Back in 2000 a fashion designer decided to donate $13m to the Smithsonian’s American Museum of Natural History Institute in Washington in order to preserve the Star Spangled Banner - the original, hand sewn ‘old glory’.
This may, at first, seem like a strange gesture, or a clever publicity stunt, until one learns that the designer was Ralph Lauren. It may seem stranger still given recent controversy over his company’s designs for the US Olympic team, which were found to have been made in China.
But, a gaff though it may have been, that is more suggestive of his brand’s planet-wide reach today than a lack of patriotism. Certainly, few of the global fashion players can lay claim to being so closely identified with their national culture than Lauren.
He has built a multi-billion dollar empire - it has a market capitalisation of $13bn and he is worth some $5.8bn at the last count - by purveying essence of the American sartorial experience, one which has resolutely focused not on fashion but on clothes, not on trends but on moods.
Its wide appeal is such that it is also one of the most extensively counterfeited designer brands, to the extent that Lauren’s company has opened manufacturing bases in many of the worst culprit countries in a bid to persuade governments to take action against these copyists.
Imitation may be the best kind of flattery perhaps and, in his instance at least, has not dented the popularity of his take on good dressing. Indeed, the Council of Fashion Designers of America have bestowed on him not just the Menswear Designer of the year award, but its ultimate gong, the Lifetime Achievement Award.
That probably means a lot to Lauren, now 72, with his son David - who drives the company’s pioneering e-commerce and multi-media efforts - groomed to take over. If not yet - earlier this year Ralph Lauren signed a new five year contract with what has been a public company now for 15 years, seeing him stay on as chairman and CEO until 2017.
Small wonder when in spring the company also reported a 20% increase in profits and has seen in share price double in the last two years. “There are very few designers who have Ralph Lauren’s genius when it comes to envisioning and controlling every aspect and expression of their brand,” as US Vogue’s editor Anna Wintour has noted.
Indeed, despite his huge sales success, his career has been blighted with critics’ comments to the effect that Lauren is no designer, rather little more than a stylist. Certainly Lauren may not have radicalised fashion with sweeping seasonal changes, but his singular vision has transformed the fashion industry and, more importantly, the way we consume clothes.
Arguably Lauren’s was the first true lifestyle brand; not only in the sense of pioneering a hyper-real, WASPish and above all aspirational sensibility through grand, cinematic advertising campaigns (albeit one very real to his own ‘romantic cowboy meets wood-panelled aristo’ lifestyle) but one that took a way of life from the shirt on your back to the fabric on your sofa or the colour of your walls.
If you need a testament to Lauren’s eye for detail, consider the 68 or so shades of white that his paint range offers. Living out of the limelight, elusive and reticent, he might seem as well-marketed as his goods: Lauren, after all, was born Ralph Lipschitz in the Bronx to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, though it was his older brother who changed the family name.
Certainly, the Ralph Lauren style has shaped our conception of Americana as much Americana has shaped him. Even as a child, in part out of will, in part because he had two older brothers who would hand down clothing, Lauren developed a dislike of wearing anything that looked new.
Even then, the young Lauren liked clothing that was embodied a sense of history, wearing vintage clothing before the idea of such was conceived. With this conception of fashion firmly entrenched and a born self-stylist, it was perhaps inevitable that clothing would be his calling: his first job was packing gloves; he worked for Brooks Brothers; he became a salesman and then designer for a Boston tie manufacturer; and finally launched his own line of ties under the Polo label 45 years ago this year, against the grain of more boho trends at the time.
The polo pony logo followed in 1972 and with it the ubiquitous polo shirt. Unlike the Italian fashion giants, Lauren did not peddle sexiness so much as an old Hollywood glamour, one, indeed, that saw the brand cloth Robert Redford and cast in the movie of The Great Gatsby.
“I want my clothes to combine ruggedness, purity and non-fashion, a philosophy of living. And the secret is to keep the character but do it with class,” Lauren has said. “I was always designing American clothes for American men and women.”
And it is because Lauren has managed to stay close to his consumer - despite the vast organisation he heads up, his wealth, his collection of 70 classic cars, the mansions in Manhattan and Long Beach, Bedford, the holiday home in Jamaica, the ranch in Colorado, the picture perfect family straight from central casting - that his brand has not only had longevity but arguably become iconic.
According to one account, whenever there is deadlock in design meetings, Lauren takes the debated fabric swatches or samples and walks down to the lobby to ask the opinion of the first passer-by.
That may sound like PR flannel. Then again, this writer was once with a friend in one of Lauren’s New York stores when she was approached by a slight but handsome white-haired man and asked what she thought of the clothes.
“They’re great, but too expensive,” she replied honestly, oblivious to her questioner’s identity. Ralph Lauren nodded sagely and thanked her for her time.
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