Q&A: Ralph Lauren Now

In a talk with WWD, the designer discussed his increased focus on luxury, global challenges in a volatile world and (a little bit) the matter of succession.

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Ralph Lauren on the fall runway.

Photo By Giovanni Giannoni

Ralph Lauren RTW Fall 2014

Photo By Steve Eichner

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Collections issue 04/14/2014

“I’m Batman…I’ve been Batman for a long time, so people give me Batman gifts.”

So says a playful Ralph Lauren, noting the Dark Knight effigy keeping company with perhaps hundreds of desktop coconspirators—dolls (some action figures, some of the creepy retro variety), model planes, cowboy and Indian miniatures on horseback. Lauren said he loves the toys and trinketry, that they inspire him “for my own life, not necessarily about work. They’re about living.” There’s archenemy the Joker; Edward Scissorhands, a gift from Steven Spielberg, and Captain Jack Sparrow, who merited a winning sartorial critique: “I like the style; I like the boots.” A spiffy Forties (or could it be Seventies?) tartan platform shoe is small enough to have been a sales model. Two wacky flying contraptions—one plane, one bicycle—purchased long ago in SoHo hang from the ceiling. A stockman decked out in a hand-painted paper suit jacket and vest made by Lauren’s nephew Greg Lauren stands in front of the window. On the floor, countless framed photos and other artwork rest three deep along the wall. There’s also a spit-and-polish model of Lauren’s Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, one of two such cars in the world, and a late-model Batmobile.

Lauren doesn’t explain when he became Batman, or who bestowed the distinction. But it makes sense that of all the superheroes out there, the one to whom he most relates boasts no superhuman assets. Bruce Wayne’s dynamic masked alter ego can’t leap tall buildings or convert absorbed solar energy into show-off strength; he has no retractable claws. Rather, he’s full-on human, a guy who channeled drive and ample natural talents into superhuman success.

Speaking of which, the ubersuccessful Ralph Lauren company, currently trading at $158.64 a share, with a market capitalization of $14.2 billion as of April 4, will mark its 50th anniversary in 2017. It’s a success story rooted in part in the founder’s well-documented fascination with refined living, elegant and glamorous. To that end, his original inspirations—not Batman and the various celluloid incarnations of Johnny Depp, but icons of the glory days of Hollywood—continue to inform his work. That real-life glamour set gets its due in his bright white bathroom. Ralph with Audrey Hepburn. Ralph with Princess Diana. Ralph with Cary Grant. Frank Sinatra alone, with the inscription, “Love the ties; they’re smashing.”

As the inner-sanctum tour continues, Lauren reminisces. Once, Steve Ross, then-Warner Brothers (“it wasn’t Time-Warner yet”) chair, threw a fashion week party in his honor. “We were all sitting around a table, a lot of guests, from my brothers to friends to Carrie Donovan and John Fairchild, Tony Perkins and his wife. I sat next to Barbara Sinatra and Sinatra sat next to Ricky, and he was talking to her all night. It was amazing.” Lauren left the table, walked to the room where the pianist played, and started to sing “a little bit. And Frank walks in and wanted the mic and I wouldn’t give it to him. Then I did and he sang. It was like a dream night.”

Sinatra wasn’t the only Lauren idol to pull artistic rank. The photo with Grant triggers detailed musings on the relationship that developed after the two almost met at a Neiman’s event in Dallas. “Bill [Blass] says to me, ‘There’s Cary Grant.’ We didn’t stare but Bill says, ‘He’ll come over.’ He walked right by, so we missed the chance.” Some time later, a friend of the actor asked Lauren to send Grant some ties. “I sent him some Cary Grant ties. I never thought I’d hear from him and all of a sudden, my secretary goes, ‘Cary Grant is on the phone. He’s going to call you at 3 o’clock.’” The two got to know each other. During a visit to Lauren’s showroom, Grant “started a conversation about lapels. And he was talking about ‘Dougie’—‘Dougie’ was Douglas Fairbanks Jr.—and these people and their clothes. It was amazing.”

Not just their clothes. In L.A. for the opening of his Beverly Hills store, Lauren received a last-minute invitation from Grant to go to the racetrack. “I told him I had on jeans and a blazer and he said, ‘You can’t wear that.’” After a quick trip to the store for some proper flannels, the two took off to the track—in Grant’s Buick.

Yet for all the delightful recollections, Lauren’s primary focus is on the future—a point made loud and clear this season. Lauren staged one of fall’s most unexpected shows when he presented two lines back to back, preceding his Collection, a treatise on tony glamour, with the launch of Polo Women’s. The last-minute move surprised because, let’s face it, even many longtime industry types didn’t know that, until that point, there was no Polo Women’s.

Such are the power and clarity of the Lauren aesthetic: We had an image of a collection that didn’t exist. For Polo, Lauren worked what he called a “cool eclectic spirit,” drawing on his preppy-tweedy-Southwestern ranges. It positively charmed. It also made for one more example of the perpetual motion of the powerful Ralph Lauren machine. In a talk with WWD, Lauren discussed that launch, his increased focus on luxury, global challenges in a volatile world and (a little bit) the matter of succession.

