Cinzia Ruggeri — a designer “weaving across disciplines”

Portrait of Cinzia Ruggeri © Occhiomagico

Cinzia Ruggeri’s clothes refuse to be just clothes. They are best understood as gender-defying explorations of the human body. You may not have heard of the Milanese designer and artist, but you’ll definitely have seen traces of her legacy.

Ruggeri’s couture and ready-to-wear collections of the 1970s and 1980s foreshadow much of fashion’s modern preoccupation with surrealism, from Danish designer Han Kjøbenhavn’s ‘Grip’ leather dress, clutching the Julia Fox’s neck on Oscar night, with the impassive conceptual glamor of modernity. Gucci.

The irony was Ruggeri’s stock in trade. She charmed, delighted — and occasionally made political remarks — with portable puns: a slap-shot cover in 1983; vertiginous boots in the shape of a map of Italy in 1986; a bed dress complete with pillow cover in 1986, almost 20 years before Viktor & Rolf had the same idea.

“People often think that, historically, surreal fashion started and ended with Elsa Schiaparelli, but Ruggeri proves it can go all the way back to the late 20th century,” says Sonnet Stanfill, senior curator at Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “Although they look like costumes, they are plush and very easy to wear.”

Ruggeri died in 2019 without notice outside of avant-garde fashion circles. However, a major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Macro) in Rome, sponsored by Gucci, is the first serious attempt to rectify this.

In October, more than 100 works from the exhibition will move to London’s Goldsmiths Center for Contemporary Art, part of the University of South London known for its radical art and design tradition. In Rome, the Macro galleries are a kind of open landscape, with “clothes hanging from the ceiling and stairs, so that visitors can use them to observe”, explains Luca Lo Pinto, artistic director of Macro. “I wanted the exhibition to be close to his attitude, not just a mausoleum.”

“She was an incredible polymath and I don’t think she could adapt to any way of working,” says Sarah McCrory, director of the Goldsmiths CCA, co-organizer of the London version of the exhibition with Lo Pinto of Macro. Ruggeri has worked with sculpture, architecture, interior design, pop music, kinetics, performance and technology, some of which she has integrated into couture and ready-to-wear collections. She also produced homewares that refused to be simply homewares – mirrors that reach out to embrace anyone who looks at them; armchairs covered with plush cats.

Born in Milan in 1942 into a family of industrial manufacturers, Ruggeri studied design in the city and worked briefly for Carven in Paris before launching her own label in 1977.

A black velvet cabinet with arms and feet

Ruggeri’s work shows a fascination with surrealism. . . © Piercarlo Quecchia

A floaty green dress with a step-like hem hangs from a gallery ceiling

. . . who influenced his couture and ready-to-wear collections © Piercarlo Quecchia

She was, says McCrory, shaped by Italy’s radical Arte Povera art movement and the self-expression of feminist groups of the 1960s and 1970s. Milanese Memphis, but not part of it. She was more interested in what McCrory calls “weaving across disciplines.”

Just as Ruggeri reached a creative and commercial zenith in the late 1980s, she abandoned her fashion brand and the industry, and spent the next 30 years teaching and working on installations.

“Her friends say she was self-destructive, but for me, that’s a radical way to work,” McCrory says. “As soon as she got bored or slipped into the mainstream or felt comfortable, she broke loose and kept her art practice fresh and exciting. There’s courage in that because it’s unstable and complicated.

Virtually none of Ruggeri’s work is recorded, and McCrory is working on the first monograph. There are a few videos online – grainy YouTube footage of his 1980s shows, snippets of his editorial work with Domus magazine. “She wasn’t taken as seriously as she should have been,” McCrory says. “If she had been a man, she would have been this maverick, this great polymath, this genius who knows how to do everything. There’s something about women in artistic history where they don’t enjoy the same level of respect.

A display of shirts and r
Despite their radical character, Ruggeri’s clothes were sumptuous and wearable © Piercarlo Quecchia

McCrory evokes famous multidisciplinary designers from a generation younger than Ruggeri, such as architect and designer Matteo Thun and fashion designer-turned-performer Jean Paul Gaultier. “We think they get things done, but there were women doing the same thing.”

What will the young artists of Goldsmiths do with her? “I’d be surprised if any of the students here knew of Ruggeri’s work,” McCrory says. “That’s why it’s important to have the show here, for young artists to see how being a multidisciplinary artist can work, to allow themselves enough openness to see how artistic practice can cross over other worlds.”

‘Cinzia said. . . ‘ is on display until August 28 at the Macro, Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome, and from October 8 to January 15 at Goldsmiths in London.

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