apparat established outside of the real world in which somebody good at chess and no slouch at bridge, either is elevated to God-status.
In the last few years you have been teaching in Milan, which are the main topics you focus in your courses?
Cinzia Ruggeri: Accessory design. I do love my students, even though every now and then you meet the odd one out who doesn't seem to have very clear ideas about why they ended up in your course, but in general they make me happy. They work hard and, since my course is very practical, they get to work a lot with their hands. I prompt them to use different materials from natural to synthetic ones and we're always working on a lot of innovative designs.
Your work appeared at the Venice Biennale, and during iconic fashion exhibitions such as "Italian Re-Evolution" (Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla, California), "The Genius of Fashion", "Fashion and Surrealism" (both at FIT, New York) and "Postmodernism: Style & Subversion" (Victoria & Albert Museum, London). Would you ever do a fashion exhibition with your best designs?
Cinzia Ruggeri: I would prefer an exhibition about life with different installations like the one I recently did. I remember with joy the crazy parties we used to throw in which even the toilets were installations. Once I did a party in a house with three different bathrooms, but only one could be used since in the second one there was an installation featuring live crabs, in the third one there was a red cushion on the toilet seat with a toy gun on top. I think I can say something about my life, that it gave me joy and that I gave joy to other people and that's what I would like to keep on doing.
Would you ever reissue some of your designs?
Cinzia Ruggeri: Maybe I would reissue some of my designs after updating them a bit. There are certain concepts and ideas that I tackled and that would be equally valid today, but I think they should be presented in a different way. Besides, I always have hundreds of new ideas coming, and I love shoes and bags, so I guess I would like to design new things such as shoes that everybody could be able to afford and wear.
Cinzia Ruggeri's "Nerofumo" featuring Aldo Lanzini's Aliens is at E27, Via Edolo 27, Milan, until 29th May 2013.
All images courtesy of Cinzia Ruggeri. Photographs of Piero della Francesca dress and Italy boots by Aldo Lanzini.
Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos
Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos