Meet Mrs. Mudd
“Mr. Mudd was a gentleman who was John’s driver during the shooting of The Killing Fields,” said Francesco Rulli, referring to his business partner, the actor John Malkovich. “He was apparently a murder convict and had just come out of prison. And one day they were driving very fast down this dirt road—almost hitting women and monks—and teetering about. John asked if it was true if he had just come out of prison for killing someone. Mr. Mudd looked at him and said, ‘Sometimes Mr. Mudd kills. Sometimes Mr. Mudd not kill.’ John really liked that.”
Mr. Malkovich’s film-production company is named Mr. Mudd in honor of that driver. His fashion business, which he co-owns with the handsome and Italian-born Mr. Rulli, is named Mrs. Mudd. Mrs. Mudd produces a line of clothing named Uncle Kimono. Their offices are on Fifth Avenue, in the Flatiron district.
The name Uncle Kimono also came courtesy of a friend of Mr. Malkovich, one who had seen a box of photographs that had been sent to the Malkovich home. They contained negatives of a Japanese gentleman in California.
“John thought they were attracting,” said Mr. Rulli. “He showed it to his friend, who was gay and died of AIDS a few years ago, and who said, ‘Oh, those people are Uncle Kimono.’ When you have a lover, a gay lover, in the 40’s, you wouldn’t go around and tell everyone that he’s your boyfriend. You might call him your uncle. This guy, this guy was like … his posture was interesting. And he was wearing a kimono. So our line is called Uncle Kimono.”
Mr. Malkovich has other business concerns as well. For instance, he co-owns a disco in Portugal.
The hot-pink business card for Mrs. Mudd has a few quotes imprinted on them in Mr. Malkovich’s elegant hand, including the hopefully rhetorical Aren’t track-suits illegal? and At an airport I once took by accident the suitcase of a Russian woman. When I opened it I thought, ‘these dresses aren’t mine.’
“Do you understand the concept now?” Mr. Rulli asked eagerly. “It’s almost like there is a side of you that you travel with a suitcase that contains dresses, even when you are a man.”
Mr. Rulli and Mr. Malkovich met through a mutual friend, an ambassador at the United Nations.
“It’s like it goes back to this thing,” he said, pointing at the business card that has an illustration of what looks to be a rather large man in drag. “Here’s Mr. Mudd and he’s a gentleman dressed with a suit and a felt hat. Mrs. Mudd is the same guy but dressed in a polka-dot dress and pearls. There is always that little dabble inside. Our cards here are pink and the lining of the suits and everything else is pink. Fuchsia. This is our business concept: You might dress for something more formal, but there is always a little quirk inside—an extravagant detail.”
Mr. Malkovich lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his longtime companion and their two children; Mr. Rulli lives in New York. Mr. Rulli pulled out some of Mr. Malkovich’s design sketches. They are carefully made, on thick creamy drawing paper. “He never forgets a thing,” said Mr. Rulli with a smile. “It is one of those things that make it interesting slash difficult to work with him sometimes. There is nothing he will forget. He chooses the fabric, the lining, the buttons, and if he chooses something he will not forget it.”
Last month Mr. Malkovich came to town to display some of the clothes at the Project Trade Show. Mr. Malkovich was talking with Phoebe Cates.
“I’ve known Phoebe a long time,” Mr. Malkovich said, his voice and syntax slightly off. His eyes are very flat and a hard-to-place shade of brown. “She started going out with Kevin—Kline, her husband—when I was directing him in Arms and the Man on Broadway, years ago. We, with Brigitte Lancombe, the photographer, all sort of met up, around the same time.” Blink. Blink.
He was asked about the motivations for beginning a fashion line.
“Nothing really,” he said. “I’d always had an interest in costumes, and things like that, but I wasn’t particularly looking for another job. But Francesco, my partner here—I mean, my partner in this business—said, when I came to New York, after Sept. 11, he asked me if I’d be interested in doing a men’s line. And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, maybe.’”
He paused, he smiled. “That was four years ago.”
Mr. Rulli said that they treat the collection like it is a film, or a play, with every design having a name. There is the Fucking Commie sweater, which is red. “You know, like you’re Italian and you have a cashmere sweater, but you tell everyone you’re a socialist,” said Mr. Rulli.
There’s the Free Martha coat, which is what Mr. Malkovich believes Martha Stewart supporters might wear to protest her imprisonment. There is a Nervous Breakdown jacket, in leather. There is a jacket called Tito’s Parrot, which was inspired by a parrot owned by Marshal Tito, of Yugoslavia. That parrot, Mr. Rulli claimed, spoke in five different languages.
On Friday night, two dozen burly men gathered in MoMA’s chaste and pristine lobby. For their cultural outing, they were dressed in tight leather chaps over tighter leather pants, leather vests, leather caps, leather boots and leather badges.
“I started thinking, why can’t a bunch of leather men go into MoMA and see some art?” said Robert Valin, a 41-year-old voiceover artist with a shaved head, shaggy goatee and a wardrobe full of zippered leather. Mr. Valin organized the evening’s event as part of an effort to “put the kink back in N.Y.C.,” and to reinvigorate the dwindling leather community with excursions such as leather-man bowling, leather-man rollerblading, leather-man bar hopping and the sampling of Swedish meatballs during a leather-man trip to IKEA.
“We’re taking advantage of what this city has to offer us,” he said. “We like doing these things. Why not do them in leather?”
Christope André agreed. “Looks like a good turnout,” said the short, muscular man with a shaved and tanned head. He had a thick mustache and a bullring through his nose. Over his tattooed torso he wore a leather vest embroidered—in leather—with the words “Mr. New York Eagle 2006.” This title is bestowed annually by the Eagle leather bar, and is considered the highest honor in New York leatherdom. It permits the winner to participate in the International Mister Leather competition.
Tweedy couples averted their eyes. Chic Europeans snapped pictures. Mr. André explained how he earned his title by modeling cruise wear (“how you’d go to a bar, in your pick-up outfit”), jock wear (“show as much skin as possible”) and formal wear (“still leather”).
And after that, before he could claim the coveted black-and-red championship belt, he had to answer one trivia question: “If you had to assassinate one member of the Brady Bunch family and bed two others, who would they be?”
“I won’t kill any of them,” Mr. André had answered winningly. “But I will fuck them all.”
Just as Mr. André finished relating this story, a security guard came over and gingerly asked Mr. André and the other “gentlemen” to please move away from the front doors. The men, as obliging and kind as they were muscular and mustachioed, shuffled toward the gift shop, sending into MoMA’s bright air a fleeting waft of leather and the jingle of metal chains.
“It’s free, so I got us a whole lot of tickets,” said Mr. Valin, who, in 2005, himself held the title of Mr. New York Eagle. He distributed the museum passes while the group inspected the motorcycle jackets that hung on bare and barreled chests. “Do you want to walk around the museum and see the art? Or go see the Pixar exhibit? Who hasn’t been to the museum before?”
Many gloved hands shot up.
“O.K., let’s walk around.”
In the contemporary Kirk Varnedoe Gallery, a man wearing leather chaps over blue jeans grasped onto strings that trailed from the back of Mr. André’s chaps. Mr. André then led him, trotting like a horse, around the four lifelike naked figures of Charles Ray’s sculpture Family Romance.
Some of the leather men giggled at the video installations. Others studied photographs of four sisters who had been documented over decades, their faces aging from fresh to leather. “I like this one,” said Jason Lyon, 26. He stood, clad in leather pants and a black T-shirt, under an Eva Hesse sculpture that looked very much like a leather whip. He also fawned over a Yinka Shonibare dress made from African textiles. It was called How Does a Girl Like You Get to Be a Girl Like You?
“I’m stealing design ideas,” he said.
Not all of the group seemed crazy about the new stuff, though.
“Do you want to look at this contemporary stuff, or do you want to go to the sculpture garden?” asked a fellow named Darrell, 45. He wore a sky-blue postman’s uniform; a badge with the letters “OMOH” rested over the left shirt pocket. His faction of leather men broke off to the sculpture garden. They filed past Connie Magee, a woman in an orange sweater who sat sketching sculptures. Her colored pencil dropped on her pad.
“I don’t know what I think,” she said. “But I can’t stop looking.”
The men rode the escalators up to the second and third floors. They raised some confusion along the way. “I asked one guy directions,” said museumgoer Greg Libord. “I thought he was a security guard.”
The leather men admired lamps, and they pondered the prurient possibilities of the oddly shaped chairs in the furniture salons. They talked about the city’s diminished leather scene.
“The museum is a great alternative to the bar, because the leather community is disappearing in New York,” said Barry Collodi, a 48-year-old psychologist. He had a carefully groomed mustache and a California Highway Patrol badge on his tan CHiP’s uniform. Two cigars were tucked into his black boots. “You can’t smoke in the bars anymore and a lot of the guys like their cigars. There was a tremendous amount of play—that’s all buttoned up.”
The leather men said that once there were four good leather bars in New York, but now they are down to one.
They said that the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s, the gentrification of downtown in the 90’s and the boom of Internet dating in the 00’s—“where you can cruise in a bathrobe and slippers,” according to Mr. Valin—all contributed to the decimation of a leather scene for which community was key.
New York, they said, now trails behind Chicago, Washington, D.C., and even some European cities in leather prowess.
“Paris has like 16 leather bars, and that doesn’t count bars with leather nights,” said J-M Amato, a 41-year-old interior designer who, in addition to owning camouflage, stretched denim and stretched vinyl chaps, has also made his own leather chaps. “With laces up the side,” he said. “An extreme rarity.”
“You guys want to look at the Picassos?” asked Mr. Vilan. “I think that would be fun.”
Up in the Nelson Rockefeller rooms, one leather man asked another if the Jackson Pollock paintings he was looking at were Picassos. “They’re Picassoesque,” his friend said.
“Philistines, I’m with Philistines,” screamed Darrell. He stood before an orange Rothko. Mr. Vilan posed for a fellow leather man’s camera in front of the red canvas of Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis.
Mr. Vilan puffed out his chest and clutched his leather suspenders in response to the photographer’s prompts. “Show me strong,” he said. “Strong.”
The clock struck 9. A security guard pointed the leather men toward the exit. Mr. Vilan had planned to go to Bryant Park for Fashion Week, to make a “fashion statement.” That plan was scratched in favor of going to a bar in the West Village.
“Let’s go to Julian’s, they need the business, and they have hamburgers. Oh,” he said, “and let’s take a picture of all of us in front of the Lichtenstein.”