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The Good Life

For 30 years, Ralph Lauren has set the standard for American style. With two new, less pricey lines, he hopes to bring his classics to people who don't play polo.

September 12, 1996|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

It is all well and good for Ralph Lauren to say, "For me, what works are looks that go on forever."

But what about the men and women with private archives of his clothes, whose closet rods sag under the weight of the Indian blanket jacket with tooled silver buttons (1991), the collarless, striped silk shirt (1987), the suede jeans (1986), the Gatsby tuxedo (1974), the velvet debutante gown (1992) and Annie Hall tweed jacket (1977)? How much timeless style can a dedicated hoarder handle?

"We go through it every year--should we keep all this stuff at home or give it away?" says Jerry Magnin, who owns the Beverly Hills Ralph Lauren / Polo store. His wife and business partner, Lois, is the kind of natural beauty who dwells in Lauren's imagination when he creates. ("I always think about, 'Who's my girl? What does she look like? Who's she with?' " the designer says.) Ten years ago, Lois was with her newborn son and worrying about looking right in her new ankle-length black cashmere turtleneck dress. "I'll wear it again this year, I'm sure," she says. "With Ralph's clothes, I always wind up keeping them and I'm never sorry,"

Lauren fans understand classic clothes to be those things that never get stuffed into bags destined for the thrift shop. That's as good a definition as any, and it goes some distance toward explaining how Lauren has stayed at the forefront of American fashion, and been one of its greatest exporters, for almost 30 years.

No other 20th century American designer has been as influential as this perpetually tan, often sockless 56-year-old with the soft voice tinged by a New York accent. Would there be a Gap, a Banana Republic, a Talbot's, a J. Crew or Tommy Hilfiger if Lauren hadn't taken familiar American and British styles and presented them in worlds consumers longed to inhabit?

As casual style and the demand for value began to eclipse high fashion in most of the country in the late '80s, companies turned to Ralph Lauren, a master of relaxed yet luxurious clothes. When they aped his looks, from rugged to aristocratic, he was forced to expand his $4.4-billion business to recapture customers drawn to less expensive imitators. This year, he introduced two new lines: Polo Jeans Co., sportswear aimed at young men and women, and Lauren, traditional women's clothing priced lower than the top-of-the-line Collection.

English country estates, Western ski lodges and wind-swept Cape Cod beaches are the sets on which Lauren has always staged visually opulent, romantic fantasies. Those backdrops paved the way for new designs that stray far from the grand manor.

"I always see a movie running in my head," Lauren says during a recent interview in his baronial New York office. "The movie is not extreme. I'm the star of the movie and it's a vision of what a particular world represents to me. I love certain environments and a certain taste level."

In 1967, he named his company Polo, after the rich man's game, and revolutionized advertising by marketing a lifestyle to sell a product. The concept and its execution were bold. Until Lauren inserted bulky portfolios in magazines, atmospheric tableaux of an ideal world graced by handsome people (they looked more like well-bred families than mere models), fashion ads had been bought one page at a time.

"Everyone wants to reach for something a little higher," says Michael Gould, chairman and CEO of Bloomingdale's, which buys more from Lauren than any other supplier. "Part of Ralph's genius is he understood that life is aspirational."

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The first Polo shop opened in London in 1981, followed by sites in Beverly Hills and, five years later, Paris. Today, there are 130 Polo / Ralph Lauren stores worldwide, as well as boutiques within department stores across the country. The flagship store on Madison Avenue is in one of New York City's historic mansions, faithfully and lovingly restored. Its curved mahogany staircase has been duplicated on Rodeo Drive, where the soundtrack plays classical music, romantic standards and jazz. An irresistible clutter of props, artifacts from Lauren's dreams, nestle among the clothes.

"Manufacturers make products," he says. "I make dreams. When I was growing up, I wanted those dreams for myself. Now I live them. I don't see clothes. I see the world."

Getting dressed in the world Lauren sees isn't difficult. "He makes the perfect blazer, the perfect trouser, beautiful coats," says Saks Fifth Avenue President Rose Marie Bravo.

Lauren admits that he didn't originate these enduring wardrobe elements. "I was inspired by Brooks Brothers when I was a kid. I learned from them. I didn't create chinos. I didn't create loafers. I wasn't the first guy to do those things. There was a LaCoste shirt before there was a Polo shirt, and it was a classic. But it only came in four colors. I brought it out in 16 colors and used different fabric. I made a contribution by expanding ideas, expanding concepts and building a whole world in a different way."

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