American Dreamer

Ralph Lauren
Lauren enters the party in Central Park. Photography by Getty images.

For 50 years, designer Ralph Lauren has eschewed fashion trends in favour of timeless style.

Words by Damien Woolnough

The American dream is an all-powerful ideal. Over the years, people from all walks of life – statesmen, singers, Hollywood stars – have striven for it. And for five decades, one otherwise unassuming man from the Bronx has held onto the dream with a steely grip. Who else but Ralph Lauren could single-handedly drive his country’s style sensibility uptown, at breakneck speed? Weaving together Puritanism, Anglophilia, militaria and prairie chic, Lauren has steered American style from down home apple pie to Madison Avenue. His dream is one strong enough to spread across the world, by way of statement coats, red carpet gowns and perky-collared polo shirts. “Dreams, for me, have always been about aspiring to be somebody, or do something that is just out of reach; something that conjures up a world and takes you there,” he says.

Born in 1939 to Jewish immigrants, Ralph Lifshitz (who later changed his name to Lauren) – the youngest of four siblings – was always an innate dreamer. “I grew up playing basketball and baseball,” he says. “I wanted to be Joe DiMaggio, and then I wanted to be a movie star.” In Hollywood’s Golden Age, the appeal of  a chiselled Gary Cooper, or effortlessly elegant and affable  Cary Grant, is easy to understand. “Growing up, movies always made me dream. If I watched a Western, when I walked out of the theatre I was the cowboy.”

I’ve been very lucky. I like working. I like to dream.

Now Lauren’s own life plays out like the ultimate blockbuster. His fiftieth anniversary celebration, at last September’s New York Fashion Week, attracted a cast of celebrities with a collective star power that would’ve left young Ralph Lifshitz open-mouthed in his cinema seat. Shutting down Central Park for the event, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton and Robert De Niro rubbed shoulders with Blake Lively, Anna Wintour, Anne Hathaway and Kanye West. Naturally, they all wore Ralph Lauren – a footnote which is not unusual, considering the brand’s diverse appeal. Lauren has fans from First Lady Melania Trump to entrepreneur Elon Musk. Last December, he designed actress Priyanka Chopra’s dress – embellished with two million mother-of-pearl sequins – for her star-studded multi-day wedding celebration to singer Nick Jonas. Naturally, the couple were front row at his anniversary show.

Ralph Lauren
Lauren’s pieces have a timeless quality to them.

Lauren’s peers also came to pay tribute, with Tommy Hilfiger, Diane von Furstenberg, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Alexander Wang and Thom Browne all acknowledging the once-in-a-lifetime moment. The terrace at the heart of Central Park was transformed into an outdoor palace, with Persian rugs, giant LED screens and white umbrellas to ward off ominous grey skies. Steaks, flown in from Lauren’s Double RL ranch in Colorado, were served on the designer’s own china and navy tablecloths, while the gentle glow of candlelight and the tinkling sounds of the magnificent Bethesda Fountain added to the magic.

During her toast to the designer, Winfrey addressed her own modest upbringing and of feeling as though she had made it in the world when she could indulge in Ralph Lauren-brand towels and sheets. “Your story exalts our collective story… It’s not just about fashion, but about what is great about America… Your work has told the story of our lives; the lives we live and the lives we aspire to live.”

Ralph Lauren
Few designers can so comfortably dress men, women and children. 

Down-to-earth Lauren – wearing his formal uniform of a dinner jacket, crisp white shirt, bow tie and faded jeans – responded in self-deprecating fashion: “I’m not so glamorous at home. I walk around in a ripped robe and old towels. But I’ve been very lucky. I like working. I like to dream. I don’t dream this big but it makes me look very big tonight.” Winfrey’s toast perfectly captured the Ralph Lauren spirit, but it was the 111 looks – on models like Gigi Hadid, Kaia Gerber and Pierce Brosnan’s son Paris – that reminded the guests what lies at the heart of Lauren’s multi-billion dollar empire.

I’ve always believed in personal style.

The diverse cast of models appeared in pieces that drew from the 79-year-old designer’s greatest hits. Preppy buffalo plaids, cosy flannels and ripped jeans offered collegiate cool. Silver fringed skirts and embellished flapper dresses riffed on the almost-as-great Gatsby, while Western print knits cinched by buckles the size of Texas brought the Wild West to the sophisticated East Coast. Berets that could have been swiped from the wardrobe of Diane Keaton – the woman who made Lauren’s androgyny attainable in 1977’s Annie Hall – topped novelty knits and wide-legged trousers. Finally, lush blue-velvet coats with embellished collars and velvet patchwork dresses managed to touch on a Brideshead Revisited past while looking fresher than tomorrow.

“The fiftieth anniversary celebrated everything that I’ve done, in Collection, Double RL and Polo for men, women and children,” Lauren says, looking back. “It was a creative summation. It was incredible to pause on that special night and see my world come to life in such a cinematic way, but an authentic way.” Less well-known is how that world started – with a single drawer, where the mogul-in-the-making kept his sketches. In 1967, while working for tie manufacturer Beau Brummell, an ambitious Lauren persuaded the company to let him launch a line of ties, which he named Polo.

