Looking as if he had just jumped out of a Dr. Seuss book, Phillipe Ruise races his motorcycle down the streets of San Francisco. His two-foot-long striped leather hat streams behind him as he passes a school bus full of kids who point and laugh. Ruise smiles and waves, then rides straight through the open front door of his boutique—the Wahumba Swamp—and parks in his usual spot, right between the hat display and the jewelry case.
Even in San Francisco, Phillipe Ruise, 34, stretches the definition of flamboyance. “Me, I like to look out of place,” he says. “Just for the hell of it.” Unable to find clothes that fit his wild taste, Ruise began in 1974 to create his own designs, which he now sells to a daring few. He is best known for his hats: a leather number with fake fur and hair, frilly white cone heads and a pink hair hat with attached black ponytail. Though most cost $120 or less, some are so wacko that no one—except Ruise—will wear them. The masses prefer his $15 twisted-rag caps, which look like hot water bottles, or his $45 jumpsuits with baggy crotches. “Drop crotch is what’s happening!” Ruise says. “Girls live in them.” But only “really spicy girls” would even consider his see-through prom dresses with really teeny taffeta miniskirts underneath.
“It’s an exaggerated, sick look,” says Ruise, with pride. “I’m not trying to overdo it. It’s just that I make things, and they come out weird.” Still, Ruise produces so many fresh ideas that fashion leaders who know his work see fame in his future. “He’s so theatrical, and that’s important these days,” says leading San Francisco accessories designer Rebecca Kmiec. “It’s fashion for people whose attitude, life-style and the way they look are one.”
At present such oneness means smallness. Because he and his partner Coel (no last name) sew all designs by hand, their output is limited and gross sales came to only about $10,000 since Wahumba opened 11 months ago. But when his items fail to find an audience, he keeps making them anyway. He never produces enough to supply other stores, and he can’t even put all his inventory on sale because he needs a lot of it for his frequent fashion shows. Exhibiting mostly after hours at Club DV8, Ruise choreographs his “performance fashion” as if it were a theater piece, with music, dance and models wearing giant papier-mâché heads of Liza Minnelli, Grace Jones or Marilyn Monroe. “He’s ingenious and fun,” says DV8 owner Dr. Winkie. “Once he made props out of the packaging that comes around new TVs. Now that’s a true artist.”
Ruise’s meager budget was the mother of his inventiveness. The Wahumba Swamp (wahumba is erotic street jargon) still looks like Pee-Wee Herman’s Playhouse of Fashion: An imitation marble floor meets mock rock walls—all of them crooked—molded of Styrofoam. Ruise says he, Coel and their partner Joe Herschelle moved into the abandoned storefront in 1986, when it was “nothing but a hell pit. It was an awful, run-down, trashed, smelly, musty ghetto dump. Now it has been thoroughly glamorized.” Applying the same approach to fashion, Ruise rummages through the garbage cans of other designers, finds a big piece of cloth, throws it in the washer and sews it into a jacket. “I can’t believe what he has done with my scraps,” says Roberto Robledo, who has created clothes worn by Cyndi Lauper and Donna Summer. “In one outfit he has fabric from three or four of my seasons!”
The fourth of seven children in a San Diego family that lived on welfare, Ruise learned early about survival. He quit high school at 16, moved to L.A. and there worked as a “slave,” running errands for interior designers. After he arrived in San Francisco in 1974, he began making clothes while supporting himself with odd—sometimes truly odd—jobs: He painted houses, donned a harem outfit to deliver Belly-grams and sang with the Four Beauties, a drag-queen quartet. Since the AIDS epidemic, many in San Francisco’s gay community have adopted a more conservative life-style, but Ruise and his friends appear as outlandish as ever. Working until recently as a “waitress” at the now defunct 508 Club, Ruise wore black lipstick, striped shoulder-length leather gloves and whatever nutty outfit he whipped up that day.
Ruise, who lives with three roommates above the Wahumba Swamp, has made his store into a safe harbor in a sleazy, drug-infested neighborhood. In one afternoon a young rap singer brings his mother in to meet Ruise, a friend picks up spare leather to patch her jeans, a pack of models hovers in one corner playing dress-up and a couple of cops stop by during their rounds; meanwhile Ruise sews and sketches. Sometimes he comes up with an outfit so bizarre that he feels he must show it immediately. Then he dons his handiwork and the street becomes his runway. The more the cops, models and druggies laugh or stare, the happier he is.
“It’s been a wild life so far,” says Ruise, cooling out in a nearby café, “a constant psychosis of wildness, and I’ve made it that way. Who wants to be bored?” Then, heading toward the Wahumba Swamp and its shelves of fuzzy, pointy, way-out hats, he waves his arms dramatically and repeats, “Who wants to be bored?”