Clothing as Canvas: A History of Sterling Ruby in Fashion
Clothing as Canvas: A History of Sterling Ruby in Fashion
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date June 13, 2019
To many, Sterling Ruby is a Raf Simons collaborator. But to describe the Los Angeles-based artist as such is to overlook much of his other work. In addition to being one of the Belgian designer’s most frequent collaborators, Ruby is a prolific artist in his own right. He has been described as “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century” by The New York Times’ art critic, Roberta Smith, and has dabbled in everything from ceramics to painting, sculpture and video. And, while Ruby’s most famous work in the clothing world may well be his collaboration with Raf Simons, the designer has long harbored an interest in using clothing as a canvas for his art—something set to continue with the launch of his own line S.R. STUDIO. LA. CA.
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Born on an American military base in Germany before returning stateside at a young age, Sterling Ruby grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where his path was shaped by the options available to him—he attended an agriculture-focused high school and took a job in construction after graduating. Despite the fact that the environment he found himself in was seemingly channelling him away from the arts, Ruby showed creative flair from a young age.
It was in his teenage years that Ruby began to take an interest in clothes. Ruby’s mother was frustrated that he was always putting thick fabrics through her sewing machine and bending pieces out of order—so she gave him his own machine when he was 13. While the sewing machine allowed Ruby to experiment, it was punk music that inspired his creativity. Ruby told T Magazine that, as a teen, his parents would let him go to concerts in Philadelphia, Baltimore or Washington, D.C. It was there that he began to understand “that there was power in the way people dressed”—he was marked by Bad Brains frontman H.R.’s love of denim, by Greg Ginn’s oxford shirts and by the sight of Henry Rollins on-stage in nothing but a pair of shorts. Inspired by these punk acts and equipped with his own sewing machine, Ruby began cutting garments up and then stitching them back together. He also took to customizing them with “hand-painted and stenciled materials,” something that would come to define his work as an artist.
After a brief stint working the aforementioned construction job, Ruby followed his creative instincts. In 1996, he graduated from The Pennsylvania School of Art and Design, before subsequently obtaining his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002, and a Master of Fine Arts from the Art Center College of Design, in 2005.
Upon graduating, Ruby slowly started making a name for himself within the world of contemporary American art. There are elements of his work that are deeply thoughtful and intellectual, which echo the fact that he had thoroughly studied art for more than a decade in an academic setting. But there are also elements of his work that are chaotic and unpolished. He uses collage widely and very few of his works are neat and tidy—all-in-all, it creates an impression that Ruby’s work is confrontational, or the product of a construction site in rural Pennsylvania. Taken together his work reflects his upbringing—torn between “pristine and dirty”, as the Gagosian Gallery put it.
Shortly after receiving his MFA, Ruby was approached by Raf Simons to design the interior of his new Tokyo store. It offered Ruby an opportunity to renew his examination of clothing as an artistic medium. In the early-2000s, Ruby had been bleaching fabric for some of his work, which wound up being the inspiration for the Tokyo store. The bleached denim was used to create the store fixtures, while inverted photographs—negatives—were used to create a unique wallpaper. Everything in the store was covered in either bleached denim or an inverted negative to create a surreal “mix of negative and positive”, as Ruby told 032c—a continuation of the notion of being torn between two extremes.
The Tokyo store, which opened in 2008, marked the beginning of one of contemporary fashion’s most fruitful partnerships. In the decade since, Ruby and Simons have worked together on a number of projects. In 2009, Simons and Ruby joined forces to create an entire range of bleached denim garments. Ruby’s work also appeared on pieces from Simons’ debut Fall/Winter 2012 Dior haute couture collection—a truly jaw-dropping collaboration given the mystique of Dior couture.
