Ralph Lauren on 50 years of defining American style

Ralph Lauren has been defining the American wardrobe for half a century. Nick Foulkes has a rare audience with the living “monument” about the business of fashioning dreams. Portrait by Weston Wells

Ralph Lauren at home in Westchester County,  New York
Ralph Lauren at home in Westchester County, New York | Image: Weston Wells

If F Scott Fitzgerald wrote the great American novel with The Great Gatsby, Ralph Lauren can be said to have assembled the great American wardrobe. And although Fitzgerald died in 1940, just a year after Lauren’s birth, you could say they collaborated when Lauren dressed Robert Redford for the 1974 film adaptation of the book.

Unsurprisingly, it has become something of a cliché to look for elements of Gatsby in Lauren: the name change (from Gatz to Gatsby and Lifshitz to Lauren), the lavish houses, the elegant cars… You might also add the cultivation of an air of mysterious isolation. Gatsby was disinclined to socialise at his parties, and likewise Mr Lauren is a difficult man to pin down. Knowing that the 50th anniversary celebrations of his brand were coming up, I started discussing the possibility of an interview in spring 2016. Two years and three changes of PR personnel later, I boarded a plane to New York.

Ralph Lauren embroidered silk, schappe and viscose dress, £10,435
Ralph Lauren embroidered silk, schappe and viscose dress, £10,435

Thus, June 2018 sees me standing outside Lauren’s Madison Avenue HQ when a black Bentley pulls up and a halo of white hair atop a pale linen ensemble emerges, looking for all the world as if he has stepped off Corsair III, JP Morgan’s yacht, sometime around 1900, at the zenith of America’s Gilded Age: the jacket, with a belted, pleated back, has a frayed collar betokening a patrician carelessness. Lauren speaks softly and kindly. He is so gracious and generous with his compliments that it is easy to forget you are in the presence of a living national monument. It is as if the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge and everything in-between have been compressed into this avuncular septuagenarian. He long ago transcended the world of fashion, where he began selling ties 50 years ago, to become the embodiment of America’s positive national identity.

The anniversary has been greeted with revivals of favoured collections from the past and special editions of everything from watches to cowboy boots. Celebrations will climax on the evening of September 7, in Central Park, where Lauren will show his 50th anniversary collection, but as I – and you too, gentle reader – will be attending the FT Weekend Festival in London, he is giving How To Spend It a preview of the highlights.

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However many collections he has prepared, his eye is still pin sharp on details. As models come and go, he halts this synoptic défilé to dilate for a minute on, say, the size of a belt buckle or the type of braiding on a cuff. He designs for an eternal woman, “a girl who knows how to handle herself and puts herself together like nobody else does. She has the confidence to say, ‘This is how I’m going to wear it’. She doesn’t follow trends. She’s an individual.”

The collection is a sumptuous celebration of half a century of defining the American look: leather jackets to ball gowns, feminine to military, safari to country club, Jazz Age flapper to Haight-Ashbury hippie. He wants to dazzle his fans with pieces so individual they experience a “‘Where did you get that?’ moment I would call the ultimate luxury.” On cue, out walks a model in a cutaway coat with period details that looks as though it belongs in a Venetian museum. “They’re all unique,” he says of patchwork dresses made from dozens of different fabrics, and hand-printed needlecord jeans patched with brocade, silk and other materials. Students of the Lauren oeuvre will probably be reminded of 1982’s folk art-inspired collection of patchwork dresses made from old quilts. “I could never buy a beautiful one and cut it up,” he says, shocked at the thought. “I used remnants.”

Viscose evening gown, £3,470
Viscose evening gown, £3,470

There is a tenderness in the way he says he could never bring himself to dismember an old bedspread that is typical of the man. Incredibly, he has survived half a century in arguably the most fickle and downright bitchy fields of human endeavour without protecting himself behind a carapace of cynicism. Nor are you likely to hear him say anything bad about anyone. “It’s not in my character, not my sensibility.” Even of his recent short-lived CEO, Stefan Larsson, he observes, “I liked him. He was a smart guy. He just wanted to change the whole company and I wasn’t ready to do that,” he says, reducing what was reported as a heated clash to a mild difference of opinion easily resolved and subsequently vindicated by the markets. “I feel happy with myself. I’m not an angry person. I’m very peaceful. I like the people I work with; I like nice people.”

