Sterling Ruby’s mark on fashion has always been eerily prescient. His 2014 collaboration with Raf Simons predated the collage and graphic moment in menswear, his hanging axes and pom-poms at Calvin Klein around 2016 spoke to the growing darkness bubbling under our American idealism, and his earliest collections for his own label S.R. Studio L.A. C.A. have explored haunting and political themes. His primary fashion-world work of 2020, Veil Flag, was a meditation on the multiple meanings held within the idea of the American flag. (It now stands as the—please pardon the pun—flagship piece of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” exhibition.) At the time Ruby completed the work, he said, “Right now I have more fears than hopes for the U.S.”
Over Zoom from his Californian studio this week, Ruby comes off more optimistic. He has good reason. With his studio team of five fashion-specific employees, he’s about to release Insect Index, a concise, crisp capsule collection that riffs on his signature themes: text and graphics, denim treatments, and dimensional knitwear.
“This capsule collection has been in progress for a couple of years, really,” Ruby said. “This has been like sitting on our board for quite a while.” National Audubon Society books of insects and arachnids, those small pamphlets used by outdoorspeople to distinguish friend from foe in nature, had been floating in Ruby’s mind, and now the time felt right to release his vision to the world. “There’s all this iconography and symbology within it. It’s, of course completely scientific, but in a way it seems fictional, particularly with the names,” he said. “I started playing around with the texts and starting to think about it more in terms of an insect or arachnid opera; it has all of these kinds of associations with sex and death and gender and procreation, all these kinds of role reversal.”
Oversized sweatshirts, bucket hats, and giant totes are scrawled with the names of insects: Purple Witch (the largest moth in the continental U.S.), Cicada Killer (a two-inch long wasp), and Wood Nymph (the least spooky, a butterfly genus of the Satyr family). The allure of such romantic names for such creepy insects is obvious for someone with as keen a sense of subversion as Ruby—but recognizing and representing these scientific classifications also harkens back to the boom of biological studies in the 18th and 19th centuries, a period of research where science was more like art. Or better yet: Art was everywhere. Good taste and high society could still be scandalized by a painting, principles of philosophy and theology bled into creativity, salon culture, and the cross-pollination of ideas.
Ruby’s art truly is everywhere—as this collection releases he’s also packing up a gallery show to be shipped to Rome. But he doesn’t operate in the macho way of some other white male art guys; he has a humble touch. Despite the affinity for graphic statements, Ruby’s garments consider the wearer. In this capsule, denim is washed using a custom method that rinses the inside more than the outside of the fabric; Ruby describes its interior pallor as akin to a shroud. Knits are abstracted from the text graphics and then turned inside out to create a tapestry of plaids. “The lineage here,” between the collection’s three notes, “has some sort of reversal, some sort of inside out, some sort of flipping,” he said.
“I don’t love fashion when it’s not somehow conceptual. I don’t love art when it’s not conceptual or deconstructing some sort of notion of history or some sort of lineage,” he continued.
The play of heritage and provocation in his collections clearly appeals to his customers—“everybody from a 21-year-old musician to 72-year-old LACMA board members,” he said—with each drop and each couture collection selling out. Another studio team member, Zoe, has made it her mission to connect with each client, finding out their likes and gripes with the clothing. The feedback will surely prove valuable for what Ruby does next, whatever that is: art, couture, films, installation design. As far as fashion goes, Ruby said: “I think doing things like this that are a little bit smaller and maybe more capsule stories makes sense for us.” Maybe the rest of fashion can take a word from the wise.