Friday 22 September 2017

Suits you sir! Fashion guru Ralph is dressed for success

Fashion designer Ralph Lauren has come a long way from his poverty-stricken childhood in the Bronx, he tells our reporter

Billionaire businessman Ralph Lauren is a wonderful rags-to-riches story
Billionaire businessman Ralph Lauren is a wonderful rags-to-riches story

Lisa Armstrong

Opposite the soaring gold and glass of Trump Tower, and the phalanx of armed police and trellis of crash barriers that have reduced Fifth Avenue to two lanes, stands The Polo Bar, a favourite for fans of wholesome American food in soothing, dark-panelled surroundings, and the Polo Ralph Lauren store.

The latter may only be two years old, but like everything in the Lauren universe it represents a continuum of good taste. Roaring log fires, the studied eclecticism of Turkish rugs and Native American influences, tartan and lashings of equestrian references - these have become generics, in much the same way as Colefax and Fowler or shabby chic.

And, of course, there are the clothes. Hillary Clinton wore Ralph Lauren regularly during her presidential campaign. Lauren worked with her on sleek-ifying those pantsuits, notably the purple-lapelled one she wore to concede - in a speech that will surely go down in feminist history. ''I didn't know the significance of that colour,'' he admits [purple being a livery of the suffragette movement]. ''But Hillary's people did. I just knew it looked beautiful on her.''

Ralph Lauren taste is an incontrovertible article of faith it seems. Or, as Oprah Winfrey put it: ''How did I, a poor girl from rural Mississippi, come to equate monetary success with owning rows of white Ralph Lauren bath sheets?'' It is almost half a century since a 28-year-old Ralph Lauren dragged his vision - or more specifically a rack of ties - along 59th Street to Bloomingdale's. He didn't make the sale immediately. They wanted him to sell the ties under the brand Sutton East - a nod, presumably, to Sutton Place, an exclusive New York district. He was desperate for the contract, but not that desperate, and declined. It would be his name on the ties, or nothing. The self-belief was always there. ''I don't know where it came from,'' he says in his soft lilt. ''But I knew what I was doing was good because I wanted to wear it.''

He makes it sound simple. He may be the most intuitive designer I've ever interviewed. We are in Lauren's suite of offices, which lead off a double-height, galleried hall. Outside, New Yorkers are jittery. In here is serenity. We could be in a castle in Inverness rather than on the sixth floor of his Madison Avenue HQ.

His innermost sanctum is a delirious medley of his favourite things. Packed bookcases and squishy sofas I'd anticipated, and even the model shiny black vintage Bugatti [as a classic-car collector of some repute, he also owns the life-size version]. But not the teeny leather shoes lining a desk that doesn't look often-used [it's not - ''I've never been a desk worker,'' Lauren says], the deluxe leather-trimmed bicycle, or the twin teddy bears holding court on the coffee table. One wears a tuxedo and cowboy boots. The other, in denim, is aping what Lauren has on today, minus the ancient leather jacket the designer has layered over his denim. It is a genuinely old jacket, he clarifies. Not some artfully distressed one.

Everywhere you look are the famous. Photos of Lauren with Bill Clinton. With Diana, Princess of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge, Nancy Reagan [they bonded when he sat next to her at a White House dinner and discovered her father was a surgeon; he'd just recovered, in his late-40s, from a brain tumour]. And look! The Queen. How did this child of Eastern European immigrants, brought up in the Bronx with his nose firmly pressed up against the outside of Wasp America, come to embody it?

''I only ever absorbed the styles I loved,'' he says. Lauren's ability to sniff out the positive meant he detected the oncoming mania for an aristocratic aesthetic several years before the likes of Brideshead, and developed an androgynous women's look that just about pre-empted Annie Hall, which used some of his clothes for Diane Keaton's much-imitated wardrobe. ''I've always been able to feel the vibrations and the pulse of the world out there,'' he once said.

Growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s, androgyny and effete English aristos were not really an issue. ''There was almost an absence of taste at home,'' he says. His father, an artist who painted houses when times were tough, and his mother, a homemaker, with three sons and a daughter to feed and educate, were not the types to plump up stripy cushions on their bed because as the world knows the Art of the Bed was another Ralph Lauren invention.

