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IMAGES OF EMPIRE : Ralph Lauren's New Polo Store Stakes a Claim on Rodeo Drive

August 30, 1987|SUSAN PRICE | Susan Price is a Los Angeles writer and former fashion editor.

THIS MONTH RALPH Lauren opens a new Polo emporium, second in size and scope only to his flagship manor on New York's trendy Madison Avenue, bringing his "instant tradition" to the Los Angeles area. To many in the design community, the intriguing question was: How would Polo's aristocratic appeal be translated into a fantasy with which Rodeo Drive shoppers would identify?

Jerry Magnin, a silver-haired entrepreneur who personifies the preppy Polo look in chinos, horn-rimmed glasses and oxford shirt, has had the Los Angeles County Polo franchise since 1971. At that time his Polo menswear store opened one year after the launching of his adjacent Jerry Magnin store, which carried clothes by European designers. Both stores closed this month; the latter will re-open at a not-yet-disclosed location. "We needed more space," explains Magnin. It took years to find a larger location to accommodate a combined Polo menswear and women's-wear store, but last year he was able to obtain 17,000 square feet at 444 N. Rodeo Drive.

The East Coast Establishment, with its roots in Anglophilia, has always inspired the dreams of the upwardly mobile, and a wave of what has been dubbed "WASPmania" is currently sweeping the fashionable set in New York. However, Westerners are known for rejecting the past in favor of the future and admiring personal achievement more than bloodlines. Speculation around town was that Polo on Rodeo would find its inspiration in the old Hollywood aristocracy--photos of Darryl Zanuck and his star-studded polo team, for instance. "The thought never came up," Magnin states flatly. Other people surmised that the store would have a Santa Fe look, since many of Ralph Lauren's designs are inspired by the cowboy and Indian motifs of the West. "No, I don't see selling a business suit in an adobe house," Magnin says.

"The New York store is a British men's club in a big city, so ours should be a British men's club in a more casual environment--like the colonies of the British West Indies, India and Africa," Magnin says. Or as Buffy Birrittella, Polo's vice president of advertising and communications, puts it, "We didn't want the Los Angeles store to feel too grand. The relation between the New York and Los Angeles stores is more like the formality of London to the informality of Jamaica."

Why the colonies? "I think the atmosphere lends itself to the design of Ralph's clothes. I think people today like tradition in a world where relationships seem to be more casual and shallow," Magnin says.

Magnin credits his wife Lois with coming up with the British Colonial design concept a year ago when the creative team that put this project together--Birrittella, Direc tor of Creative Services Jeff Walker, architect Naomi Leff, Director of Polo Store Development Jerry Robertson and Magnin himself--met at poolside at his house in Malibu to brainstorm. "Lois said, 'Why don't we do something with a Colonial theme, like Clarence Dillon's house in Jamaica?' " he says. (Lauren had bought the Dillon house in Round Hill, Jamaica, a few years ago.) The team agreed, and back in New York Lauren gave it his imprimatur.

Then, for inspiration, the creative team began screening "Out of Africa," "Passage to India" and "The Jewel in the Crown" and reading books such as "Traditional Indian Architecture" and "The Raj." Leff and Birrittella then assembled "concept boards"--collages of mood shots of rooms and accessories (e.g., a photograph of a rose they wanted for the Beverly Hills store). The concept boards then went to Lauren for final selection and editing.

Leff made pencil sketches of the overall design with numbered locations for antiques, and the antique-hunting safari began. Jerry Magnin sent forth a dozen scouts to shop in more than a hundred warehouses in the United States and England. They shipped, by Magnin's estimate, 2,000-3,000 props back to warehouses in Los Angeles to be restored and "retrofitted" (converted to merchandise-display fixtures). The props included shepherds' crooks and a set of Louis Vuitton luggage dating back to 1870.

Building materials and ornamentation were manufactured, for the most part, in California. The creative team sought out local artisans to make the honey-toned mahogany shutters and paneling, the Georgian carved balustrade, the plaster moldings and columns, an "authentic" glassy-smooth stucco unlike the rougher Mexican style and a paver for the courtyard entry concocted with the traditional crushed shell and marble used in India. A marble entry was nixed by Lauren as "too glitzy" says Birrittella, who adds that Lauren also rejected a tomato-red room "because he thought it was 'trying too hard.' "

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