Big Bang

Ruffian’s Claude Morais and Brian Wolk bring Parisian style to New York, and vice versa

Story by Tiffany Yannetta / Photography by Tommaso Mei

Each season, Claude Morais and Brian Wolk, the duo behind womenswear line Ruffian, design beautiful clothes for a very particular girl. Collection after collection consistently offering necessities like tailored blouses, sophisticated yet exciting short little dresses, and immaculately structured pants and jackets that always lead to complete cohesiveness. Whether she’s the bad boarding school girl of Fall 2008, les demoiselles de Ruffian of Spring 2010, or the girl caught in the cosmos at Fall 2010’s Big Bang show, she is always “subtly elegant,” as Wolk puts it. The women they design for, he explains, “are really educated and sophisticated. They’re worldly, they’re traveled, they’re usually from nice families.” But, just before that all starts to sound too perfect, he adds, “And sometimes they’re not. We have naughty girls that we hang out with, too.”

Upon entering the Ruffian showroom, one might think the elevator intended to open to the 16th floor of a building smack dab in the middle of Manhattan has actually gone to Paris, sometime in the 1960’s, instead. With rich hardwood floors, a supple mustard-colored leather sofa of their own design, and the voice of a sensual French songstress spilling out of stereo speakers, it only takes a quick glance to discern that la maison Ruffian is by no means a bad place to work. And it doesn’t hurt that friend and frequent collaborator Christian Louboutin (who enhanced the team’s Fall 2010 show with specially made lace-up booties) is just two floors below, either.

This season, the two designers actually will be making the trip overseas, taking their star-studded collection with them to France for the first time, and they begin to describe something that sounds like a Parisian fantasy. “We’re going to have sort of our own Ruffian townhouse when we go to Paris, so it’s going to be like our little cultural center, for editors and all different people, our friends, artists and such. It’s going to be great,” Wolk beams. The trip is a logical one, since their collection speaks to a French aesthetic, or “the idea of Americans in Paris, or Parisians in New York,” as they explain — and perhaps long overdue.

Morais and Wolk met serendipitously in New York at a Proust reading at The National Arts Club, though they had both been previously working in Paris, unaware of each other at the time. Morais, who himself is French Canadian, considered moving to Paris to work “a natural move,” and took with him what he learned from friends and fellow designers back to New York. Shortly after the two met, they began collaborating on an accessories collection, where they “naively sent a box of ties to Barneys.” The major department store took the bait, and ties and other accessories soon gave way to a full-fledged women’s line.

That women’s line has evolved and grown with each season. The Big Bang that fall brought in showcased more than just space-exploration, but also the designers own explorations with new shapes and silhouettes. The collection was heavy on outerwear, all with signature Ruffian tailoring (“I think essentially we’re really tailors at heart,” Wolk says), along with looser-fitting silk blouses — tied all the way up to the neck — sequin-embellished tops, and leather making several appearances in suits, skirts and pants. Each piece that departed down the runway at Exit Art — a much more intimate and personal space to hold their show than say, the Bryant Park tents — was a product of a two-part construction process: one part “research,” as Wolk calls it, and one part flawless construction. As for the end results? “It’s always tailored, its always tight, and its always art,” Morais adds.

“We’ve always been interested in research. We have a very specific, kind of academic process that we go through when we design anything.” This process is evident just by observing the showroom alone: shelves are lined with books, vintage movie stills hang on the walls, and even Claude’s own art is present. The other half — the construction — is what guarantees that a Ruffian garment is built to last, down to every last detail. “We always believe that the inside of our clothing should be as beautiful as the outside. Our lining fabrics that we use are more expensive than most people’s exterior fabrics,” Brian says. “Everything is made in New York, so we oversee everything; every button is handmade, every buttonhole is welted. We don’t cheap out in any way at all, and I think that our customer understands that and appreciates that.”

As if just completing their own collection isn’t enough, the pair is also busy with three seasons left of collaborations with Anthropologie, that include everything from furniture, apparel, candles and fragrance. Mise en Scene, the title of the collaboration, has allowed them to not only explore new ideas, but it has also allowed them to experience a new work environment and demographic. “Anthropologie has helped us to grow our ideas,” Morais says. “We’ll be continuing with the fragrances, which is something that’s been important to us. We can talk our language with them and explore a situation where we can sell and distribute them.”

Working with Anthropologie was quite a shift for Ruffian, who — compared to the retail giant — are a much smaller industry. However, that didn’t cause any creative rifts. “We’re really a small company that kind of has the image of a big company because we’re completely lifestyle invested, and they’re kind of a big company that likes to think of themselves as a small company. That was a really a good marriage for us,” Wolk explains. Large company or not, the one thing that was never compromised throughout this business venture was quality. “At Anthropologie, you know, the clothes aren’t $29.99. We can still offer quality, like a cashmere coat for 400 bucks,” Morais says.

Collaboration seems to come easy to the pair, probably due to the fact that the line was formed under that same concept. “We always sort of say that collaboration is the highest art form, and I think it’s true to one degree or another, because when you collaborate, someone’s always holding a mirror to you and your ideas. You’re never working in a vacuum,” Wolk says. This way of thinking not only applies to their outside collaborations, but even more specifically to their own work as a team with the clothes being the product of a meeting of the minds. “I guess with any designers, solo or duo, you have someone who asks a question. [Our collections are] a feeling, a movie, a book, a museum, something Brian read, something I read. It’s always kind of an exchange,” Morais explains.

Not only is Ruffian an exchange between its two creators, but its also a constant, running dialogue between New York and Paris. Since it’s beginning, Ruffian has incorporated strong elements of both the East Coast and of France into every piece that they’ve put down the runway. As far as the differences between the two fashion Meccas go, Morais feels that no matter where they are, Ruffian has both a home and a loyal customer who understands the brands intentions. “It’s Ruffian. So for us, we’re rebel here, and we’re rebel there.”

“I think our work has often been about this kind of romantic relationship between New York and Paris,” Wolk added. “For us, it’s always been an interesting thing to explore those funny stereotypes and different ideas that the two cities have about each other, and also the cross-cultural exchange.” As for the Ruffian girls, Morais knows that they’re the stars of that cross-cultural romance. “My goal is to dress all of those women that we love, that we met through stores, boutiques, through trips — society girls and every girl. For me, if that works out, the rest is not so important.”