Ralph Lauren has a hole in his pants.
It is about the size of a nickel, halfway between his right knee and his first denim belt loop, and frayed around the edges, like an exit wound. The hole is curiously inviting, as holes generally are, and only the most polite person could resist investigating with a finger. As for the view, it is limited to a small patch of skin, which appears to be, from a distance of five feet, quite hairy.
This aspect of his attire is by no means accidental. Bill Blass, as far as anyone can tell, does not go around with holes in his pants. Nor does Oscar de la Renta; it's doubtful he even fathoms the point of such affectations. But Ralph Lauren does, and therein lies the paradox of his en- viable success: Only he could make a fortune making the intentional appear unintentional.
At any rate, this explains a steady rain of "Ralph" stories since January, when his company turned 25 and his publicity department rang to say he was available for interviews. In monthly succession have come anniversary articles in Women's Wear Daily, Vogue, the International Herald Tribune and Mirabella; Town and Country photographed Lauren in Jamaica wearing beads and a sarong, the unmistakable image of aristocracy gone native under the bougainvillea; Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic of the New York Times, rooted around the Lauren "mystique" and concluded that it possesses an "authenticity of conviction"; Michael Thomas then took Goldberger to task in the New York Observer for having a case of "advanced twittism," and while he was at it, called Lauren the Wee Haberdasher.
"Imagine you are a former stroke for the Harvard crew sitting on the beach at, oh, Lyford Cay," Thomas wrote. "Suddenly you notice that the vile fellow sitting a few yards away, a palpable penny-stock salesman from Blinder, Robinson only days out of Lompoc, is wearing a crew shirt beribboned at the neck with the same colors you puked your guts out to win at Henley 20 years earlier. Save that on the bosom of his shirt, like a leper's mark, is a tiny appliqued polo pony. Your likely reaction is to become apoplectic."
Just when it seemed there was nothing left to say, Lauren, in conversation now with The Washington Post, casually mentions that he has examined firsthand the Duke of Windsor's clothes. This is indeed a revelation. Aside from the fact that the duke is one of his great idols, up there with Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire -- "and John Kennedy," the designer adds -- the trendiest Windsor has been dead for 20 years, leading one to conclude that the inspection was post-mortem.
It happened in Paris little more than a year ago. Lauren and his wife, Ricky, were at the Ritz, where they met up with its proprietor, Mohamed Al-Fayed, the chairman of Harrods and the conservator of the Windsors' former house, the lease of which he acquired from the French government after the duchess's death in 1986. Virtually everything the Windsors wore, sat on or slept in remains in the house, restored at Al-Fayed's expense and maintained as his private museum for friends and favored patrons of the Ritz.
So there was Lauren, formerly Lifshitz of the Bronx, standing in mild disbelief before the Duke's tweeds, tailored by Scholte of Savile Row; his Royal Stewart, Hunting Stewart, Balmoral and Lord of the Isle kilts, all from Oban in the West of Scotland; his shoes, 80 pairs and perfectly polished; his pleated trousers, all by H. Harris in New York; his golfing checks, argyle socks, dinner jackets, waistcoats and neckties. "Ralph was completely enchanted," says Michael Cole, a spokesman for Al-Fayed, whose diary records the visit on Sunday, Feb. 9, 1991, around 2 p.m. "He was particularly interested in the duchess's bathroom, painted to resemble a circus tent, which he absolutely admired. So if you see anything coming up in his home collections like this ... "
But imagine Lauren, in the ark of his idol, coming face to face with the very tweeds of his dreams. Imagine him thinking, as he says he did, "Gee, the duke's about my size," and then slipping on one of his jackets. "It was a little short in the sleeves," he recalls. This makes for quite an interesting story, concedes Cole, if true. "To be honest," says the spokesman, "no one who was present that day recalls Ralph trying on anything."
Yet Lauren is so specific. It was a little short in the sleeves. He is so clear in his memory of the particular moment that even if it didn't happen, it may as well have, since dreams are his stock in trade. And, anyway, it doesn't really matter what happened, because far from being "completely enchanted" with the duke's clothes, or thinking his own would henceforth seem sadly inferior, Ralph Lauren said to himself:
"I like mine better."
Too Perfect The nerve! Which is what people will say, since this is what they've said all along about him. Ralph the great imitator. Ralph the "Compact Couturier got up like Professor Challenger." Ralph the born-again nob selling "schmuck-to-schmuck reassurance" in a "Savile Pseud Suit." No other designer, American or European, manages to provoke such contempt while achieving so much success. It is the paradox of his career, the cruel reward for being Ralph Lauren, compulsive dreamer. At the very least it explains why a reporter once asked him, "How come every story I read about you has a little dig in it?"
