Sterling Ruby’s sense of the American quilt has been frayed and strained by the tension of events of late, plus troubled by memories and dark presentiment. Many in the United States have shared that feeling, but in his first presentation on the platform of Paris Couture Week—“It’s an honor,” Ruby said—the contemporary artist, who has embraced fashion design into his wider patchwork of practice, was uniquely equipped to express it.
Who were these spirits in era-spanning silhouettes (exaggerated, exploded, and sometimes collapsed) whose surface churned with yarn, paint splatter, and a heat-pressed photo-print collage of hot-rod detailing and sections of artificial heart? In the video (conceived only a few weeks ago to replace the originally planned show) they digitally haunted the backdrop of a Los Angeles paintball course beyond which were layered, occasional images of a rustic cemetery. The footage had in fact been shot by Ruby some time ago, then deposited in his archive for a then misconceived use that had only become apparent now. These look-book images were shot on January 19 at the studio complex in Vernon, California, from which his gradual broadening into fashion design—excellently reported here—has been distilled into action.
The looks, said Ruby, were of “apparitions” whose appearance personified aspects of American past and the American present. The pilgrim collars and bonnets were references to the early Separatist incomers from England—many of whom were persecuted people who became colonizers—as well as the Mennonite and Amish neighbors whose costume had so struck Ruby as a child in southern Pennsylvania. Beyond this, Ruby collaged skate-pants (he skated) against business suiting, against workwear, against so much that by look 19, his pentimento of reference and technique collapsed under its own weight down towards gravity’s canvas.
This was couture, an exemplification of the hand, and there were couture-ish items in the traditional sense that they were hand-hewed and shaped to haunt conventional representations of femininity. These ghostly pieces included tumbling folded and cloaked dresses in opaque fabric contoured with spindled roots of multicolored thread, and winged-arm dresses in ruched and shirred chiffon that was enzyme rinsed and dyed and designed to appear touched by friction and experience. As at his first collection at Pitti in June 2019, Ruby collaborated with his wife, photographer Melanie Schiff, to lay her abstract and layered photographs of texture and surface over his hand-fashioned collages of texture and surface in fabric.
The Italian-made bags were entitled “instrument cases” and their shape suggested they were designed to hold something both ambiguous, specific, and vaguely threatening. The shoes colonized pilgrim pump with punk pin. On the video’s soundtrack, Michael Gira sang “Promise of Water,” intoning: “Just as it was/ Is just how it will be.” This exciting experiment in American couture convincingly defied that fatalist’s prophecy, but you could understand where he was coming from.