His life is so arranged that his dreams remain intact and he communicates those dreams through every tie, belt, gown, suit and, of course, polo shirt he sells. Lauren’s is a world in which cowboys wear dinner jackets to lead horses through snow; vintage tractors are driven by supermodels; men wear bow ties on safari; and England is the country of Downton Abbey and Wimbledon. It is about more than clothes – it is about an entire culture. Already in 1967 he told a menswear publication that he was not merely selling ties: “I am promoting a level of taste, a total feeling. It is important to show the customer how to wear these ties, the idea behind them.” Half a century later, the same is true, except ties have grown into an empire of top-to-toe fashion, as well as restaurants, interiors, fragrances and even Ralph’s Roast coffee.

Embroidered cashmere/linen handknit jumper, £3,470, wool Camille trousers, £1,090, and leopard-print shearling scarf, £1,175
Embroidered cashmere/linen handknit jumper, £3,470, wool Camille trousers, £1,090, and leopard-print shearling scarf, £1,175

Romantic is a word he uses a great deal. “They’re not the typical model looks,” he says of the women wearing the clothes. “They’re more romantic.” Coloured stones on a belt “have a romanticness”. A jacket evinces a “romantic, somewhat British Raj sensibility, but without being Raj.” He has, of course, never been to India; to do so would probably spoil his vision. Instead, he is evoking an India that exists only in a world of his imagining. “This is a world that I’m very proud of. I didn’t go to fashion school; this is all inside,” he says, tapping his head.

With no formal training, he does not draw, but uses the “rig”, an aircraft hangar-like space at HQ, as a giant 3D moodboard. On a visit some years ago, I saw the design studios, where 1930s America had been forensically recreated: it was like a set built to film Of Mice and Men. He does not just design a collection, but also the world in which that collection exists.

Ralph Lauren leather Grayden coat, £3,785, embroidered cashmere/wool jumper, £3,000, and cashmere Watchman hat, £305
Ralph Lauren leather Grayden coat, £3,785, embroidered cashmere/wool jumper, £3,000, and cashmere Watchman hat, £305

Often that world is one of grandeur. Typical is his transformation of the Rhinelander Mansion, a monument to the East Coast ascendancy, into a shop. Perhaps because of this, it’s become a truism to cast him as protagonist in a rags-to-rag-trade-riches fable: the poor boy from the Bronx who never owned a bicycle and longed for blue suede shoes he could not afford. “I’d go and look at these damn shoes every day after school,” he chuckles as we sit in the Bentley on the way to The Polo Bar.

The truth is slightly more nuanced. His father was an émigré artist from Belarus who made a living painting (among other things) murals, and took his children to the Met to absorb the great works of art. While not rich, they had a small summer cottage. Compared to life in the Soviet Union, it was an idyll, an American dream of sorts that Lauren has continued to dream ever since.

Silk/viscose-velvet Frannie coat, £3,175, lambskin Rustic vest, £4,340, cotton Barrick shirt, £1,000, wool Bernette trousers,  £1,090, velvet Kelianne shoes, £700, and leather belt, £635
Silk/viscose-velvet Frannie coat, £3,175, lambskin Rustic vest, £4,340, cotton Barrick shirt, £1,000, wool Bernette trousers, £1,090, velvet Kelianne shoes, £700, and leather belt, £635

From early on, he had an eye for clothes. “My sister would ask me to go shopping with her,” he says. “And when I was 13, I remember going to a party and this guy was wearing a suit. I loved this suit. It was charcoal grey, very preppy, although ‘preppy’ was not a term used then.” When his mother said he needed a suit, “I said, ‘I want the dark suit that guy was wearing’. She replied, ‘No, no, it’s too old for you, you can’t wear that’.”