Ralph Lauren
50 years of fashion. Ralph Lauren’s timeless style through the years. Polo Ralph Lauren knit, $649. Polo Ralph Lauren Shirt, $349. Polo Ralph Lauren blazer, $499. 

“When I created my wide ties, in unique kinds of fabrics, it inspired certain men to express themselves,” says Lauren. “I like to break the rules, to expand the thinking about what we wear. I believe in dressing appropriately, but I have always believed in the need to express oneself through individual taste. In any environment, it’s the personal details that become the truest form of self-expression.” Having sold more than half a million dollars’ worth of ties in his first year, there was no way that Lauren’s talent would be limited to silk strips. He entered the world of menswear in 1970, simultaneously receiving his first Coty Award (now called the CFDA Awards) for menswear, before following up with women’s suits, the Polo emblem embroidered on the cuffs, in 1971.

Over the last 50 years, as fashion trends such as boho, grunge and Japanese minimalism have waxed and waned, Lauren’s signature sophistication and aspiration has remained recognisable. While others have snatched at the headlines in increasingly dramatic ways, he has remained steadfast and faithful to his vision. “I never thought of what I do as fashion,” he says firmly. “Though I’m aware of trends and what’s going on in the world, I’ve never followed them. What’s ‘in’ today is ‘out’ tomorrow. I’ve always believed in personal style that is forever. I’ve always believed in creating things that are timeless and enduring.  Fashion is over quickly, so, for me, it’s about designing things that are classic and last forever. I create all kinds of clothes for all parts of the way we live – everything from blue jeans to the most glamorous evening gown. What I do is about living.”

These days, Lauren’s style of living is a far cry from crowded homes in the Bronx. With a net worth estimated at more than US$6.4 billion (AU$8.8 billion), Lauren lives in a series of beautiful homes, many of which have served as backdrops for his instantly recognisable advertising campaigns. There’s the Norman-style stone mansion in Bedford, New York, the Manhattan apartment, the Montauk beach house, the Colorado ranch and the Jamaican retreat. Add to this, an underground garage beneath his Bedford estate which looks like a car museum. Lauren held his Autumn/Winter 17 show there, amid his collection of pristine vintage vehicles.

Even with all the airbrushed trappings of success, it’s still family that keeps the dream alive. “My ideas of home and family are deeply rooted in what I knew growing up,” he says. “My parents, my brothers and sister, their moods and tastes and projects gave scenery and shape to my life and inspired me to structure both my personal and professional lives around my family.” Now Lauren’s own children are part of that singular structure – there’s film producer Andrew, daughter Dylan (who owns Dylan’s Candy Bar in New York, one of the largest candy stores in the world) and David, who is vice president and chief innovation officer at Ralph Lauren. “Your children become an expression of yourself, of your dreams,” says Lauren.

If his children are an expression of the designer’s dreams, his wife of 54 years is the key to the Ralph Lauren reality we now all live in. While other designers, like Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld and Celine’s Hedi Slimane, churn through muses, Lauren has always looked to Ricky’s sleek, blonde beauty for inspiration. The couple met in an optometrist’s office in 1964 where Ricky, an English major at the time, was working part-time as a receptionist. While her influence is most easily acknowledged in the classic Ricky handbag, it reaches far beyond. “Ricky was my original muse,” he says. “I liked the girl in jeans and a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, wearing her boyfriend’s jacket.  That’s the girl I’m attracted to.  She has a look that’s her own and wears it with great confidence. That’s Ricky.”

It’s this consistency that makes the Ralph Lauren brand instantly recognisable today – from the Olympic athlete uniforms he has designed every year since 2008, to Gwyneth Paltrow’s now-iconic strapless pink dress at the 1999 Academy Awards, down to the signature polo shirt. “The brand carries the same values and inspiration now that it did when I first started out,” Lauren says. “The most exciting thing has been realising that what I loved 50 years ago is what I still love today and the fact that we’re still here must mean I’m not alone.”

The 500 guests at his fiftieth anniversary and his millions of customers around the world would agree. Whether they’re wearing a suit tailored to perfection, a bright polo shirt or simply a whiff of Ralph Lauren fragrance, the party shows no signs of stopping. If the energetic Lauren retires (to enjoy a life in ripped bathrobes in Jamaica or Montauk), don’t expect the dream to suddenly end. Those patchwork velvet dresses and coveted coats show that there’s more to come. “My hope is the essence of what I do and believe in will remain the same,” says Lauren. “And the brand will live on with that authenticity and timeless style that never gets old.” J

Scent for Success

Ralph Lauren
Ralph Lauren Woman EDP, $189.

Few fashion designers have so successfully parlayed their sartorial business into fine fragrance as Ralph Lauren. The spray-on version of his signature style has influenced how we smell for nearly as many decades as his clothes have influenced how we dress. The first fragrance bearing the designer’s moniker launched in 1978. The one which has been the scent of more wedding days than a bouquet of roses, Ralph Lauren Romance, arrived 20 years ago in all of its rose, freesia, violet and lily glory. For  a more modern interpretation of femininity, try the 2017 creation, Ralph Lauren Woman, which is inspired by both the strength (sandalwood) and the softness (tuberose) of a woman.

Discover more of Ralph Lauren's latest collection