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
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