got a little teary-eyed at Ralph Lauren’s 50th Anniversary show. I overheard others say they did too, but how could we not? It was dramatic and emotional and Oprah was in the room and the theme song from Dances With Wolves played as Ralph Lauren himself walked down the stairs following over 100 looks worn by women, men and children (some of whom held hands, just stomping on my feelings), and it felt like one of those moments you remember forever.
We’ll get to the clothes, but first: before finding ourselves settled, and after the cocktail party where guests in black tie clinked glasses and mingled (before that: trollies brought arriving guests from Central Park’s entry to the venue, like at a wedding), an army of handsome elbows appeared to help anyone who might be in need of assistance down a romantic stone staircase and into the tiled arcade of Bethesda Terrace. The space itself is already something to marvel at when empty and on its own, but it had been transformed into a Ralph Laur-ian palace that was both magnificent and comfortable by way of velvety cushions to sit on, and soft carpets underfoot.
Oprah was there, which I already told you, as was Hillary Clinton, Tracee Ellis Ross (walked right by me, looked amazing), Robert Di Niro, Martha Stewart, Kanye West, Anderson Cooper, and that’s just the celebrity beginning. I’m not easily starstruck, and I’m used to seeing famous faces at shows, but this many at once in the same room added a thicker layer of surrealism. On top of that, all together in one front row sat Vera Wang, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Michael Kors. Carolina Herrera and Diane Von Furstenberg were also in attendance. American fashion icons. Speaking of:
The clothes. I’m a biased party here; the whole Ralph Lauren thing has, for a very long time, been right up my personal aspirational dressing ally — in high school I remember snagging a white cable knit from a Ralph Lauren outlet and feeling as though I had made it. But this show wasn’t all sweaters and polos (it never is, though). Between the velvets and the tweed and the suede and the leather, the knits and the gold embroidery and the early 2000s patchwork, not to mention the dangling victorian jewelry and the puffy ski-wear, the term “preppy” didn’t cut it thick enough here, even if paired with a hyphen and a Western or alpine descriptor. Instead, they were so distinctly Ralph Lauren that it’s clear their namesake designer has created a genre all his own.
Each look was styled with an eye for texture-layering like that of an interior designer; it’s as if the models wore lived-in, love-filled rooms, not outfits. Or maybe they wore books — wild adventures starring cowboys, set in Colorado, or love stories centered around Ivy League college kids in the 80s. Maybe they wore the rooms in which you read those kinds of books.
I’m an easy cry in my old age, but I think the soundtrack is partially what did me in: a song called “New York is my Home” made me feel guilty for recently feeling “over” the city, followed by “Where’s My Love” (by SYML, featuring Lily Kershaw), which is just pretty. Then a Bob Dylan number started up that Ralph-y Americana sentiment: “She Belongs To Me”; followed by Bruce Springsteen’s “Secret Garden,” “Homecoming” by Josh Ritter, and by Neil Diamond’s (no relation, unfortunately) “America” and “Forever in Blue Jeans.” It was a playlist for my nostalgia of lives I myself haven’t actually lived, but feel as though I have just from being a longtime fan of Ralph Lauren.
After the show and before the dinner, as we sat at candle-lined tables under tents that surrounded Bethesda Fountain, Oprah gave a speech to celebrate Ralph Lauren, and offered up an anecdote about how visiting a fancy friend’s pool when she was young led her to associate Ralph Lauren towels with success. (Years later, when Barbara Walters visited Oprah’s home for an interview and asked what she’d done to celebrate her success, Oprah showed Barbara Walters her Ralph Lauren-filled linen closet.) To Oprah, they represented luxury, warmth and comfort. “You inspire us to be elevated to a higher sense of beauty,” she told him, and then commended him on his unwavering and holistic integrity.
Then she thanked him: “for bedazzling us all these years.”
When it was Ralph Lauren’s turn to speak, he told the crowd, “I’m not so glamorous, you know.” Everyone laughed as he described himself in a ripped robe. He then went on to credit his success with his team, and his family. He was kind and funny and charming and humble, and the lot of us craned our necks to get even just a little bit closer. Not that I know him now, not that I knew him when he went by Ralph Lifshitz back in his Bronx-raised days, either, but as he made some joke about how this evening made him look much bigger than he was in reality, and as I thought about young Oprah equating his towels with “making it,” or me at 17 desperately wanting that polo pony on my chest to prove something, I realized that so much of the magic of this storybook world he created from his wildest dreams is in the fact that he doesn’t just keep the dreams to himself. He invites you in.
Feature photos by Pietro D’aprano/FilmMagic and Randy Brooke via Getty Images.