THE GOOD LIFE

Writ­ten by Jus­tine Pi­cardie

Harper's Bazaar (Arabia) - - Contents - Fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy by RICHARD PHIBBS Styling by MI­RANDA AL­MOND

In this Trumpian era, when the Amer­i­can Dream seems trou­bled, if not tar­nished, it is an apt mo­ment to con­sider the phe­nom­e­non that is Ralph Lau­ren – the man, as well as the brand that he has built over the past half a cen­tury. I first in­ter­viewed him five years ago, at his Mon­tauk beach house, where I was struck by the ap­par­ent sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the story of Amer­ica’s most suc­cess­ful fash­ion de­signer and the fa­bled he­roes of the land of the free, from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer to F Scott Fitzger­ald’s Jay Gatsby. What in­trigued me then – and con­tin­ues to do so now – is how Ralph Lau­ren has come to rep­re­sent the quin­tes­sen­tial self-made man; though rather than be writ­ten into life by an­other author, he is en­tirely his own cre­ation. Born Ralph Lif­shitz in Oc­to­ber 1939, the youngest son of Jewish im­mi­grants to New York who had fled the op­pres­sion of East­ern Europe, he emerged as Ralph Lau­ren, the pro­tag­o­nist of his own nar­ra­tive, yet one who was also sen­si­tive to the le­gends that shaped the New World.

Ac­cord­ing to Fitzger­ald’s nar­ra­tor Nick Car­raway, Gatsby had ‘an ex­tra­or­di­nary gift for hope, a ro­man­tic readi­ness such as I have never found in any other per­son and which it is not likely I shall ever find again’. And hope is also at the heart of the story of Ralph Lau­ren; along with his ge­nius for myth-mak­ing, and a mys­te­ri­ous al­chem­i­cal blend of vul­ner­a­bil­ity, de­ter­mi­na­tion and the vi­sion­ary qual­i­ties that trans­form a man into be­ing a mogul. All these el­e­ments, and more, have been ap­par­ent in my sub­se­quent en­coun­ters with Lau­ren – back­stage af­ter his New York fash­ion shows; amid the grandeur of Wind­sor Cas­tle at a gala hosted in his hon­our by Prince Wil­liam; at qui­eter gath­er­ings with his fam­ily (who are also his best friends); and at the Royal Al­bert Hall, when he re­ceived an out­stand­ing achieve­ment award from the British Fash­ion Coun­cil in 2016.

To­day, I am meet­ing him in his of­fice on Madi­son Av­enue, a place filled with pos­si­ble clues to un­der­stand­ing this most elu­sive yet be­guil­ing of char­ac­ters. Be­hind the desk is a black and white pho­to­graph of a fig­ure in a Stet­son hat lead­ing a horse; the hat ob­scures his (or her?) face, so I can­not tell whether it is Ralph Lau­ren him­self at his Colorado ranch, or an image from one of his ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns, or some­one else en­tirely. Be­side this pic­ture are oth­ers that I recog­nise as be­ing of Ralph and his wife Ricky (they have been mar­ried since 1964), and their three chil­dren (An­drew, David and Dy­lan); all so good-look­ing that you can see why they have made such com­pelling ad­ver­tise­ments for the Ralph Lau­ren brand. On the desk it­self is an in­trigu­ing ar­ray of ob­jects: tin ro­bots, toy planes, bat­tered cowboy boots, vin­tage shoes that look as if they might once upon a time have been danced in by Jay Gatsby (and why not, given Ralph’s role in mak­ing Robert Red-ford’s wardrobe for the 1974 adap­ta­tion of The Great Gatsby?). To one side of the of­fice is a bi­cy­cle (rather like the one rid­den by Diane Keaton in An­nie Hall, the same film in which she wore mem­o­rably charm­ing clothes by Ralph Lau­ren); around the room are half a dozen or so framed mag­a­zine cov­ers fea­tur­ing the de­signer; here a mar­i­onette in a fly­ing ma­chine; and there an as­sort­ment of other smaller mod­els, in­clud­ing the Joker in Bat­man, a Mar­vel su­per­hero and Mar­lon Brando play­ing the God­fa­ther.

