Emily LaBarge on Cinzia Ruggeri - Artforum International

2022-10-08 07:35:01 By : Ms. Angela Zhang

Cinzia Ruggeri in her studio, Milan, 1982. Photo: Occhiomagico.

“FASHION ALLOWED ME to explore the wearer’s intimate secrets, needs, and desires, but also a person’s crazes, fads, and nervous disorders,” said the Milanese polymath Cinzia Ruggeri in 2013, six years before her death at age seventy-seven. “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 . . . through behavioral garments.” A beguiling phrase, “behavioral garments”; in Italian, abiti comportamentali. In Ruggeri’s work, the behavioral garment is emotional, interactive, insouciant, serious, droll, joyful, surprising, and—above all—something to be deeply, intensely inhabited.

A white chiffon frock fitted with LED lights that can be turned on and off—for a “shy wearer or a wearer who had some kind of speech impairment to express something and even open up.” Textiles covered with liquid crystals that change color according to the body temperature of the attired. A white shift with a collar that rolls out into a tablecloth with utensils. A dress made of salami string to encase the body like a sausage. A shirt with a tiny pooch on a chain by which he can slide from his appliqué doghouse to a nearby embroidered bush. A blue dress and matching jacket with fabric that undulates like the sea, to be worn with an octopus-tentacled glove on one hand. A pair of thigh-high green leather boots in the shape of Italy (get it?), with matching Sicily and Sardinia clutches. A season of clothes with pearls and dog treats deliberately hidden in their folds. A round red leather purse with a glove affixed to the outside so it can be used in the art of self-defense: Guanto-borsa schiaffo (Slap-Glove Bag), 1983. A black leather purse shaped like the designer’s beloved Scottish terrier, Scherzi, whose name means “jokes” or “pranks”. The behavioral garment knows it has an impact not only on its wearer but on the surrounding world, because fashion is about more than function: It is relational, social, communicative. The behavioral garment is invested in imagination and innovation, for, as Ruggeri said, “we are only allowed to live in the future.”

Cinzia Ruggeri, Stivali Italia (Italy Boots), 1986, leather boots and clutch bags. Photo: Rebecca Fanuele.

While her work spanned decades and disciplines (she had her first art exhibition in 1960 in Milan and her last, an installation of multimedia works, in 2019), Ruggeri is best known for her couture and ready-to-wear collections of the 1970s and ’80s. After studying fine art at the Accademia delle Arti Applicate in Milan, she apprenticed at Carven in Paris before returning to work for her father’s company, which produced women’s suits and coats. Like other forms of Italian design, fashion in the late ’60s was undergoing a profound practical and ideological evolution. New textiles were available, as was high-quality manufacturing on a larger scale. The role of the “stylist” emerged as a means of navigating between small boutiques and fashion firms and the latest methods of mass production. At the same time, fashion sat alongside other creative disciplines as part of an avant-garde that wished to destabilize postwar modernist ideals of “good design.” Rather than plain, simple, and efficient, Italian “Radical design,” per Germano Celant’s 1972 coinage, was colorful, bombastic, irregular, heterogeneous, and unpredictable. This work often took critical aim at domestic spaces and the built urban environment in particular: Take, for example, Mario Bellini’s modular sofa, which rejected the home as a fixed social environment, or his 1972 “Kar-a-sutra,” a family car turned orgy-mobile filled with plush pillows for amorous cavorting; interiors that flaunted ideas of excess and bad taste, like the playfully garish furnishings of the Memphis Group; or the speculative, futuristic cities of the architectural firm Superstudio, which, existing as collage or prototype only, need never be built, the idea as vital as the material reality.

Advertisement for Cinzia Ruggeri’s Spring/Summer 1984 collection. From Vanity, April 1984. Photo: Occhiomagico.

The “behavioral garment” is emotional, interactive, insouciant, serious, droll, joyful, surprising, and—above all—something to be deeply, intensely inhabited.

Cinzia Ruggeri, Abito salame (Salami Dress), 1989, net, pearls. Photo: Santi Caleca.

