BOSTON -- Ralph Lauren looks like he's at a fashion show, striding down the aisle in his wide-shouldered pinstripes, surrounded by beautiful creations under bright lights. But these models are cars, and the occasion is an exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts of classic automobiles from Lauren's personal collection.
Moving from McLaren to Mercedes, Lauren says he feels both thrill and dread at seeing his cars mounted on white pedestals. Thrill because most of the 16 specimens look truly beautiful, their flares and swoops as exotic as any sculpture. And dread "because now I can't drive them," he says.
A 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, part of Ralph Lauren's collection on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
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Cars, after all, are meant to move people -- literally as well as figuratively. And while the Boston exhibit, which opened last Sunday and runs through July 3, is aimed at drawing new crowds to the museum's patrician corridors, it arrives at a time when the American auto industry is especially attuned to the issues raised by a show that holds up the automobile as art.
The intersection of style and commerce represented by Lauren and his cars is exactly what automakers are grappling with in a changing marketplace, as a new type of consumer demands more distinctiveness in everyday products. Baby boomers and their offspring "are more design-literate [and] conscious of their own self-image and of what peer groups think than consumers used to be," said Wes Brown of the marketing consulting firm Iceology Inc.
America's core demographic has grown up with the affluence to pay $40 for a Michael Graves-designed toaster at Target based just on looks, he said, or to buy a Mini Cooper or Scion xB as a third-car fashion statement. "We've had consumers point-blank tell us, 'My vehicle is a piece of clothing. It's the last thing I put on before I go out for the night,' " Brown said.
While shoppers can't yet slip into a Lauren-label automobile, the designer has influenced a concept car that Ford Motor Co. unveiled in January. Called the Fairlane, the family wagon prototype was partly based on Lauren's suggestions and features grooved door panels to suggest a classic Woody station wagon -- one of Lauren's favorites -- and a roof lined with the canvas used in polo helmets, a la Lauren's Polo brand.
Ford is debating whether to go into production with the Fairlane, which borrows its name from a Ford sedan of the 1950s and '60s, but recent sales figures show how important distinctive design can be to a company's bottom line: Chrysler, with its aggressively styled 300C sedan and Dodge Magnum wagon, is gaining market share every month while bland products at General Motors and Ford are flagging.
"The fact is, American cars today don't have the identity they used to have," Lauren says.
American auto designers should emphasize their strengths, which in his eyes are pickups, wagons and utility vehicles. "That represents the heritage to me," he says. "I'm inspired by America in my clothes, but just as America's strength is in denim . . . and utility things, that's where I think it shines best in automotive. Utility, function, well-priced durability -- that's the statement."
Walking through the Boston exhibit a few days before its opening, Lauren is an eager tour guide, quick to point out the details that make each car special: the impossibly intricate "piano wire" wheels on the 1933 Bugatti Type 59, the cream-colored steering wheel and elegantly simple windshield on the 1955 Porsche Spyder 550.