In another time, in another place, Oliver Ruuger might have been branded an alchemist, or an inventor, or a magician, or a madman. Even today, there’s still no simple term for what he does - or to describe the mesmerising objects he makes.
If you've ever heard the name Oliver Ruuger, it's likely to have been because of an installation he presented at London's Fashion Scout exhibition some seasons ago. In one of the nameless marble-walled rooms at the Freemasons’ Hall, separated from the ebb and flow of the fashion week schedule, a series of objects were suspended in space: still, and startling, and unexplained. An umbrella caught in motion, its' thick ebony handle looping over into a heavy swirl, wrapped in leather and anchored with a tail of blond horsehair. A locked briefcase, rippling with forbidding brass studs. Gauntlets clutching a doctor's bag that sprouted chilling rubber protrusions. And a background of photographs of those same objects, held by a naked, windblasted old man.
Startling, and unexplained. And then gone. No follow-up: no lookbook, no selling collection, no seize-the-momentum collaboration. But, as Ruuger half-ruefully acknowledges in retrospect, he was instantly fixed in people's minds. And as chance would have it, the following season saw Burberry revisit the archetype of the dandy City businessman - encased in tightly formal tailoring, and with that same ritualistic paraphernalia of briefcase, umbrella and gloves. And soon after, at Jil Sander, Raf Simons explored the other side of that buttoned-up character; the submerged darkness of someone disappearing into a role so completely that formality itself warps into fetish. And both those tangential events added weight to the perception that Ruuger's vision is one founded on crafting luxury gentlemen's accessories, lightly dipped in kink. Which isn't how he intended things to be at all.
Ruuger's studio lies at the end of a tangle of streets behind Bermondsey Tube station, on the first floor of an old biscuit factory whose massive hulk sits wedged against a battery of overland railway lines. A heavy, battered metal door opens into a square south-facing room, with pale painted walls, and a line of steel-framed windows so high that they admit only light and sky and the echoes of rumbling trains. All the sights and smells you expect are there, present and correct - lathes and blades and pots streaked with tarry paint, alongside row upon row of minutely calibrated samples of timber and brass. But there are also bookshelves, stacked with everything from Louis Vuitton monographs to William Heath Robinson compendia, jumbling up theoretical discourse and glossy high-end luxury in much the same way that Ruuger's objects veer between eminently consumable end-product and tense, troubling provocation.
For most of the time that we spent sitting in that high, bright room, though, we didn't talk about (or touch) those objects at all. We talked instead about Ruuger's time in the 'regular' fashion industry, working in both apparel and accessories, and about how that world's processes are endlessly streamlined and compromised. We talked about how he’s found his work duplicated and misinterpreted, since that Freemasons’ Hall installation. We talked about his progress from a fashion design course at Kingston University, where his graduate menswear collection was overshadowed by the giant-sized leather satchels he strapped to the models' backs. We talked, too, about backgrounds - about Ruuger's childhood spent in self-sufficient isolation on the Estonian island of Hiummaa, with a grandfather who built a timber summerhouse, and who skinned rabbits and tanned their hides. (And about my uncle, and his father, and his father, and his father - generations of blacksmiths in a rugged back corner of Ireland, whose craft gradually trickled away into extinction). And we talked about language, and meaning: about the fact that, in Estonian, there is a single word which encompasses both art and craft (and the fact that, in Irish, there's no straightforward word for 'no' ). And about the idea of fetish; a word which has become synonymous with deviancy and danger, but whose origins are mired in superstition, and in the notion of creating talisman objects from blood and claws and fur and skin to ward off evil (and what, after all, are briefcases and gloves and umbrellas, if not pieces of armour; things to hold to make yourself feel safe?). Fétiche, feitiço, facere; an etymology which traces itself back from witchcraft to the fundamental act of artifice, of transforming something natural into something synthetic, something new. We talked about tradition and modernity, and about the dichotomy of contemporary manufacture; a boundless potential for innovation, undermined by a fatal attraction to the nostalgia of obsolescence. And we talked about the London College of Fashion's MA degree in Fashion Artefacts - the rebranded accessories course, run by Dai Rees, which has spawned both Ruuger and his assistant Volker Koch, as well as other intriguing new names like Una Burke and Sarah Williams - and whose pursuit of the beautifully manufactured object has elevated the whole notion of the accessory into a new realm of possibilities. Which, on a larger scale, is exactly what the luxury industry has done over the past few decades; taking once-simple artisan objects and processes, and imbuing them with a sense of desirability and innate value which has turned them into something far more extraordinary than their reality demands or deserves.
Amidst all those external and internal debates, Oliver Ruuger continues to work towards the future. At the end of the day, he’s a maker - albeit a uniquely conflicted one. In that pale, bright room, alongside the carefully wrapped relics of that Fashion Scout presentation, new pieces are gradually taking shape. And this time, working with writer Mihkel Kaevats and illustrator Stuart Patience, the focus is on narrative turned into technique; that same symbolically-loaded range of objects, lavished with outer skins of extraordinarily intricate engraved detail. Wheeling shoals of ravens, wreckage-strewn islands crammed with writhing bodies and disturbing objects, forests full of fin-de-siécle figures attending what might be a cocktail party, an orgy or a massacre. It's the kind of delicate, secret, specific sensibility which you expect to find on the inside of things, obscured inside an anonymous shell - but which Ruuger is flipping into reverse, honing a luxury that revels in communicating its' explicit intimacy.
And he's about to go one step further, launching a selling collection of objects based on this latest process - and thereby dipping his toes back into the conflicts and complexities of the commercial world. Which seems right. After all, what he is ultimately doing, behind the smokescreen of those extraordinary objects, is devising and refining new ways of thinking and making and seeing. He is generating ideas which straddle seductive materiality and thrilling virtual possibility, and which might in some someday-soon universe find a way of moving design forward into the future; and a way of - if not abandoning - then at least coming to terms with our deep-seated fetishisation of the familiar.
Words: John-Michael O'Sullivan | Photography: Arthur Woodcroft | Documentary images: Mark Shearwood