All of these are a re­minder both of the in­flu­ence that Ralph Lau­ren has had on pop­u­lar cul­ture over sev­eral decades, as well as the ways in which he him­self was in­flu­enced by Hol­ly­wood as a child grow­ing up in the Bronx. Hence his choice of a sur­name; for at 16, fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple of his adored older brother Jerry, he changed his name from Lif­shitz, hav­ing been in­spired by Lau­ren Ba­call (who had her­self been born Betty Joan Perske to Jewish par­ents in New York).

We have spo­ken about the name change in the past, but not on this oc­ca­sion. In­stead, I ask Ralph about his cream li­nen suit, which might have stepped straight out of the set of The Great Gatsby. “I love what I’m wear­ing to­day,” he replies, his voice as soft as al­ways, “be­cause it just says what I wanted to say – it has no year, it has no age…” And it’s true: there is a time­less qual­ity to his suit (which is, nat­u­rally, of his own de­sign), and a sense of ef­fort­less ease, as if the cloth had been washed of­ten, and left to dry in the sun­light of a New Eng­land sum­mer morn­ing. As such, Lau­ren’s out­fit speaks for it­self, in a char-ac­ter­is­ti­cally un­der­stated way. In­deed, he has never been very keen on an overly am­pli­fied idea of fash­ion: “I’ve said this for years – there are too many clothes, too many de­sign­ers… What’s the point? My thing was al­ways about in­di­vid­u­al­ity, and about cre­at­ing a world – be­cause you don’t just wear clothes, you live a life, you have style, you pro­ject who you are.”

It is this idea of con­jur­ing up the life that might be lived in the clothes he de­signs – rather than an in­sis­tence on stylis­tic dik­tats – that has made Ralph Lau­ren such an en­dur­ing pres­ence in the wider cul­ture. As his friend Au­drey Hep­burn ob­served, when she pre­sented him with an award from the Coun­cil of Fash­ion De­sign­ers of Amer­ica in 1992: “Ralph has given Amer­i­can de­sign a dis­tinc­tive point of view and dig­nity… it strikes an in­ner chord, per­haps be­cause he works like a writer or a film di­rec­tor. The sto­ries he tells are not about trends or fleet­ing mo­ments, but about val­ues and things that last. He has given us the ro­mance of the West, the glam­our of Hol­ly­wood, the ad­ven­ture of a sa­fari, the pu­rity of New Eng­land, the ease of a mod­ern beach house, the rich­ness of an English manor, only bet­ter than we imag­ined them. Ralph shows us a dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at the world.”

“There are too many clothes,

too many de­sign­ers. What’s

the point? My thing was al­ways

in­di­vid­u­al­ity”

Ralph Lau­ren

In­her­ent to this vi­sion is an un­der­stand­ing that true beauty may not only ex­ist on the sur­face of things: for Lau­ren also be­lieves, in his words, “in in­tegrity, and liv­ing a good life”. As a con­se­quence, he is a gen­er­ous phi­lan­thropist who has do­nated un­told mil­lions to es­tab­lish a breast-can­cer clinic in Har­lem and a pi­o­neer­ing fa­cil­ity at the Royal Mars­den hos­pi­tal in Lon­don, as well as fund­ing the restora­tion of the orig­i­nal Star-Span­gled Ban­ner in Wash­ing­ton. But he tends not to seek public­ity for his in­volve­ment in these projects, nor does he elab­o­rate on his own brush with life-threat­en­ing ill­ness (he was op­er­ated on for a brain tu­mour in 1987; for­tu­nately, this turned out to be be­nign).

Per­haps it is the same dis­cre­tion – com­bined with an in­nate hope­ful­ness – that makes him avoid con­tem­plat­ing any past un­hap­pi­ness. When I ask him whether his par­ents suf­fered from per­se­cu­tion in East­ern Europe, he says that while his fa­ther was dy­ing, “he told me sto­ries of go­ing to get some­thing for his mother who was sick, and the Rus­sians grabbed him. He was about 12 years old, and big for his age, and they said we’re go­ing to take you into the army. But some­how he just ran and got away…” His fa­ther’s mother died be­fore the fam­ily could es­cape to Amer­ica; but Ralph prefers not to dwell on the sad­ness of this story. True, he ad­mits that life wasn’t al­ways easy for his fa­ther as an as­pir­ing artist in New York. “My fa­ther strug­gled, he painted houses when things were bad, but he also did mu­rals for churches and syn­a­gogues – I’d watch him up on the lad­der paint­ing clouds on the ceil­ings.”