By 1982, when Ruggeri launched her self-titled second line (she introduced her first, Bloom, with a focus on blouses in 1977), she was also styling covers for the influential Milan-based magazine Domus. Collaborating with collectives like Studio Alchimia on sets and Occhiomagico on photography, Ruggeri fashioned wild tableaux that brought together Radical design across disciplines, embracing the movement’s belief in the total aesthetic environment: each component as vital as the next, all surfaces conveying meaning and interacting with playful complexity. The March 1982 issue—accompanied by an editorial feature titled “In Praise of Fabrics”— shows a vortex of purple, mint green, and salmon pink, from which emerge three colorful standing lamps and a model in a Ruggeri creation called the Statue of Liberty dress: a short, boxy pink number with bright cones of fabric that extend from it in inflated volumes, courtesy of small fans placed inside the garment. May 1982 shows a model sprawled on a row of contemporary red lounge chairs in Milan’s futuristic World Trade Center, all glass and steel, with Luigi Colani’s 1977 Megalodon plane taking off in the distance. The model’s dark pantsuit, by Ruggeri, features LED lights along the outer seams of the trousers and jacket, as if they were landing strips, and is elaborately titled “Evolution of the stepped silhouette to encourage excursions through winter geometries with luminous signals for UFC (Unidentified Flying Clothes).”

Cinzia Ruggeri, Homage a Lévi-Strauss, Fall/Winter 1983–84, silk dress. Photo: Occhiomagico.

Domus took fashion seriously, arguing for its importance alongside art, architecture, and design and its capacity not only to comment on or evince but to produce social and cultural change. In 1985, issue no. 660 was accompanied by a Domus Moda supplement titled “Art as Fashion.” In it, the French art critic Pierre Restany made an eloquent assertion: “Today, art and fashion appear as existential languages par excellence, whose immediate aims are to feed the ego and make consumer behaviour dynamic.” Fashion, like art, produces complicated images that speak to what it means to exist in the present. One can make, can even be, an image that is read and interacted with like a system of signs, ever open to interpretation but never reducible to surface. “Dressing is the first thing you do in the morning: unkempt, refined, ‘normal,’” wrote Ruggeri in 1983. “Like it or not, the garment is the (always intentional) spectacle of ourselves.”

Page from Cinzia Ruggeri’s project for Artforum, October 1985.

The Radical Italian designers were image-savvy, often producing and disseminating their ideas via photography and photomontage within the dynamic sphere of magazine publishing. In the October 1985 issue of Artforum, Ingrid Sischy introduced a project with Ruggeri, describing the artist’s material “polygamy,” her “ambience of high wit,” and “her bricoleur ideas” that fuse idiosyncratic images, textures, shapes, and associations. Photo­graphs of Ruggeri’s clothes, accessories, and objects are collaged against a pale marble background highlighted with neon accents—pink, yellow, orange, green. Ruggeri’s famous Homage a Lévi-Strauss, 1983–84 (now in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London), a pine-green double silk dress with a stepped form along one side of the collar and skirt, floats near a green evening glove, chimes dangling from its fingertips, and a pair of the designer’s Scarpe scale (Stairs Shoes), 1984, in blush pink. The second page of the spread juxtaposes the Ziggurat Dress, 1984–85, another stepped form, this time in mesh and wire, that hangs around the model’s legs like an architecture independent of the body, with a ziggurat-shaped chalice bearing a crystal pendant designed to clink against the stem each time a sip is taken. The layout is a vivid, jagged vision of what Sischy described as Ruggeri’s esprit de l’escalier—“the witty retort thought up after the conversation is finished and one is on one’s way downstairs.”

Cinzia Ruggeri, Colombra, 1997, wood, cotton velvet, 4' 4 3⁄4" × 12' 4 3⁄8" × 2' 2 3⁄8".

“Cinzia Says . . . ,” a retrospective traveling this month from the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma to London’s Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, integrates Ruggeri’s vast fashion archive with her later, object-based works, which are equally witty and unusual: a mirror from which hands reach out to embrace the viewer; an anthropomorphic black velvet chaise longue that lies flat on the floor like a cartoon shadow, arms raised above its head to form a hand-puppet dove; lightbulbs encased in beads and dangling jewels. One can draw a historical connection between Ruggeri and Surrealists like Eileen Agar, Meret Oppenheim, and Elsa Schiaparelli, but one can equally look to contemporaries and successors like Jean Paul Gaultier, Rei Kawakubo, Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and, more recently, Jonathan Anderson for Loewe and Demna for Balenciaga to see the impact of her thinking about sculpture, performance, technology, and clothes in space and motion. For Ruggeri, as for these designers, the way we dress is part of the way we live in the world. It speaks powerfully to everything the body, which includes the mind, can do.

Emily LaBarge is a writer living in London.

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