By Hannah Yakobi
Photography by Aleyah Solomon
New York City. Take a vintage-style elevator to the 16th floor in a building on 38th Street. Walk towards the black door with the sign “Ruffian: Brian Wolk & Claude Morais”, and you have arrived.
Enter a multi-art heaven. Large paintings. Fashion sketches carefully framed and hung. Clothing racks with intricate dresses, blazers and coats. A large mirror with the Ruffian logo—made up of designers’ initials and two Rs facing each other. Fashion books and magazines perfectly sitting on a bookcase. Vintage-looking suitcases that make you wonder what’s inside.
Brian Wolk and Claude Morais have managed to combine their passion and interest in art, theatre, costume design, styling, film and, of course, fashion in this carefully decorated space.
Ruffian, the critically acclaimed cult New York label, focuses on juxtaposition between the improvised and the studied. In 2010, Assouline published a colourful book called Ruffian:Inside Out to great critical acclaim. It provided an intimate view of Wolk and Morais’s work, through the lens of photographer Jamie Isiah, showcasing their creative process over the course of two collections. It featured collaborations with make-up artist James Kaliardos, hair stylist Neil Moody and designer Christian Louboutin. The book perfectly describes Ruffian’s style: “In each collection, culture clashes with counter culture, classic with cutting edge, punk with princess. Ruffian smashes archetypes and rebuilds them slightly askew.”
In The North American Issue, we chat with Wolk and Morais about where it all began and where their journey has taken them today.
HANNAH YAKOBI: Do you remember the day you first met? What were the circumstances?
BRIAN WOLK: (laughs) The real story?
CLAUDE MORAIS: It was late at night.
Brian Wolk: Yeah, we met at a bar in New York, so the circumstances were drinking cocktails. (laughs)
Claude Morais: And talking fashion. (laughs)
Brian Wolk: In terms of our first creative collaboration—the first date was at The National Arts Club and it was a Proust lecture. I guess that is slightly more elevated than the Lower East Side bar story. But I think both of them are actually kind of funny because that really reflects the ethos of our brand.
Ruffian is an elevated brand, but we’re always interested in our woman, our client. She is a good-girl-gone-a-little-wrong. I think it’s important to have sophistication in your life, beautiful things and amazing craftsmanship, but ultimately we’re human and we like to have fun too.
So did you meet through a friend when you were at the bar?
Claude Morais: No, it was completely serendipitous.
Brian Wolk: It was about 12 years ago.
Claude Morais: Thirteen in December.
Where did the name for the brand come from?
Brian Wolk: Well, Ruffian has two meanings. ‘A ruffian’ is a person who does something against the rules, goes against the grain—who’s kind of a sophisticated troublemaker. That always was the perfect name for us and has always been our brand mantra.
Also, when we started, we did ruff, Elizabethan collars, so it was a bit of a play on words.
You’re originally from Montréal [Claude Morais] and you’re form New York [Brian Wolk]. You are based in New York, but do you ever go back to Canada? I know you’ve participated in The shOws a couple of times.
Brian Wolk: We actually were just in Montréal in March.
For work or for fun?
Claude Morais: For both. I like to mix the two; it’s hard for me to take a vacation. I always love to do an adventure, but with a certain goal. We write a travel column and we have a page on the Daily Front Row where we can do pretty much what we want: so we write about our trips, interviews and life in general. We made this trip to Montréal an adventure road trip and wrote about it—what we did and where we went.
Brian Wolk: We worked with Lexus, used one of their cars. We stayed at the new Ritz-Carlton in Montréal, went to the Symphony…
Claude Morais: And then saw my family and made it all like an event. For Brian it’s great because I can show him around, and he actually knows Montréal pretty well now.
Brian Wolk: We also visited Louis Boudreault, who’s the artist behind the art works in our studio.
Claude Morais: He has great talent and is a great friend of mine. He’s working on a new show for December in Los Angeles, and I’ve been working with him in New York, so it’s been great to have him around. He’s from Îles de la Madeleine originally.
Brain Wolk: He paints famous people: this is Gandhi as a child (points at a painting), this is Pablo Picasso as a child (points), that’s Marc Chagall (points).
Claude Morais: His theme is childhood—it is dreamy. He’s working on portraits now. Often, the eyes are the same as you grow up and there is all this morphology in his work. He did a series for L.A. that’s all rebel people—the Ruffian people, maybe—but it’s people who have been in prison or have been involved in different situations.