Certainly no one could dispute his influence. He has gone from selling ties out of an office drawer to creating whole worlds. Menswear, womenswear, children's wear, shoes, fragrances, sheets, towels, furniture, fabric, wallpaper, rugs, potpourri, napkin rings -- well, it's endless. He was the first American designer to apprehend the value of myth and folklore in fashion, the first to sell the concept of "real clothes," long before it became fashionable or politically correct to do so, and among the first to recognize how a single image -- say, that of a beautiful woman on safari -- could sell not one product but many. It was not incidental that he launched the Home Collection in 1983 as people were beginning to spend more money on their homes, or that by 1986, when he opened his first store in the old Rhinelander mansion on Madison Avenue, his most devoted customers were willing to buy not one set of flannel sheets but the entire bedroom display. They would even have taken the salesman, he says, if they could.
And yet how can one not resist getting in a few jabs when so much of his life has figured into the flawless plot of his advertisements, those vignettes of wispy women, leathery cowboys and frightfully good-looking men? One could easily infer from these visual aids that just as his models look a bit too wistful gazing into the firelight, his log cabins too consciously rustic and his worn leather chairs too deeply English, so his life seems a little too perfect.
Still, it must be some kind of compliment to Lauren that people think about him as much as they do, even if it's to the point of snotty irritation. He is said to have "invented himself," although in the context of fashion this hardly qualifies as a reasonable objection. He is said to have "imitated" the Anglo appurtenances of upper-class American life, but even this seems a bit squirrelly, implying as it does that the speaker has a greater claim to chintz sofas and bearskin rugs. And, well, after a while all this high-minded protectionism on behalf of those who need it least begins to sound dreary and pitiful, like the ponderous reflections of two old frauds sitting on the beach at, oh, Lyford Cay moaning about how nothing's been the same since the Empire collapsed and Mummy ran off with that dreadful little man.
Lauren's clothes have never been so exclusionary that people couldn't wear them, or want them because they represent something better than they have. Beyond that, the meaning of clothes is rather vague and temporal, assuming it exists in the first place. The truth is, Lauren has never been much interested in the substance of things. He never really cared, for instance, that the Duke of Windsor was neither exemplary in his politics nor particularly enlightened in his thinking. "I liked his clothes," says Lauren. "His style." Which is to say, he liked only what he saw.
That's pretty much how it's been with him. He saw the West before he ever set foot on the prairie. It was in his mind, and when he finally did go West, he made a kind of pact between what was there and what all along he thought the West should be, and it meant that he could do anything he wanted. He could stain every rail and fence post on his Colorado ranch for 15 miles if he wanted to. Why not? He could wear blue jeans with a dinner jacket, jump in his jet, move on, tell a woman she ought to wear her hair down and blowing, because that's how he saw her.
In his mind.
He was, and remains at age 52, incredibly willful, driven as much by restlessness as insecurity. But insecurity can sometimes make a man do bold things. It can make him create not one world but many worlds. And it can make him think that what he has done is not only good but better.
The upshot has been rather intriguing: a quarter-century of glorious ephemera from a designer who can't draw so much as a sleeve.
Ralph in CinemaScope The hole yawns open, then closes into a tight lip of denim. He has been talking for an hour maybe, time enough to mentally note the washed nap of his red flannel shirt, the scuff of his brown cowboy boots and the clutter of his office: the little cars scattered across his desk, the stack of books in the corner, the white canvas on the down sofa, the cowhides on the wooden floor. Eight months ago, when Lauren moved his staff into what must be the most modern design space in all of fashion, he looked around his new office and said it was not "junky" enough. And so the people who create the backgrounds for his ads, who find all the old books and hunting portraits and walking sticks for his displays, and who are collectively known as Creative Services, went out and found more junk.
Conceivably, they returned with something that held a smell, the musk of leather and animal warmth that now lodges somewhere in Lauren's office and seems to intensify whenever he moves, making it difficult to know whether the scent is accidental or intentional, atomized or embedded. In any case, it is the smell of horses, and it is not unpleasant.
"You know, it's funny," he is saying, "people think that if you have good taste and a nice style that you somehow invented yourself. But what does that mean? Bill Blass was born in Indiana. Halston in Iowa. This is America. We were all born somewhere else. And people think that because you're successful that you shouldn't care when a columnist writes, 'Oh, Ralph invented himself and Audrey Hepburn invented herself.' You don't see these things. But I do, and they sort of hurt."
