#SuzyNYFW: Ralph Lauren Celebrates An Augmented Reality Of 50 Years In Fashion
Ralph Lauren, holding hands with a small child whose eyes were filled with wonder, walked the steps down the Bethesda Terrace in New York’s Central Park. Inside the underpass, transformed by Persian rugs and painted walls, the designer greeted his family – his wife Ricky and three children, shed a twinkling tear with Oprah Winfrey and continued on his walk of honour to mark reaching 50 years in fashion.
Except that it was not a preppy parade of all things the designer loves – what he himself had described to me that afternoon as “jeans and a fresh white button-down shirt.” Instead, it was an open door on a diverse world: women in the lush velvet of hippie-de-luxe elegance; men with straggly hair spilling over a tailored plaid coat and leather trousers.
After the parade of strokable, tailored clothes – some seeming historical, others current, came diversity at its sweetest: reinvented and reassembled ‘families’ in Polo sportswear, lined up like a fashion army on the steep stairwell.
“After I worked for a tie company when I was 24 years old, I started drawing fashion in a drawer,” Ralph had said to me that afternoon in a heartfelt interview. Having followed his career for over three decades, I am still fascinated by the story of the little boy from the Bronx who has lived the American dream.
“It was not a room or a closet, it was a drawer!” he explained. “I worked like that, but I called the company Polo because it was aristocratic in some way.”
Given his majestic position in New York’s firmament, the designer who could shut down Central Park for his Spring/Summer 2019 show might equally have brought in horses for a polo game or to carry models thundering through the trees in the Big Country prairie clothes that were part of his oeuvre in the 1980s.
But Ralph Lauren showed his humility in a two-way speech with Oprah Winfrey at a dinner (including steak from the designer’s Colorado ranch) under big white umbrellas and a drizzling sky.
“Back then, my idea of celebrating success wasn’t to go out and get a fancy car or jewellery,” the media icon said. “It was Ralph Lauren towels that represented comfort, luxury and admiration.” She reminded the audience that the designer had another first: being a lifestyle innovator. He replied to her humbly by saying that in his own home the towels are worn and few, but loved.
America loves Ralph because he created an augmented reality – a more beautiful and desirable vision of city and country clothing with his sharp tailoring melded with Native American prints and rustic knits. But could any designer do the same today for a fragmented country? Could there be a distinctive modern look as American as apple pie?
“The world is very small now – I don’t know what you would call ‘an American look’ for new designers. Today there is an international sensibility,” said Ralph. “I did what I did because it was what I wanted to wear myself. Then, when I had children, I made clothes for them and my wife. This show is all about individuality and taste, not what the trend is. It doesn’t look like it’s American or English or French – it looks cool and doesn’t have an age.”
Yet on the runway, the collection this season looked different: more eclectic, with pieces of whimsical jewellery that might have been found on global travels and slightly offbeat masculine tailoring as an alternative to the more familiar sporty, casual wear. Totalling over a hundred looks, the collection itself was streamlined, but rich in sumptuous velvet patchwork and soft leather.
I would judge that the designer, subtly but firmly, put a lock on the preppy style that was once his signature. The Polo presentation was a homage to diversity.
Seeing the line-up of celebrities reflected that inclusivity – from Robert De Niro to Pierce Brosnan, Kanye West and Hillary Clinton; add Blake Lively, chic in a curvy tuxedo, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in a sensual white coat, Jessica Chastain in buttercup yellow, and Priyanka Chopra glittering in a curvy dress. How to find enough front row seats for them all?
Then there were the applauding fashion designers: legends such as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan amid many current names from Thom Browne though Tommy Hilfiger to Michael Kors and Alexander Wang. Who from the world of fame and fashion was NOT there?
I have talked to Ralph Lauren before about his childhood in the Bronx, his tough life where immigrant parents could not jump-start his career or even buy him a rack of shirts. And I asked him now, 50 years on, what he would say to current teenage millennials about building a life – and maybe a business.
There was a long pause before Ralph said, “I would say: believe in yourself. Believe in who you are. You feel emotions, you feel things – if you have a sense of design and that’s what you want to do – stay with it. If you don’t expand in one year, then you won’t last too long.
“It’s about paying attention to your talent and believing in yourself to do what you like,” he continued. “Because if I had believed in what everyone else said, I would never have gone anywhere.”
Although the off-key elegance of the new collection was striking in its colours and depth of fabrics – leaving way behind a buttoned-up view of the WASP-y side of America – it was the parade of diversity from Polo that will stay in my memory, because it made my eyes prick and had many in the audience wiping away tears.
I asked Ralph, who had once told me how his mother would come to the school playground with a cup of warm milk, whether his parents encouraged his early choice of making neck ties.
“I don’t think they were very impressed – like a lot of parents that came from Europe, they wanted security for me, a job like teacher, doctor or lawyer,” Ralph said. “My father was an artist, he did murals on the ceiling in churches and synagogues. I didn’t have his talent, but I think I got something that came out in colour. I didn’t go to fashion school – I had a free-form sensibility.”
His brother Jerry has been part of the company for over 30 years, what about his own children? His eldest son Andrew is a producer in the movie business; David, as Executive Vice President heads marketing and advertising at Ralph Lauren. His daughter Dylan has followed in her father’s footsteps. Sort of.
“My daughter loves colour and she opened a candy business and she has a successful store chain,” said her father. “If she had asked my advice, I would have said, ‘What are you doing? You went to college and you are a smart girl. Candy?’ But she has the drive,” he continued. “She saw something that was her own. I believe in young people and they should be encouraged to do something they love.”
As the drizzling night turned into a grey mist, David Lauren did a round of the tables, famous names on each one.
“It’s all about love,’ he said. “I talked to my dad this morning – and that is what I said to him. It’s love. He loves his work and he loves his family. That is the base of it all.”
Corny – but surely true.