She is unmistakable even from the rear, from half a block away. The solitary figure in white standing on a windswept sidewalk in the far West 30s, just outside a gallery exhibiting the latest dresses from visionary designer Ralph Rucci, could only be Deeda Blair.
Her signature salt-and-pepper bouffant is as identifiable as were the hairdos of Judy Peabody, Diana Vreeland, and Jackie Kennedy, fashion deities she sat next to for decades in the front row at haute couture presentations. Now those ladies have ascended to the Runway in The Sky, and Deeda is still standing here, having ventured out alone on a February evening to support a friend whose clothes she loves and whose career she has always championed. That’s what’s called loyalty, and class.
Waiting for her car to come around, she takes out an ultra thin cigarette and a lighter. I say to her, “Good evening, Mrs. Blair. It’s a pleasure to see you.” She smiles and replies, “Have you been into the gallery yet? Ralph’s clothes are quite wonderful, as always.”
Not having spoken with her since the death in August of her husband William McCormick Blair, Jr., I extend condolences. She turns and gazes into the middle distance, a barely discernible twitch in the corner of her perfectly maquillaged eye. “Thank you,” she says. “It hasn’t been easy. Bill wanted to reach 100, and he was almost 99. And he died just days before our 54th wedding anniversary.”
“Ambassador Blair had an extraordinary life,” I venture. “Yes, he did. Bill was interested in so much. He enjoyed looking at clothes and noticing details.” (Three years ago, Deeda told Andrew Solomon in The Times: “I have the world’s most heavenly husband. He just got me; he just got it. And he always gave me tremendous independence to pursue my interests. Independence with applause.”)
Mr. Blair had just become President Kennedy‘s ambassador to Denmark when he met and married Deeda in 1961. The Blairs became personal friends of Jack and Jackie. Later, Blair was President Johnson’s envoy to The Philippines. From then until the turn of the century, the Blairs lived in Georgetown—where Deeda’s salon was a much-sought-after invitation–and then moved to New York’s River House. In 2013, she allowed their majestically understated apartment—it is many shades of grisaille—to be photographed for T Magazine, and posed there in two of Rucci’s dresses. She is of course in the pantheon of the International Best-Dressed List.
Many years ago, Mrs. Blair made herself an expert in cancer research and became a valuable advocate for AIDS causes. In the last thirty years, she used her connections to undertake a new career in biotech, serving as a conduit between medical innovators and venture capitalists. She is highly respected for the work she does on many charity and medical boards.
As Solomon wrote in The Times, “Deeda’s trademark irony is that she is a cancer expert who never stops smoking. There are few images of Deeda that don’t show a sinuous line of smoke trailing up from her lips and blending in with the calligraphy of her gray-streaked hair.” She said, “I began smoking at 14 for defiance and rebellion. And I really enjoy it.”
Having Mrs. Blair at this week’s show gave Ralph Rucci the imprimatur of the ancien régime—and he was grateful to have it. It was his first presentation in two years, since he had a falling out with investors who had bought into his previous company, Chado Ralph Rucci. They eventually devoured the company, regurgitated him, but kept his eponymous trademark, according to the Washington Post. Now that label is dormant, and maybe someday he can buy back his own name, as both Joan Rivers and Kenneth Jay Lane did to re-acquire theirs in similar circumstances.
In the meantime, Ralph has relaunched under the brand name RR331. The dresses and coats are bespoke, couture, hand-sewn–or as Ralph prefers to say “made to order.” They are not sold at bargain prices; nothing of that quality ever is. The artist Iké Udé told me, “Ralph doesn’t know how to make inexpensive clothes, he only understands how to make the best.”
And the cognoscenti get it. Influential fashion critic Robin Givhan wrote in her Washington Post article, “Ralph Rucci is as close as this country has to a true couturier in the Parisian sense of the word. After a nearly two-year hiatus, he has had an invigorating rebirth.”
Iké Udé was in the crowd. He’s just back from his native Nigeria, where he is making elaborate “portraitures” (half photo, half painting) of several luminaries in the burgeoning film industry, known as Nollywood. The current L’Uomo Vogue has a layout of Udé’s photographs of “Ten Stylish Nigerian Men”, which he shot in October at the Oriental Hotel in Lagos.
Brightening up the room with her 500-watt smile was Sherry Bronfman, the onetime movie actress who has three children with her former husband, whiskey scion/music mogul Edgar Bronfman, Jr. Sherry was with Kalu Ugwuomo, who works with Edgar Jr.’s investment firm.
Looking especially incandescent was Muna Rihani al-Nasser, the wife of Nasir al-Nasser, the longtime ambassador from Qatar and former General Assembly president at the United Nations. Muna is chairwoman of a group called UN Women for Peace Association. They will be sponsoring a demonstration opposing violence against women and girls at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on Saturday, March 5th. Will Muna be wearing Rucci to the march? She didn’t say.
The semi-annual New York Fashion Week is finally drawing to a close. Some designers featured clothing with bright primary colors—but not Ralph Rucci. He follows the dictum of Henry Ford, who famously said, “My customer can have a Model T painted in any color as long as it’s black.”
Ralph’s clothes, like those of his close friend James Galanos, are made to last a lifetime. He is an artist, a painter, an architect, and he takes the long view. Enthusiasm for bright colors comes and goes, but black endures, and black and white have always been good to Ralph Rucci. That’s his conviction, and as Deeda Blair once said, “Real elegance is having convictions.” And she oughtta know.