The way he tells it, he was guided by an inner force to Brooks Brothers, where he worked in the 1960s. His epiphany came when he was 24. “I was coming out of Brooks Brothers and this man passed by. He had white hair and a moustache and was very handsome. He wore a hat and a chalk-stripe suit with suede shoes and a shirt with a spread collar. It was Douglas Fairbanks Jr.” Much in the way visions appeared to Joan of Arc telling her to fight the English, so the sight of Fairbanks on the corner of Madison and 44th showed him the path his life would take. While others his age were dancing to the Beatles, his role model was the swashbuckling co-star of 1937’s The Prisoner of Zenda. “I always admired older guys” and the way they dressed. “I couldn’t wait to wear an ascot.” 

Wool Donaldson jacket, £2,305, wool/cashmere RL Silhouette jumper, £655, wool Grayden trousers, £1,090, velvet Kelianne shoes, £700, and beaded cashmere Gecko hat, £655
Wool Donaldson jacket, £2,305, wool/cashmere RL Silhouette jumper, £655, wool Grayden trousers, £1,090, velvet Kelianne shoes, £700, and beaded cashmere Gecko hat, £655

He started visiting a tailor called Jimmy Palazzo. “Later, he would tell people ‘Ralph drove me crazy’, because I was very fussy about lapels, very fussy about every detail.” It was the same with the ties. “I went to the maker, watched them hand sew it. I said, ‘Can you do it this way’ and ‘Don’t press it too hard on the edges’.”

The fussiness paid off. Launched under the name Polo, the ties caused a sensation: apparently no one was doing wide ties in New York in 1967. “Stores would call me and say, ‘Hey, d’you know Steve McQueen has just bought 17 ties!’” He also loved talking ties with Cary Grant. In spite of being born 35 years apart, “I felt a connection. He said, ‘I used to sell ties too’. He was a poor guy when he came to New York and used to walk around with stilts on the boardwalk,” says Lauren, ruminatively.

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It is easy to imagine Cary Grant feeling at home in The Polo Bar, Lauren’s Manhattan restaurant; it is only open for dinner, but Lauren occasionally brings people to eat lunch in the kitchen. He got the idea when visiting a restaurant in Florence. “I saw someone sitting in the kitchen; it was Marcello Mastroianni. And I said, ‘Ah, that looks like a cool place to be’.” While we are here, he samples the new hotdog, made with beef from the Double RRL ranch; is shown two ways of plating it; and has an involved discussion as to whether it should be served dressed or with condiments in little pots.

Over lunch he relaxes, showing his gift as a raconteur:recalling how Steve Jobs asked him to design a uniform for his staff and he turned him down, but he accepted a request from Mark Birley to design the sports kit for theBath & Racquets Club and met his match as a detail obsessive. How Fiat boss and style maven Gianni Agnelli asked to see his car collection. How he admired Frank Sinatra, another early customer and a “confirmed Polo fan”, for the singer’s refusal to bow to fashion.

Later, he talks of the sexual harassment allegations that have swept fashion. In the acknowledgements of a lavish book released for this anniversary, Lauren writes, “Thank you Bruce Weber, for taking the first picture of Ricky and me and the kids in 1976 and for sharing all of my dreams and making them come to life in all the advertising campaigns.” This darkness at the heart of an industry he loves pains him and he has since publicly distanced himself from Weber (who denied allegations against him in January in The New York Times). “It’s one of the hardest things that’s happened to our industry. I don’t know his private life. But we’ve known each other a long time and I love his work. The world has got very scary.”

On the way back to the office, I ask whether, if he were starting out now, he would be able to achieve as much. “It was clearer for me, the world was simpler,” he says. “When I did what I did, I went piece by piece based on my own taste. Today it’s much harder.” As he disappears into his HQ, it occurs to me there’s a Fitzgerald novel with a title that fits him better than Gatsby. In a world of conglomerates where chameleon creative directors and CEOs climb the ladder by moving from brand to brand, Ralph Lauren stands for something different. He truly is fashion’s Last Tycoon.

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