WWD: There’s so much going on at Ralph Lauren right now, not the least of which is the Polo Women’s launch. Why now?
Ralph Lauren:
When I started Polo I never thought I would go into women’s. I was a young salesman working for a tie company and I just had an idea for the ties and I always had a sense of style and things that I loved. What happened was I made some women’s shirts and I showed them to Bloomingdale’s—they would buy everything, they were supportive. I made the shirts very skinny with the little pony on the cuff. And [Bloomingdale’s] said, “What else can you do?”
WWD: And?
I came out with men’s clothes for women. I made tweed pants, I made tweed jackets, I made V-neck sweaters. Sort of Katharine Hepburn-esque. English men’s wear for women.…So that was my vision. Bloomingdale’s gave me a shop right by YSL. That was the beginning of my clothes. I called it “Ralph Lauren” because women wanted the designer name; Polo was too masculine.

Going forward, people called some things Polo and I realized that I have a great brand in Polo. I thought that this was a business I can really develop. I have Blue Label, Black Label and Collection. Blue was my women’s preppy stuff. I felt Blue Label didn’t have enough of a collection [identity] and I was trading up my whole brand. So I decided to make the [move to] Polo, and [start to build] freestanding stores. And that’s the reason for it. And I thought Fifth Avenue was the right spot, not Madison.

WWD: Why now? It’s been a long time since that first shop at Bloomingdale’s.
People were asking me, like my daughter would walk in to a store and say, “I want all of the things that are just for men. I want those plaid shirts. I want those jackets.” Blue Label was not sophisticated enough for where I was going.

WWD: Please explain.
All of a sudden Blue Label looked like Ralph Lauren’s less-expensive line. It needed an identity. So I thought that this is a good time to do Polo, and that the growth potential was fantastic. I built some men’s stores but I didn’t build men’s and women’s. I didn’t put them together. And that’s why I did it. I felt like I was ignoring a whole business that was sophisticated.

The girl who lives downtown, she’s not the mother who lives in Connecticut, she’s a with-it, working girl. The way I’m doing it, it’s hipper.

WWD: You went back and forth about whether to put Polo women’s on the runway, ultimately deciding yes. Were you pleased with the result?
I was happy with the way it turned out. It could have been a disaster; it could’ve made the Collection weaker because it could’ve been too many clothes. We talked about it. I wanted to make a statement about the brand. I felt I had one chance while all of the stores are in town, so I better do it.

When you run it down the runway, [retailers] see it as special. In the store, they see it as they’ve laid it out. When it walks the runway, it’s like, “This is it.” So I think I achieved what I wanted to, [while marking] the difference [from] Collection. After all these years, I’ve been known for both, you know, “Oh Ralph Lauren, he’s sporty, tweedy, preppy.” I was sort of caricatured. I wanted to establish a real statement about what Polo is and for whom, and to make a strong statement about Collection and what that was about. There are two worlds.

WWD: You’ve said that you think of fashion as art. Do you think about that when you’re working on a collection?
R.L.: Honestly, I say, “How do I do this?” I don’t even know where it’s coming from because I do a lot of things. There’s a world of beautiful things that are more commercial, they’re more available. And then there’s a world of things that the piece feels like art. When you have to create something, it’s got to hit you emotionally. For me, I’m making a movie. I think maybe a lot of people say, “Why is he doing that? Why does he do themes?” I don’t do themes. I need the inspiration, I need [a thought] that tells me how to move because I have a lot to do. I’m not just sitting there dreaming of Collection all day. I have 15 million things to do.

Building something strong and big is one thing, but building it in different worlds is another. RRL, Polo, Collection—totally different. How do you do all of those and make it work? Because I work; I’m not just floating around.

WWD: I don’t think anyone thinks you are.
But you know, people say, “Does Ralph really do all of that?” That’s what I do.

WWD: Rei Kawakubo once told WWD she finds it harder to do new things because she’s already done so much. Do you find it increasingly difficult to do new things?
It takes more out of me to really come up with something. Now it’s like, “What does Collection look like? What does Black Label look like? What does Polo look like? What does RRL look like?” I find it exciting and interesting and I find it scary.

WWD: Exciting, interesting, scary—really?
Exactly, I worry about it. I worry about it every minute. It’s like having a term paper to do…now it’s pre-fall and pre-spring and regular spring.

WWD: How important is the runway today?
The runway is one of the many ways to express clothes. For Collection, the excitement of live models, the excitement of how to show your clothes—people are excited to see how they look...there’s a clarity when you put it on the runway. The stores are there, the editors are there; it has an effect. No matter how many times I show a [men’s] presentation and everyone says, “I love it,” still, some young guy will say, “Why don’t you do a fashion show?”....The question is [how to show].

In Europe they do a spectacular showcase and it’s mind-boggling. Is that the only way someone should show? Does everything else look weak after something like that? So I think there are a lot of questions about shows. Should a show be small or should it be killer knock-down? You go to Europe and the big names have huge shows. Being that theatrical, is that helping the designer? It makes it interesting. It’s fun, and on some levels it’s very entertaining. Does it really make you want to buy the clothes? You know who’s good and who’s not, and they can express it any way they want to.

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