Doug’s a legend, the king of vintage. Here he gives us a glimpse inside his lair.
The remarkable Doug Bihlmaier is a men’s fashion icon and a legend at Ralph Lauren. The 68-year-old head of the brand’s vintage buying team takes us on a tour of his closet.
L’ÉTIQUETTE. What are your earliest memories of clothing?
DOUG BIHLMAIER. The first thing that springs to mind is my grandfather – I was very close to him. He was a farmer in Kansas, a real cowboy, complete with boots and hats. Naturally, I was fascinated by him. For me, as for all kids, I think, cowboys stood for freedom and adventure. There were all those Westerns on TV, like Bonanza and The Rifleman. I vividly remember Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive. It marked me for life. Then there was my father. He had a successful career in insurance and banking, and was more elegant in a preppy way. He taught us how to match a hat with a suit and explained when we should wear button-down shirts and how to coordinate stripes. It wasn’t much use to my brothers and me in the middle of nowhere in Kansas, but he wanted us to know how to dress well. I remember I got a brand-new pair of Levi’s every Christmas. I sure wish I still had them today.
É. How did you build on this background to create your style?
D.B. By traveling. My father took regular trips to Europe, and I sometimes went with him. I remember on my first trip to London, in the late 1960s, I was really impressed by all the people wearing tweed. I’d never seen it before; I thought it was incredible. It was the same when I discovered Colorado then Santa Fe a few years later. I was bowled over. I was instantly fascinated by the Native American aesthetic. They bring beauty, in one form or another, to everything they make, even the simplest things, ordinary everyday objects. A white blanket will have a colored pattern. A bracelet will have a stone in a place you don’t expect it. They always try to make an object more beautiful. Actually, I think I’ve been observing people and what they wear my whole life, and that’s how my own style evolved. I learned to love denim jackets in Colorado and working men’s blue overalls in France. What I wear often depends on where I am; it’s my way of fitting in.
É. How do you structure your wardrobe?
D.B. For a long time, it was limited to staples, built around two key pieces: a blazer and chinos. Those are the two garments that haven’t budged from my wardrobe over the years. I started off wearing them with a plain white T-shirt. Then I gradually introduced color: gray, army green, faded red flannel, an orange hunting jacket, a yellow down jacket, brown tweed, etc. It’s really easy for me to get dressed because all – or almost all – the clothes I own work together, so I can mix and match. Occasionally, I’ll leave something in a corner and forget about it, then I come across it again, and it goes straight back into rotation.
É. Which pieces do you wear the most?
D.B. An RRL shawl-collar sweater, and a French corduroy hunting jacket. Then I’ve got this incredible shearling coat, also by RRL; it’s so warm and comfortable. I must have around 15 chambray shirts and also lots of white dress shirts from the 1950s with spearpoint collars. My boots are by the Australian brand Blundstone. This pair is my third or fourth; they’re nearly worn out. And I love my Red Wings. To be honest, I’ve got a lot of stuff. I’m moving house right now, so I’m supposed to be sorting it all out. I’ve got 20 or 30 plastic boxes full of clothes I need to deal with. I find it very hard to let go of quality clothing. I’d like to keep all my T-shirts. Even when they’ve got holes, I want to hang on to them.
Ithink: “Ah, maybe my daughter will want that one.” I’m a romantic. I’m well aware, however, that my body is aging, and they don’t suit me as well as they used to.
É. How do you decide on your outfit every morning?
D.B. I think about it in the shower. [Laughs] I almost always start out the same way, with chinos and a white T-shirt. Then I add something like a blue flannel shirt, a red crewneck sweatshirt, a green cashmere cardigan or a shawl-collar sweater. But it’s the accessories that make the difference: the scarf, belt, tie, bandana, hat, socks, shoes. They can take the outfit in lots of different directions. When I’m going out to buy vintage objects and know I’ll have to carry boxes, I don’t dress the same as when I’m going to meet Mr. Lauren.
É. Do you wear a tie when you know you’re going to see him?
D.B. It’s the other way around. [Laughs] Years ago, I remember arriving at work one morning with a bit of a hangover. My boss at the time noticed after just a few seconds. I asked him how he knew. “I can tell because you wore a tie.”
É. Tell us how you ended up working at Ralph Lauren.
D.B. When I was at university, in a remote part of Kansas, I needed to find a part-time job. My dad put a word in for me at a preppy boutique called Woody’s where he bought his clothes. It was 1971, and I wanted to be a hippie, not preppy, so I had two sets of clothes. I wore my hippie gear to classes and my preppy clothes to work. The store was one of the first in the country to sell Ralph Lauren. One day, my boss sent me to the airport to pick up the brand representative, who was flying in from New York to show us the new collections. I remember wondering how I would recognize him, but I spotted him straightaway. He was wearing a corduroy jacket with elbow patches, a yellow club tie and suede calfskin shoes. I’d never seen anything like it; he looked like he’d stepped straight out of an old movie, but he also looked really modern. It was pretty amazing. I immediately thought: “I want to be that guy.” That’s how I began to take a real interest in clothes and get more invested in my work at the store. I was soon put in charge of window and store displays. As a frustrated hippie, I must have had a creative streak. [Laughs] A few years later, I ended up being recruited by Ralph Lauren and working in the Dallas store, where I was in charge of window displays. Then I left to work in New York on the brand image. I’d go to shoots where I’d run into the photographer Bruce Weber; I learned a lot during that period.
É. So you lived the RRL creation from inside?
D.B. Yes! Mr. Lauren launched the brand in the early 1990s, with a very strong Americana feel. Back then, traditional brands were doing everything they could to seem modern, even if it meant forgetting their past, and he decided to go in the opposite direction, with a return to tradition. It was a good call. He also wanted to sell vintage items in the stores alongside the collections, and he asked me if I’d buy them for him. I was already buying quite a lot of vintage for the window displays I was working on – an old pair of boots here, some hats there – so it made sense. I knew how to do it. And that’s what I’m still doing today, several decades later. I’m in charge of buying everything vintage for Ralph Lauren, whether it’s clothes, antiques or small objects for window displays, showrooms and the RRL stores. And then I also work with Mr. Lauren on other special projects, like decorating his ranch or his house in Montauk, in the Hamptons. I spend my time buying all kinds of stuff: blankets, rugs, furniture, clothes and so on. Before Covid, I was traveling a lot, mainly in the States, in the Southwest or to Los Angeles, for example, as well as to London and Paris, where I love going to the flea markets.
É. Are you ever tempted to keep the best pieces for yourself?
D.B. I have to admit that if it’s my size, if it’s nicely worn, comfortable and not too expensive, I’ll often keep it. [Laughs] But what really makes me happy is when Mr. Lauren likes a piece I’ve found and keeps it for himself rather than putting it in a store. When that happens, I know I’ve done a good job.
(1) Standouts include a 1930s Alaska Sleeping Bag Co. woolen overshirt, a liner worn by the U.S. Army in Vietnam in the 1960s, an orange L.L. Bean woolen cape from the 1970s and an English Norfolk shooting jacket from the 1940s.
(2) In addition to his jeans and flannel shirt, as seen previously, Doug wears a 1930s English corduroy vest, 1920s Navajo jewelry, and a 1969 Rolex Submariner ref. 5513 with a NATO bracelet.