Ralph Lauren, designer of the American Dream, honored by the Smithsonian

Designer Ralph Lauren was honored Tuesday at the National Museum of American History, where he received the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal for his patriotism, entre­pre­neur­ship, and philanthropy. (AP)

The American Dream, with all its promise, may have gotten threadbare and worn around the edges, but it still has the power to bring one of its most public champions to tears.

Designer Ralph Lauren’s climb to the top of the fashion industry began in 1967 with a few fistfuls of ties and continued on into a billion-dollar success with clothes that reflect both the expansive West and the Gatsbyesque East.

No other fashion firm has been as adept at defining the American Dream in swatches of luxurious fabric, discreet hemlines and painterly hues.

On Tuesday morning, Lauren was in Washington, dressed in a banker’s navy pinstripe suit with a crisp white shirt and slim navy tie with tiny white polka dots. He was at the National Museum of American History — surrounded by his siblings, his three children, his wife, Ricky, and a battalion of his company’s executives — to receive the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal for his patriotism, entrepreneurship and philanthropy.

The ceremony was punctuated by a multitude of flags, glossy stories about what it means to be an American, bluegrass music by Della Mae and unfettered idealism. But all that sugary symbolism was made bracingly real by the accompanying naturalization of 15 new American citizens, each representing a different country from Australia to Sierra Leone.

If there was any literate soul unaware that his company, Ralph Lauren Corp., was one steeped in the mythology of Americana, that connection was made plain in 1998. Back then, Lauren — a diminutive gentleman with a trim physique and wiry white hair — had stood in this same atrium, alongside first lady Hillary Clinton to acknowledge his donation of $13 million to save and protect “The Star-Spangled Banner” and educate the public about its history. The flag, measuring 30-feet-by-42-feet, originally flew over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in 1814 and inspired the national anthem. It had been on near continuous display for 91 years, eventually hanging in the Museum of American History, where it had fallen into extreme disrepair. Lauren’s gift to restore it, part of Clinton’s “Save America’s Treasures” campaign, was — at the time — the largest corporate donation made to the Smithsonian Institution.

“The flag is my country,” Lauren said Tuesday. “A lot of American [designers] were looking to Europe for inspiration. I was looking for it in America. I was looking in the West, the Adirondacks. I know what it is to see the Rocky Mountains. Every country has their beautiful things. But I knew this country.”

Sixteen years later, Lauren was back on stage alongside Clinton, a singular figure sheathed in a Ralph Lauren cobalt blue silk pantsuit, who recalled that earlier gift and celebrated Lauren’s vision of aspiration and self-invention.

Before accepting his award, Lauren watched as the group of new citizens took the Oath of Allegiance. And when they finished, the new Americans quietly cheered and waved tiny red, white and blue flags. The designer joined a receiving line to congratulate them, one that included Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security, who had administered the oath, G. Wayne Clough, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and Clinton, who was being trailed by a watchful, Twitter-twitchy political press retinue.

The freshly minted citizens were presented certificates of naturalization from Johnson. Clinton handed out hearty handshakes. And Lauren provided the crowd of about 100 with gift bags, which included a Star-Spangled Banner commemorative baseball cap (with the embroidered inscription: “Generously Supported by Ralph Lauren”). America loves a little swag.

It was the story of those immigrants, their striving — and how it mirrored Lauren’s own story — that brought tears to his eyes. “It was emotional,” Lauren said after the ceremony. The night before, he’d gone with his family to the Lincoln Memorial. He’d awakened Tuesday morning at his hotel and he’d seen the White House across the street and an American flag blowing. And then, on stage at the museum, he was reminded of his own immigrant parents, who had come from Belarus.

He remembered watching his mother prepare to take her own citizenship test. “When you have people talking about the flag and America and you hear immigrants planning a new life, I was touched,” he said. “I know what that was like.”

For almost 50 years, Lauren’s business plan has focused on selling his vision of the American Dream, his fantasy of what it means to be wealthy and not merely rich. It has been a steady success. When his company went public in 1997, the stock traded at $26 a share; as of Tuesday afternoon, it was at $155. Lauren succeeded with an unwavering vision that has made his company a marvel of longevity.

Along the way, it has been nicked by the occasional bit of bad press: when critics accused him of creating a rarified world that was unwelcoming to minorities or of excessively Photoshopped female perfection. His collections have sometimes been reviewed poorly in the fashion press. But Lauren perseveres, secure in the knowledge that what he’s selling has nothing to do with trends, fashion or, really, even something as mundane as the seasonal shift in clothes. And people not only embrace it, they aspire to it.

“I always had this dream as a little child. I’d see [advertisements in] magazines with cowboys and the Wild West and the big cities. I started thinking about what I wanted,” said Thomas Wolf, 30, who was born in northern Italy and became an American citizen Tuesday. “I read this story about Ralph Lauren in Vanity Fair and him coming out of the Bronx and being what he is now. Everyone’s not going to be a multimillionaire, but you can come here and raise a family, buy a house and get a good job.”

Lauren’s aesthetic has been defined by five essential tropes: sailing, equestrians, cowboys, flappers and safaris. And over the decades he has rarely strayed from them. He has “freshened” his sensibility, notes Amy Shea, a New York-based fashion industry consultant. But he has never changed it. In the capable hands of Lauren, the American Dream remains the same as it has always been.

Lauren’s company represents the purest example of lifestyle dressing, creating a world, not just selling everything from business suits to bedding.

“He believes in offering what he calls ‘the dream’ to all different kinds of people and at different incomes,” said Robert Burke, a retail consultant who worked at the design house from 1988 to 1999. “If you’re shopping at Macy’s, you want an experience just as much as if you’re in one of his own stores.”

Lauren sells a consistent experience. In his advertising, he loves to present his sportswear and his evening clothes in action or in context, not just free-floating against a minimalist backdrop. He packages them in a way that allows both loyal customers and potential ones to glimpse the rarefied life into which those products seamlessly fit. This sort of “emotional branding,” Shea said, doesn’t focus on a singular handbag or a certain pair of shoes. It emphasizes the murky, hard-to-describe idea of what it feels like to own those products. Lauren’s work captures our communal yearning to peer over all those ivy-covered fieldstone walls.

“He’s talking about life and what it feels like to live a certain way,” Shea said. “It took fashion brands a long time to realize they were selling an experience.” Lauren led the way.

The American Dream, as expressed by Lauren, has endured despite being remarkably old-fashioned. It is discreet and reserved and charmingly decorous. The designer — the embodiment of his own brand — has steadfastly controlled his public image, refusing to succumb to the everything-is-fair-game ethos of the newest path to riches, which is through the fire of celebrity.

Lauren’s scrapbook of accomplishments includes countless press interviews accompanied by photographs of his well-scrubbed family, his architecturally important homes and collection of vintage cars. He allows that fame flows naturally from success. But he dodges celebrity, which can feel tawdry and disruptive.

Celebrity is not central to Lauren’s brand. It’s not part of the dream. “To me, the American Dream is what I’m living right now — to be able to be where I want to be and do what I want to do,” said Sandra Romulus, 42, who was born in Haiti and became a U.S. citizen Tuesday. “Even when I was younger, I knew I wanted to raise my children in a country where there were no limits.”

Lauren has wrapped those simple desires in luxury because that is his niche. He weaves elaborate fantasies because that gives us pleasure. And he markets a multitude of frocks because that is his business. But what does he sell? “Everyone has the same aspiration wherever you’re coming from,” Lauren says. “To have a nice life and a nice family. To be a success and to say I earned it.”

Robin Givhan is a staff writer and the Washington Post fashion critic, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure.
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