Amer­i­can Dream

Ralph Lau­ren cel­e­brates 50 years of cin­e­matic New York style against the breath­tak­ing back­drop of the city’s most en­dur­ing land­marks. Pho­tographed by Alexi Lubomirski. Styled by Joanna Hill­man

Harper's Bazaar (Singapore) - - CONTENTS -

Af­ter 50 years spent re­mak­ing Amer­i­can glam­our, Ralph Lau­ren hasn’t just changed the way we dress—the in­ter­na­tion­ally in­flu­en­tial busi­ness mogul, icon­o­clast and phi­lan­thropist has also changed the way we live and dream. By Deb­o­rah Needle­man

When some­one hears the word “polo” today, he or she is as likely to think of the brand founded in 1967 by a young man from the Bronx as the mil­len­nia-old sport played by the world’s elite for which it was named. For the past 50 years, Ralph Lau­ren, through his name­sake lux­ury brands, has not only been out­fit­ting us to live our best lives, but also defin­ing our view of what that looks like.What might an ele­gant self-made Amer­i­can man who at­tains the pin­na­cle of wealth and leisure wear on a hot sum­mer af­ter­noon? F. Scott Fitzger­ald cre­ated Gatsby, but Lau­ren con­jured our vi­sion of him in a white linen suit, a ver­sion of which the de­signer him­self is wear­ing on the June day I visit him. Ralph Lau­ren’s clothes are worn by mag­nates and movie stars, princesses and prime min­is­ters, aris­to­crats and Olympians:They are sym­bols of suc­cess, lux­ury and achieve­ment that have be­come in­dis­tin­guish­able from the things them­selves.

The themes that en­tranced Lau­ren when he was start­ing out, and to which he has re­turned through the years, have be­come hall­marks: Sa­fari, cow­boy, mil­i­tary, Hol­ly­wood, Art Deco mod­ernism and Navajo. He refers to them as “stan­dards”, mo­tifs he can riff on over time.“I saw not what we were as Amer­i­cans, but what we could be­come,” he tells me.What he be­came—in ad­di­tion to an in­ter­na­tional icon at the helm of a multi-bil­lion dol­lar com­pany—is, above all, a fam­ily man, mar­ried for 53 years to Ricky, a nat­u­ral Amer­i­can beauty of the kind that grace his ads and walk his run­ways, with chil­dren and grand­chil­dren; and beau­ti­ful homes in NewYork—in Man­hat­tan, Mon­tauk and Bed­ford—Colorado and Ja­maica.What he wanted for him­self, he wanted for all of us too. His life­style is in­sep­a­ra­ble from what he of­fers us through his col­lec­tions of cloth­ing, fur­ni­ture and life­style ac­ces­sories, and the ad­ver­tis­ing im­agery he cre­ated to mar­ket them.“Every­thing is part of what I was dream­ing for my­self,” he says.“I re­sponded to the vi­bra­tions in the world I loved—black-and­white films, the Kennedys, Si­na­tra, my first trip to Santa Fe—and I ex­panded them and fed them back to the world.”

How does one de­signer so in­habit the aes­thetic of the Amer­i­can dream? I ask.“I am Amer­i­can cul­ture,” he says sim­ply and di­rectly.“I am an Amer­i­can.” His words echo the fa­mous open­ing dec­la­ra­tion of Saul Bel­low’s great Amer­i­can novel, The Ad­ven­tures of Augie March: “I am an Amer­i­can, Chicago born... I have taught my­self, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way.” To make the most of one’s nat­u­ral gifts and to wing it with all you’ve got are the most Amer­i­can of qual­i­ties, and Ralph Lau­ren is our most Amer­i­can of de­sign­ers.

Lau­ren’s un­wa­ver­ing con­sis­tency to his vi­sion has yielded one of the most pow­er­ful and lu­cid brands ever but is what leaves him prey to crit­i­cism. Fash­ion is a fickle beast be­holden to the zeit­geist, but Lau­ren dreams in ab­so­lutes, in clas­sics, in icons: Nau­ti­cal stripes, pea­coats and sailor’s caps fit for a Jean Se­berg-ian Amer­i­can in Paris; a slinky satin num­ber wor­thy of Di­et­rich; wide-legged pin­striped trousers con­jur­ing Keaton’s An­nie Hall; a high-necked white blouse with a big leather belt suited to Meryl Streep play­ing Isak Di­ne­sen on the African plain. Lau­ren be­lieves in the pu­rity of this vi­sion, while most de­sign­ers are not so de­vout to their muses.

It’s this as­pi­ra­tional pu­rity that was cel­e­brated in the ’80s by two Brook­lyn gangs that merged un­der the moniker Lo Lifes (“Lo” be­ing short for Polo).The only re­quire­ment for mem­ber­ship was to­tal ded­i­ca­tion to dress­ing head-to-toe in Polo—ac­qui­si­tions gained through shoplift­ing. “It wasn’t worn by peo­ple who lived in our com­mu­nity,” co-founder Rack-Lo has been quoted as say­ing.“Polo was made for the rich, Waspy kids; it wasn’t made for ur­ban kids.”

“I don’t know why, but they got it,” Lau­ren says.“They un­der­stood the pu­rity of my vi­sion.” Of course they got it.Th­ese kids saw the magic of clothes to take them up out of their neigh­bour­hood and into a more spec­tac­u­lar life, just as Lau­ren did as a young man.Today, Lo Life’s em­brace of Lau­ren’s vi­sion is fu­elling an ac­tive vin­tage mar­ket in those pieces as well as in lim­ited reis­sue prod­uct drops by Ralph Lau­ren from the Polo ar­chives.

A suc­cess­ful brand speaks to peo­ple wher­ever they are, not just to a tar­geted de­mo­graphic. My 78-year-old fa­ther wears a Polo shirt at the coun­try club in Palm Beach be­cause it means one thing in his world, and my 17-year-old son wears ’90s Polo at the skate park on the Lower East Side be­cause it sig­ni­fies some­thing else. On the day I visit, Lau­ren shares with me images of the up­com­ing women’s run­way col­lec­tion, his 88th show, for his 50th-an­niver­sary ex­trav­a­ganza. He shows no signs of slow­ing down or los­ing in­ter­est; in fact, he is par­tic­u­larly ex­cited by the way this show rein­ter­prets and jux­ta­poses many of his beloved stan­dards.As with nearly ev­ery fash­ion brand, Ralph Lau­ren the com­pany has had its share of strug­gles in the past few years. Lau­ren and his cur­rent CEO have a set of “strate­gic pri­or­i­ties” that in­cludes dig­i­tal growth, the rein­vig­o­ra­tion of its core busi­ness and tar­geted ex­pan­sion.What will be achieved and who will suc­ceed Lau­ren are un­known.What is known is that the in­ef­fa­ble magic that Ralph Lau­ren has cre­ated, and its pres­ence in our col­lec­tive con­scious­ness, make his suc­cesses over the past five decades the ul­ti­mate achieve­ment of Amer­i­can brand-mak­ing for, like, well, ever. ■

“Ralph is the holy grail: Whether he’s sell­ing a suit, a paint colour or a ham­burger, he is al­ways de­sign­ing a dream. Each time I walk into his stores, eat at his restau­rants, or see one of his iconic brand images, I con­sider it a les­son taught. And his un­com­pro­mis­ing com­mit­ment to his vi­sion in­spires me not only in work, but in life.”

— ALEXANDER WANG

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