If a film were ever to be made of Ralph Lau­ren’s life, then this might be the open­ing scene: a child watch­ing his fa­ther as he paints with his head in the clouds. But un­like a chimeri­cal char­ac­ter in an F Scott Fitzger­ald nar­ra­tive, Lau­ren ap­pears to have been able to com­bine his dream of creativ­ity with the prag­ma­tism nec­es­sary for big busi­ness. “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy,” de­clared Fitzger­ald; yet in the world of Ralph Lau­ren, catas­tro­phe has no place. “I had a very nice life,” he says, rem­i­nisc­ing about his child­hood. ‘I was a very good kid, I had nice friends, I played in the school yard, I was nice to my par­ents, they were nice to me, they were lov­ing par­ents, they were al­ways there.”

“So you’ve never been truly un­happy?” I ask, un­able to keep the sur­prise out of my voice.

“No,” he replies, “though I’ve had mo­ments, I had a brain tu­mour – that was night­mar­ish. But I think I’ve been happy be­cause I’ve been able to do what I be­lieve in, and on my own terms.”

Lau­ren seems also pos­sessed of an en­dur­ing faith – in him­self, as well as in a spir­i­tual higher power. When I ask him to de­scribe this faith, he says: “I’ve al­ways had it, from my early days as a lit­tle boy. I re­mem­ber look­ing out the win­dow in my house, I was only about nine years old, and I saw this star all of a sud­den, and I got re­ally scared. I thought, “You’re go­ing to die.”

And I re­mem­ber talk­ing to my brother Jerry, and he said, “Any time you think about it, just change your mind, for­get it… luck can hap­pen.”’

Luck can hap­pen… And then he starts telling me a story that he has of­ten told be­fore – about the ear­li­est days of his busi­ness, de­sign­ing ties, “and de­liv­er­ing them my­self, pack­ing them my­self, work­ing, build­ing… that was the great­est dream one can have”. As he speaks, I find my­self look­ing again at his per­fectly judged, well­worn li­nen suit, and won­der­ing how he has kept it so pris­tine over the years; and then I ask whether he feels he has been pro­tected by his op­ti­mism. “Se­cure peo­ple are kin­der and hap­pier,” he says. “I’ve had suc­cess, but I also see that life is short… life is so change­able and un­ex­pected, so you’ve got to en­joy what you’re do­ing and re­mem­ber, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I want to feel good, I look great, I want this, so I’m go­ing to en­joy it’. Say it to your­self, be­cause it helps.”

I don’t say it, ei­ther to my­self, or aloud (though I can­not help but be struck by the trust he places in a sunny dis­po­si­tion). “Do you be­lieve in magic?” I ask. “No,” he says. “But you be­lieve in God?”

“I be­lieve in God. I be­lieve in do­ing the right thing, I be­lieve in help­ing peo­ple if I can…”

Then he smiles, stretches his hand out to­wards mine, in the most cour­te­ous of ges­tures, to in­di­cate that our meet­ing is com­ing to an end, and gen­tly es­corts me to­wards the door. And so we say good­bye, even though I want to keep talk­ing, refuse to leave his in­ner sanc­tum, un­til I fi­nally dis­cover the se­cret of his fame and for­tune.

Of course, this will never hap­pen, for he is a vir­tu­oso at mak­ing suc­cess sound so sim­ple – just as he makes all of his achieve­ments look as easy as his graceful de­signs. But would we want it any other way? For as long as Ralph Lau­ren con­tin­ues do­ing what he does best, then the Amer­i­can Dream is not yet over, and the stars shall go on shin­ing, and what­ever dark clouds are gath­er­ing may be kept at bay…

“I had a brain tu­mour that was night­mar­ish. But I’ve been happy be­cause I’ve been able to do what I be­lieve in”

Ralph Lau­ren

A 1976 shot of the fam­ily in Ama­gansett, New York State

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