The conversation trails awhile, and then he says, "Everything in this company was built out of integrity. Not phoniness. Not wining and dining fashion editors. I was not the kissy boy." And it's true; he's never shown much interest in playing the fashion game, the gossip and all. Then too, he has a wife and three children. "I didn't go to Paris and sketch. What did I do? I did good things. Did I lift America up a little bit? Did I give it a little bit of quality? Because we were known for polyester. People don't remember that. You couldn't buy good things here. America is mass.
"And so, as I traveled around and got more sophisticated, I started to see what wasn't there, and I became more nationalistic. Every year of my life. And I'd think, 'Why is this country so insecure about what it is?' "
He pauses. The smell of horse wafts up again. Oblivious, he goes on. "So, my thing became more than clothes. It became bigger. It became -- America."
One half expects to hear trumpets. Instead, a soft smile fans across his tanned face. "Now, am I running for office?" He laughs. "People always say that to me."
It came as a surprise to someone who once worked for him that Lauren was different from what he had imagined, not the rugged cowboy or dashing figure of the advertising department, but more like "the Wizard of Oz: Pull back the curtain and you find an ordinary man." In a way, though, he is an ordinary man. After all the years, and despite all the appurtenances of his own life, he still speaks in the cadence of the Bronx and with the queasy candor of someone who once confessed to a reporter that he was in awe of Bill Blass. There is no telling how many people would recognize themselves in Lauren: the unabashed reverence for movie stars; the occasionally inarticulate stumblings and then the rush of words; the outsider's deep appreciation of the value of self-improvement.
"Ralph's idea of a great time," says Jeffrey Banks, a former menswear assistant, "is going to the movies on Third Avenue."
There have been a lot of stories about Lauren over the years, enough to fill several dozen scrapbooks in his PR office, and every profile contains pretty much the same details: how he loved the collegiate look of Princeton and bought his first suit at Brooks Brothers ("I was as Brooksy as you can get"); how he picked up Ricky for their first date wearing pin stripes and driving a cream Morgan with a leather strap across the hood ("She told me she liked me because I was dressed like one of her Viennese uncles"); how he was influenced by England and the West ("the Old West that I thought I knew from movies like 'Shane' "); and how he once offered to redesign the town of Ridgway, Colo., at his expense, because it was not especially attractive and, really, it did not resemble any of the Western towns in his mind.
These are the extraordinary projections of an ordinary man: Ralph in CinemaScope. One thinks of all the strenuous attempts to decode the "meaning" of his clothes, to explain the breadth of his influence, only to discover that practically everything he does can be understood in terms of Hollywood. The big picture. The cliches. The package deals. The calculated mise of his perfect scene. Small wonder he chose to play the theme from "Dances With Wolves" the night in February when he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America; that the accompanying documentary tracked like a studio production; and that when Audrey Hepburn gave him the award he put his arm around her, pulled her close and said to the audience: "You want to know what the lifetime achievement is? Steve, remember we went to the movies in the Bronx 30 years ago? Remember the princess? I got her. I see you, Mom. Still want me to be a doctor?"
Well, if that didn't raise the small hairs.
But what did it all mean?
Seduction "So," he says, leaning into the conversation, "a woman walks into one of my stores. She sees a world. She sees what I have to say. And she says, 'Oh, I love this world. This is what I want. This is me' " -- he starts bobbing around in his chair -- " 'And oh, God, I love that jacket. I don't have that jacket. And -- ' "
He stops bobbing and sits back. "She is buying Ralph Lauren. There is nothing else you can say."
By now, it should be perfectly clear that there is something else to say, and that as long as Ralph Lauren is selling Ralph Lauren, there will always be something more to say. It explains everything. Why the publicity department called in the first place. Why he persuaded his partner to buy the Rhinelander mansion and turn it into this fabulous store so that not one lady but thousands could walk in and say, "Oh, I love this world. This is me." And why on the night of Marvin Traub's retirement party at the Waldorf, which Lauren himself organized for the Bloomingdale's chairman with impeccable taste, the honey-blond wife of a mattress manufacturer from Georgia turned to her husband and exclaimed: "Ralph is even more handsome than I'd thought."
Well, he turns out to be a pretty seductive fellow.
And because of this he has been able to do the most unconventional things, simply by talking out what he sees in his mind and by being what he has been all along: the ultimate consumer. There probably isn't a man or a woman on his staff who hasn't felt the soft stroke of his voice, fallen for the tenderness of his gaze and suddenly found themselves wanting to turn cartwheels for him, just because he happened to stop them in the hallway or at a design meeting and say: Tell me what you like. Tell me what you're going to wear tomorrow, Saturday night. Tell me what you like.