But their partnership will be best remembered for the Raf Simons/Sterling Ruby Fall/Winter 2014 collection. “This [collection] has been nine years in the making,” Simons told Tim Blanks (writing for Vogue) after the runway show, “This is our child”; it represented the pinnacle of the pair’s collaboration. The collection was Simons through-and-through, just as it was Ruby through-and-through: There were collages, oversized silhouettes, words and images worked in, and, of course, bleached textiles. It was truly a reflection of Simons and Ruby’s distinct but similar aesthetics—the byproduct of almost a decade of collaboration and of a shared belief that clothes could be a medium and a commodity at the same time. It is also, arguably, Simons’ most successful and widely-adored collection in recent memory—near the level of his collections from the early-’00s.
In addition to spawning a collaborative relationship that would shape contemporary menswear, 2008 also marked the beginning of Ruby’s wider examination of clothing writ large. He designed a studio uniform, comprised of a button-down shirt and a pair of pants, which he eventually reproduced in different textiles. While designing the uniform was utilitarian in nature, it was also a reaction to his practice at the time. He was working on a series of sculptures with a set pattern and he explained to T Magazine that he, “liked the seriality, making one sculpture over and over again, but in different textile treatments and fabrics” and that he, “wanted to do the same with [his] clothes.” The studio garments Ruby produced were reflections of the works he was perfecting: When one exhibit presented tapestries constructed from bleach-stained fleece, Ruby ended up cutting off small pieces of the fabric to turn into sweatshirts using the inverted fleece; he has used fabric trimmings from collages to create the cuffs on coats and sweatshirts (the Mexican blanket pattern eventually made its way into the Raf Simons Sterling Ruby Fall/Winter 2014 collection).
As the years went on, he began to notice similarities between what he was doing with his clothing and what other artists, like Joseph Beuys, had done with their studio clothes. It was a revelation in line with what Ruby had noticed as a teenager—that the way people dressed, himself included, was a powerful thing.
In 2016, Ruby’s experimentation with clothing as a medium reached its zenith, with the opening of “Work Wear: Garment and Textile Archive 2008-2016”, an exhibit of his studio clothes and unique clothing creations at Sprüth Magers London. None of the pieces Ruby created as part of his studio uniform were reproduced for the public—they were all unique and represented an extension of his sculptural, painted or collaged work. They also represented the culmination of three decades of experimenting with fabrics, from his mother’s sewing machine to his studio. More importantly, perhaps, Ruby set himself apart from other artists tangentially related to fashion. Beuys and Basquiat are remembered as artists who had a particular style, while other artists have let designers borrow from their work—but Ruby instead worked with clothing.
Simons naturally brought Ruby along with him when it came to his brief tenure at Calvin Klein, often helping shape and set the stage for Simons' collections under the New York-based brand. Notable examples include a complete revamp of the Calvin Klein flagship store on Madison Avenue, or adorning the Andy Warhol-induced backdrop of the Calvin Klein 205W39NYC Fall/Winter 2018 runway show.
With his solo work and his collaboration with Raf Simons, Sterling Ruby can be looked to as a forebear of sorts when it comes to the DIY aesthetic that has permeated throughout fashion in recent years. Whether it’s Virgil Abloh’s hand-written add-ons to Nike sneakers or the deconstructed-only-to-be-reconstructed look—from Enfants Riches Déprimés to the Off-White x Nike “The Ten”—or the one-off pieces created by Advisory Board Crystals, much of it can be traced back to what Ruby has been doing, both in private and in public.
But, really, it’s the upcoming debut of S.R. STUDIO. LA. CA. that marks Ruby’s practice with clothes coming full-circle. Clothing is, for the most part, considered a commodity. With Simons, Ruby instilled in it an artistic value, proving that clothes could be at once commodity and medium. With his studio clothes, Ruby removed the notion of clothing as commodity altogether—they were the product of his artistic practice and objects of art, not created to be sold but created for the sake of creating. And, finally, with S.R. STUDIO. LA. CA., Ruby is commoditizing his art. But even if S.R. STUDIO. LA. CA. aims to sell clothes, one gets the feeling that Ruby will continue to be guided by a desire to experiment with the garments and with the notion that clothes are a powerful tool for self-expression.