Ralph Lauren on Why Being “In” Isn’t Everything

Leandra interviews the iconic designer

09.13.17

It is easy to get caught up in Ralph Lauren’s world — to think you can belong, even become one of its regulars. You know this if you have ever walked into one of the shops, or dined at one of the restaurants. There’s a narrow focus, an incredibly straightforward attention to detail and an intoxicating, aspirational energy about all of it that makes you think: I could be this person.

But when you are literally and rather intimately invited into his world, a car garage he keeps near his home in Bedford, New York, that sense of getting caught up completely changes.

Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images.

The way we talk about fashion today, like it is a broken system in dire need of fixing that will require radical ideas — a revolution! — to make it come alive again, is a little hyperbolic. The beacon of change among a landfill of garments is coming out of the brands that are committed to developing communities alongside their labels, the ones that insist the lifestyle that correlates with the brand is just as important as (if not more important than) the product itself. This attention to community, to bringing the customer in and creating a viable lifestyle, is being touted as the new way to build a successful business in fashion. But this concept is not at all new. It is a page pulled directly from a playbook written by Ralph Lauren.

“I’ve never felt what I did was about fashion, about being in,” he told me a day before his runway show. “What I do has always been inspired by living.” I took that to mean being true to yourself, which speaks nicely to very popular advice that is often doled out at the familiar intersection of existentially confused and what-should-I-do-next: Listen to your gut, be honest about it.

For Fall 2017, that instinct took over 300 guests 46 miles out of Manhattan in the thick of fashion week. “Choosing the location to present your collection is a little bit like a playwright choosing the right theater to present his or her play,” Mr. Lauren said.

“After you’ve worked so hard to create your collection, you want your audience to experience it in the perfect environment. It was a few months ago, during one of our design meetings that the idea came up to actually show this collection with my car collection. I had a vision of how the clothes would come alive and connect themselves to the speed, style and beauty of those racing machines.”

Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images.

What’s interesting is that nary a sigh was to be heard among the guests, who seemed genuinely enthused and even energized, to be out of the city.

As for the collection, it was exactly what you might expect from Ralph Lauren: never old, never new, signature Ralph with its houndstooth tailoring and smoking loafers and the layers of organza and slinky, rhinestone-adorned dresses.

But that was beside the point. As I sat and observed his peers: Diane von Furstenberg and Donna Karan, and his friends: Diane Keaton and Katie Holmes, and his family sitting around the uniquely opaque display of wealth baked into his car collection, a byproduct of the remarkable brand he built out of being inspired by living, I wondered if what made last night so special was the designer’s underlying tale of inspiration. Here ambitious and talented and excited designers are courageously putting everything they know on the line to launch their own brands in spite of the tumultuously uncertain and rapidly changing climate. But maybe it’s worth it.

“Never look over your shoulder. Never follow,” Ralph Lauren said when I asked what advice he would give to a younger version of himself starting in fashion now. “Believe in yourself, but always listen. Be inspired by what you love, and who you love. Travel, take it all in, but always come home and create out of your personal living.”

And never underestimate, I would add, the power of building a truly great brand.

Runway photos by Milk Digital; feature photo courtesy of Ralph Lauren.

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