"He's drawing out of us the essence of what we want to wear," says Buffy Birrittella. She is sitting in her office, surrounded by Western artifacts, and wearing a tight navy jacket, leggings and a dark turtleneck -- the essence of modern. She's been with Lauren 21 years, almost as long as his brother, Jerry, who manages the menswear division, and only slightly longer than Nancy Vignola, who runs the Home Collection, and Peter Strom, who is Lauren's business partner. She is director of women's fashion, and like Vignola and Jerry Lauren, she commands an entire floor of assistants in the company's new headquarters on Madison Avenue.
It is the architectural equivalent of a continuous conversation, the analogue to one man's method of thinking and talking it out. And like everything else connected to Ralph Lauren, it is so thoroughly seductive that a person entering the lobby would think that this magnificent room had always existed, that the mahogany paneling was the work of ancient craftsmen and the noble faces staring out from their gilded frames those of ancestors; in fact, one could easily infer from the jumble of books and newspapers on the tables, the plump of the chairs and the drowsy comfort of it all that this was the hub of Lauren's universe and the rest just a void.
Of course, that is not the case. Behind those dark walls lies a world that is bright and open and, above all, modern. It was the intention of the architects, Lee Mindel and Peter Shelton, to create a working environment that existed quite apart from the grandness of the lobby, or the Reading Room, as it's called. And so they laid out four floors of gleaming white design space, essentially enclosing the lobby and establishing a relationship between artifice and reality. Each floor is virtually identical, with the same long hallways, ash cabinets, open work spaces, conference rooms and galley kitchens (stocked with the same snacks), and all are vertically aligned to evoke the progress of ideas from one department to another. It is the culmination of a design process begun by Lauren years ago, in a warren of rooms, and the calculated means by which he creates his perfectly packaged worlds: a tartan napkin ring based on a tartan highboy based on a tartan jacket.
"You can walk down the hall and see a pattern in Roughwear, and that will give you an idea for something else," says Birrittella. "It's great for Ralph. He just sticks his head in the door, says, 'That's great. I love it,' and keeps moving. Or he can say, 'I don't think this is going in the right direction,' and save an entire meeting."
As much as anything, it is a process of elimination. Vignola once commissioned nine different prototypes of campaign furniture, only to reject all of them, because, as she recalls, "Ralph thought they looked too commercial." Birrittella says: "You have to be very specific with Ralph. He might look at a sketch and say, 'I love it. That's really good.' Somebody else will say, 'Oh, Ralph loves this. Let's make it.' And I'll say, 'No, no, he doesn't really like the lapel that way. Trust me. What he's responding to is the attitude.' " The process can be long, arduous -- maddening. "Sometimes," says Lauren, "they look at me and they want to kill me. 'What do you mean it's no good?' And I say, 'Because it's no good. It's tired. It's old.' "
In fact, all along, Lauren has been trying to get at the essence of what is new; not the kind of new that shocks because it seems to come from nowhere, but the kind that is extracted from the world itself, and distilled. What Lauren liked about the duke's tweeds was their Englishness; the rest -- the stiffness of the shoulders, the smallness of the armholes, the heaviness of the cloth -- he eliminated. And what he liked about the West could be whittled down to a simple prairie skirt. He has always been able to size up a big thing and pare it down; find its essence and move on. Irony is not in his vocabulary, any more than the Reading Room is the result of ancient craftsmen or a hole in a pair of blue jeans a reflection of total nonchalance.
There is nothing left to say.
Except one thing.
Leaning In "The smell?"
He smiles, baffled for once. "Horses?" The interview is over, and he is standing in the hallway outside his office. Two secretaries stop what they're doing and look up at him. "You think my office smells like a horse? I don't know. I mean, it's not a spray or anything." He looks down at his boots and rolls one of the heels over. A coy smile spreads across his face.
"Maybe it's what I'm wearing."
He steps closer and offers his neck, tilting his head until his tanned skin pulls with sudden tension -- a sexy gesture. And then, from who knows where exactly, comes this big wave of cottony warmth, all caught up with certain images. Ralph doing a little dance down his runway. Ralph telling jokes with his staff and saying, "I think they think I'm very funny, because I am funny. I mean, I can be very funny, you know." Ralph applying his velvet gaze. Tell me what you like. Tell me what you're going to wear Saturday night.
Well, there's nothing to do but lean in and breathe, because it's what he wants, and what he knew all along would happen.