On-the-Town Overalls

Ralph Lauren Finds Inspiration in Economic Hard Times

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2009

NEW YORK -- The cabdriver pulled onto Dominick Street and headed toward Hudson when he was forced to stop by a traffic jam of black Town Cars, gazelles in high heels and peacocks in tweed sport jackets. When he wondered aloud about the cause of such a stir, his passenger informed him that the Ralph Lauren fashion show was about to begin just at the end of the block. The driver nodded in recognition and murmured a few words of awe under his breath: Ralph Lauren, indeed.

It's not often that a cabdriver in this city responds to a traffic jam with an emotion other than annoyance or resignation. And even here in America's fashion capital, there's a long list of designers who have been lionized by editors and retailers but whose names mean nothing to the man on the street. But Lauren is not just any designer; he is an institution. His name and his work resonate far beyond Seventh Avenue because he has taken the myths of America -- those gauzy, sepia-tinted images of cowboys and ranchers, captains of industry and girls next-door -- and transformed them into evening gowns, business suits and blue jeans.

Lauren built a career by brazenly positioning himself as the quintessential interpreter of the American zeitgeist. More than any designer, he has used America's mythology -- our secular religion -- for profit. In doing so, he has displayed a keen understanding of our cultural symbols. He can parse the difference between a pair of blue jeans worn with cowboy boots and those worn with a black leather jacket. He sees the romance in a prairie skirt or a well-worn Native American blanket. He knows what it means in our racially conflicted society to photograph a dark-skinned, athletic black man in his preppiest, old-money brand. And he knows how a bright-eyed blonde feeds our vision of Mayflower blue bloods. And as consumers, we have bought into those symbols and made Lauren an extremely wealthy man.

So it seems fair to say there were layers of meaning and references in the looks that came down his runway Thursday morning, the final day of the spring 2010 fashion shows here. The designer wrote in his show notes that he was inspired by America's resilient spirit. "Hard times seem to sharpen our capacity for idealism and our optimism that tomorrow will be a better day," Lauren said.

Yet it was difficult to see much that was optimistic about the distressed overalls -- part of his less expensive RRL label -- that were on his runway. Or the faded and torn jeans. Or the sequined nightshirt, the silk gown cut to look like overalls, the sequined and shredded jeans, and the floral print dresses that harked back to Laura Ingalls Wilder and exuded history but not luxury.

The result was a collection of curious costumes that might have been pulled from some strange compilation of "Our Town," Kit Kittredge and an MTV docudrama on the Great Depression. The country might be in a recession -- or barely rousting itself from one -- but are there really folks who want to look like subjects of a James Agee and Walker Evans collaboration? "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" should not serve as a style guide. Not now. And certainly not this way.

To be fair to Lauren, designers regularly play fast and loose with history; they regularly find inspiration in unlikely places and transform iconic images in unorthodox, often disturbing, ways. It's not surprising that Lauren would look to laborers for inspiration at a time when the notion of "honest work" -- as opposed to the paper-pushing kind -- has become part of the cultural dialogue. The designer was moved by America's salt-of-the-earth workers. He wanted to celebrate their tenacity and courage -- the fact that they actually manufactured products or grew produce instead of dealing in virtual money.

But what was strutted onto his runway registered as both dismissive and diminishing of those challenging lives. The collection spoke in unkind and uncaring ways -- a point of view directly at odds with a designer known for his empathy and philanthropy. Indeed, the disconnect between the designer and the collection was astounding.

The sight of a freshly scrubbed model sashaying in distressed overalls and glittering evening sandals was akin to watching some indulged young party girl go slumming for the day. It was the kind of ensemble Naomi Campbell might have worn when she was forced to mop floors in jail after an altercation with her housekeeper.

It may be that because joblessness, homelessness, poverty -- modern-day, near-Dust-Bowl-level suffering -- is too real to find any delight in this sort of fashion appropriation. The sadness remains too palpable. Read the news. The lives of middle-class families have abruptly fallen apart, so much so that there are tent cities and squatter camps in some of the most troubled parts of this country. How can it not be an insult to those living in squalor to send a sequined work shirt down the runway?

In an odd juxtaposition, there were also models in three-piece, navy pinstripe suits. They looked like bankers, like those AIG executives with bull's-eyes on their backs. At moments, the Lauren show was like watching the entire financial meltdown unfold as a fashion production. Here are the people who took out bad mortgages and defaulted on them. Here are the bankers who led them astray and brought the economy to its knees. Here is the designer putting a price tag on it all and hoping to reap a handsome profit.

Lauren is known for his keen eye for elegance and good taste. And there was beautiful tailoring in this collection, splendidly light and airy white dresses, too. But they were lost amid the uncomfortable feeling that those who inspired the collection ultimately were not celebrated but were unintentionally taunted.

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