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It's The Ultimate Director's Cut

Ralph Lauren's life and his carefully scripted career have always had a cinematic side. With his design franchise as strong as ever, he's still in complete control.

December 16, 2007|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Ralph LAUREN'S mahogany-paneled headquarters on Madison Avenue is more Old England than Old Hollywood. But hanging near the doorway to the designer's inner sanctum is one of his most prized possessions: a photo of Clark Gable, James Stewart and Gary Cooper -- with Lauren's face superimposed into the scene.

There's no doubt Lauren thinks of himself as a movie star in the studio-system mold. But unlike his idols, he never breaks character. Fiercely protective of his art-directed image, he is more controlling than the most difficult A-lister, demanding that interviews and photos be conducted on his terms, if he agrees to them at all. You don't build the most successful American luxury brand in history, with more than $4 billion in revenue, by letting a photographer snap your bad side.

At age 68, Lauren is at a critical juncture in his career. In June, he received the first Fashion Legend award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, presented by Oprah Winfrey no less. In October, Rizzoli published a comprehensive book on his work, lavishly illustrated with photographs from his cinematic collections and advertising campaigns, which themselves have become part of American iconography, even as they reference icons such as American flags, cowboys, quilting circles and such upwardly mobile characters as Jay Gatsby.

But the future is uncertain. Just how does a brand go on without the person who so defines it? And how does Lauren go about selling American ideals around the world when those ideals are increasingly ringing hollow?

His 40th-anniversary show in September would have been an easy exit. He rented out the Conservatory Garden in Central Park and hosted a who's who of New York -- Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Martha Stewart, Sarah Jessica Parker -- for a lavish runway show and dinner party. Instead of looking back, he looked forward, reinventing the polo shirt and jodhpurs for a new generation, crystal studded and candy colored.

For now, Lauren is charging ahead. He's opening stores around the world and considers himself an ambassador, and not just for his company. At a recent spate of store openings in Moscow, he says he was greeted warmly. ("It's not the people, it's the politics" is his way of explaining how he continues to sell American ideals.) And in February, he will launch a lower-priced American Living brand of apparel and home furnishings at JC Penney.

In between it all, he dreams of making a real movie or becoming a photographer. But there's always another collection. "Even just walking up the stairs coming into this office, I said, 'Oh, Jesus.' It's 40 years of doing this, and it gets bigger and more diverse," he says. "It's exciting, and it's what I wanted. But this is a public company, and I have to perform. I have to keep going. And the question is: How do you keep going and stay current? How do you stay current in a changing world when you are constantly turning everything upside-down?"

Lauren showed up for a recent interview wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, with a rodeo-sized silver belt buckle dominating his small frame. His office is the one modern spot in otherwise antique-looking headquarters, which resemble the Rhinelander Mansion that Lauren converted into his New York flagship in 1983. We sit around a glass coffee table with photographs and mementos scattered about, including a 50th-birthday card his kids made for him, dusted with glitter. Soft-spoken, he is at ease talking about his achievements and eager to impress. But in the background, there always seems to be a nagging pressure and a bit of self-doubt.

We had agreed to talk about films and how they've influenced his work. As it turns out, he's no expert, having just seen the 1939 style classic "The Women" for the first time. But like all good Hollywood honchos, myth-making is at his core.

An almost scripted life

By now, his back story is well-known. It could be a movie itself, a rags-to-riches epic. He grew up poor in the Bronx, the youngest of four born to Frank and Frieda Lifshitz. He wanted to be an actor but, he says, didn't think he was good-looking enough. But he always had style.

"I'm not a fashion person," Lauren says. "But for my sense of myself, it was important."

Not that it was about fitting in, because Lauren didn't dress like everybody else. One senses it was a way for him to stand out. He may not have been the fastest runner or the highest test scorer, but he was probably the best dresser. "I was into Army surplus. I liked rugged things. I liked washed-out jeans when nobody cared about them."

After graduating, he went to work at Brooks Brothers, then for Beau Brummell, a necktie manufacturer. He wanted his own line of wider ties in higher-end fabrics. His bosses reluctantly agreed, giving him a drawer in the showroom in the Empire State Building. He called the line Polo and did $500,000 of sales his first year. He was 28.

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