He never really thought he was going to be a fashion designer. Initially he studied at a religious Jewish school, but at 16 he found a Saturday job in a clothes store and styled himself 'sort of preppy', based on the endless movies he saw and the books he read. Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn - these were his idols. ''I always had a sense of glamour and what it should look like.'' What he didn't know was how it should feel. That came later, when ''silks and wools would come in from Europe, and I would touch them,'' he says. ''There wasn't anything like that being made in America at that time. We were good at sportswear, but we didn't have craft or a real sense of luxury. There was a lot of polyester.''

By now he had met Ricky, a beautiful blonde, whom he married when he was 25 and she was 19. They decorated their first apartment, a $90-a-month shoebox in the Bronx. ''My father painted the walls to look like wood.'' No absence of taste, then, merely of money. And that soon changed. Pretty soon the Laurens moved to an apartment in Manhattan, followed in due course to an early 20th-century manor in Bedford, New York. He launched childrenswear after Ricky returned from a shopping trip disheartened by the poor-quality kids' clothes on offer. Womenswear was another reflex, because he wanted Ricky to be dressed in the kind of clothes they both liked - relaxed, understated and timeless.

The entire family still wears his clothes most of the time. They are extremely close - on the way out I meet his son David, the company's chief innovation officer and vice chairman. According to Lauren's telling, it all - business, family, multiple accolades - proceeded without a bump. In 1983, he acquired the lease on the Rhinelander, a magnificent 19th-century Edith-Wharton-esque mansion in Manhattan. Lauren lavished what was widely reported to be $15m on restoring its 20,000sq ft to glory. In a Wharton novel this would have been an act of fabulous hubris, but the store thrived. He opened an equally grand womenswear shop across the road. Drifting between the room-sets of these two vast emporia you could almost forget you were in an actual shop. ''You know how you go to some museums and think, 'I wish I could buy that?"' Lauren says.

Almost everything, including a futuristic-looking black pool table is for sale. It strikes me in 2017, when a jumpy fashion industry is constantly debating the importance of creating an experience for the retail consumer, that Lauren got there decades ago. I wonder what he hears now, when he takes the world's pulse. ''Nervousness. These are difficult times. I think that means that certain core institutions, like the preppy, are as relevant as ever.''

Touché. The past two years have been, to put it mildly, challenging for the Ralph Lauren behemoth. Sales have slowed recently.

The customer is confused, runs this argument. There is too vast a disconnect between the gorgeous gloss of the campaigns and the Rhinelander, and the out-of-town outlets selling those polo shirts.

If anything, Lauren seems reinvigorated by this latest twist. A year ago he hired Stefan Larsson, an alumnus of Old Navy and H&M, as CEO. The only previous occupant of that role was Lauren himself. ''I realised there were things I couldn't do. This is a $7bn-a-year company. The industry has changed so much. The internet is complicated. I met Stefan and we clicked immediately.''

Together, Lauren and Larsson have embarked on an ambitious turnaround, ''streamlining the business, getting rid of lines we shouldn't have, making the core stronger''.

They have launched Icons, a 40-piece collection of Ralph-ified perennials - impeccable women's tuxedos, double-breasted tweed coats and suede jackets. They're also opening more Polo Ralph Lauren stores like the one facing Trump Tower and the new flagship on London's Regent Street. These mid-priced yet aspirational honeytraps are part of a strategy to build a bridge between the seductive swank of the Rhinelander and those polo shirts. There may be more Ralph Lauren restaurants (there is also one in Paris, and in Chicago), because the other thing the vibrations are telling him is that in troubled times, food is always a safe bet. There could be hotels. But this radical upending of the normal industry structure sounds like a logistical nightmare. ''Yes, but it wasn't horrible. It was exciting, like turning round to the industry and saying, 'Look, we can still do it'. It's early days, but it's better than putting the clothes out then waiting six months before you can sell them while other people knock you off.''

In other words, he's ready for it.

Sunday Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Life