He has a lot of emotion in the paintings.
Claude Morais: That’s what a lot of people find, and I think child portraits always bring a lot of memories too.
Brian Wolk: Part of out brand is that our inspiration comes from the arts. For example, we use our studio all the time to show various different artists. So it makes sense to be surrounded by paintings and art work.
What kind of other artists have you shown before?
Brian Wolk: We did a show for photographer Douglas Friedman, whose work we love. We did Nick Weber, who is an amazing painter. We’ve showcased a lot of different kinds of artists: visual artists, spoken word, fashion illustrations too. We like to use our studio as a Ruffian community center. We have people over all the time for lunch.
Claude Morais: We entertain a lot here.
Brian Wolk: And at home.
Claude Morais: We spend a lot of time just sharing the space.
How do you feel your artistic backgrounds come together in your work?
Brian Wolk: We’re inextricably linked to our background, our education, our family, our culture. I always kind of went back and fourth between theatre, fashion and costume design. I studied costume design and fashion design at FIT, I worked at Santa Fe Opera and in Europe at Chanel. I have a pretty diverse background and we still go to see the opera, the ballet, the museums. When we were in Montréal, we went to The Contemporary [Art Museum] to an amazing show.
We always walk everywhere as much as possible. Whenever you walk, you’re always on a journey of discovery.
Claude Morais: It’s always a good source of inspiration for us, our lives, and who we met or what inspired us. It shows in the work—what makes us different in our process and what we try to do with our brand.
Tell us a bit about your current projects.
Brian Wolk: Our spring 2014 collection is at the forefront, and we’re also working on the launch of our nail lacquer line that comes out in September.
Are you doing it in collaboration with somebody?
Brian Wolk: We’re launching it with Birchbox, but it’s a Ruffian-branded project, they are just helping us launch it.
Claude Morais: They are our partner.
Brian Wolk: It’s going to be distributed initially to their 500,000 American subscribers and then it’ll be available at brick-and-mortar stores.
You do a lot of collaborations for different causes. For example, you participated in You Can’t Fake Fashion project by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and eBay. Are there any other causes that are really important for you?
Brain Wolk: We’re involved in a lot of different art charities. Creative Time is one that we love—it is a public art organization. They did an amazing project in Grand Central Station this spring with Nick Cave.
Claude Morais: We are also involved with the Geoffrey Beene Scholarship at CFDA, because we try to help kids in school to motivate or believe in their work. That’s something I like to do personally.
Brian Wolk: We work with Savannah College of Art and Design too. There are a lot of different schools that we volunteer time with. I think education has always been important for us, as well as being able to support young designers in terms of their vision, give them realistic expectations of what the industry is. That is because it is an industry. I think people forget that sometimes: there is a balance between fine art and commerce in fashion. That’s an important thing to focus on as a designer.
Claude Morais: It’s not always Red Carpets.
Brain Wolk: (laughs) Sometimes.
Without obviously giving too much away, what can we expect from your next collection?
Brian Wolk: For spring? There’s always juxtaposition in our work: cultural, aesthetic, colour, Euro-American juxtapositions. Those are the common threads in all our collections.
Where do you normally source the fabrics?
Brain Wolk: They’re all European.
Claude Morais: We do have local resources.
Brain Wolk: European fabrics and our sample room is across the street.
Claude Morais: We try to keep it that way. We’re working on a new print for spring right now too.
Your prints are very intricate.
Claude Morais: I’m obsessed with that.
In terms of your own personal style, how would you describe it?
Brian Wolk: I’ve lived forever in Williamsburg, so I think that’s a really important influence in terms of the way I dress. There’s a very specific style there; I really do think that’s kind of the centre for creativity right now in New York City. In terms of the density of artists and creators who are living there, the culture; but it’s changed. It used to be much rawer, whereas now there are fancy boutiques and cafés.
Williamsburg has always been an important foundation in terms of drawing inspiration for my personal style. To me, it’s an interesting Americana, vintage feel, but at the same time it really pushes boundaries of silhouettes. (to Morais) How about you?
Claude Morais: I think I like very simple, American styles. I always liked boots. I try not to think too much about it and just grab things. I think I’ve dressed like this since I was a teenager, really.
Brian Wolk: Nouveau Preppy?
Claude Morais: Yes, Nouveau Preppy!