View of “Cinzia Ruggeri,” 2022. From left: Grembiule spugna (Sponge Apron), ca. 1994; Abito ziggurat (Ziggurat Dress), 1984–85; Gioco per palude (Game for Swamp), 2018. Photo: Piercarlo Quecchia.

View of “Cinzia Ruggeri,” 2022. From left: Grembiule spugna (Sponge Apron), ca. 1994; Abito ziggurat (Ziggurat Dress), 1984–85; Gioco per palude (Game for Swamp), 2018. Photo: Piercarlo Quecchia.

Cinzia Ruggeri

Three years after the death of avant-garde designer and artist Cinzia Ruggeri, the first retrospective exhibition of her oeuvre, “Cinzia says . . . ,” offered a sprawling landscape. On view were ready-to-wear and bespoke garments and art objects—as well as some pieces between categories, such as Stivali Italia (Italy Boots), 1986, a pair of wearable green-leather high-heeled boots shaped like the Italian Peninsula, accompanied by matching Sicily and Sardinia clutch bags and positioned as they would appear on a map—as if setting out the contents of some cosmopolitan eccentric’s trousseau.

The show provided a kaleidoscopic view of her life and work and was appended by a total reconstruction of her final exhibition in 2019 at Milan’s Galleria Federico Vavassori, “la règle du jeu?” (The Rules of the Game?), which was tucked behind a half wall, away from the exploded archive of her earlier work. Rather than plot a linear trajectory of Ruggeri’s protracted career—which began with an exhibition of abstract paintings at Galleria Prisma in her hometown of Milan in 1960 when she was just eighteen years old and evolved through her subsequent move into fashion and eventual emergence as a successful conceptual designer inclined toward the postmodern radical imaginations of Studio Alchimia and the Memphis Group—the items here were grouped according to form, purpose, and practical context, like lots arranged for a celebrity estate sale. Neat rows of unique dainty shoes from different collections made between 1978 and 1986—lined up against a wall beneath a selection of campy neckties—resembled a carefully styled shop window. A cloud of clothes including recently restored dresses, shirts, skirts, handkerchiefs, and matching sets crafted with fine natural textiles or deliberately chosen synthetic materials dangled from the ceiling. Not seen since they were first walked down Milan’s prêt-à-porter runways under her womenswear line Cinzia Ruggeri for Bloom and her menswear label Cinzio Ruggeri, her clothes appeared as inhabitable architectures of varying functional ambiguity that challenged viewers to use their imaginations to understand how they might be worn and for what possible occasion. Ruggeri constantly tweaks the levels to which she pays serious homage to couture, as with the spacey yet handsome Mixed fibre trouser suit with LED lights, Autumn/Winter Collection, 1982–83. The classic silhouette of the well-made men’s suit is rendered frivolous by the imposition of twinkling lights poking through the fabric; likewise with Abito Tovaglia (Tablecloth Dress), 1984. Here, Ruggeri teases the legitimacy and literality of “functional clothing.” Worn by a mannquein perched at a prop table, the white-linen dress includes a bib that extends into a full apron draped across the table, which is laid with an absurd assortment of art things—a pink wishbone on a black plate garnished with artificial leaves and three forks with prawns for handles.

Soft Sottsassian curves lend a kitsch aspect to the silhouetted illustrative motifs that appear across Ruggeri’s designs. Among the shapes she adopted for her works are chess pieces, sunny-side-up eggs, Italy, and her pet Scottish terrier. Even the squiggly shape of her preferred holiday destination, an island in the Cyclades, turns into a tabletop in Tavolo milos (Milos Table), 2017. Most emblematic of Ruggeri is her fascination with the ziggurat, which she cut into many materials and ultimately fashioned into the boned, three-tiered skirt of the emerald-green drop-waist dress Abito ziggurat, 1984–85, which expands out and downward from the bodice like a stepped pyramid—delicate, feather laden, and sheer. Ruggeri’s garments seem to exceed their status as clothing, becoming something like assisted ready-mades: collage-like, functional, rhetorical works of art.