NEW YORK — One sometimes wonders if the design studios at Ralph Lauren are hermetically sealed. Do the windows open? Can any fresh air get in? Are the windows so soundproof that they block out not just the noise of the city but the sounds of an ever-shifting culture?
Lauren, who has embraced the see now/buy now schedule of shows, presented his spring 2018 collection — rather than fall — in a downtown production studio that had been transformed into a thick-cushioned, tastefully taupe Jamaican getaway. The mis-en-scene at the top of his runway included several bamboo lounge chairs, a console table set with fern-filled urns and walls lined with plantation shutters.
The idea was to transport the audience to an island dreamscape, a lovely promise as cold winds whipped through the streets of this gray and grimy city. The first model to emerge was dressed in a simple blue and white strapless dress. She padded down the Caribbean-blue runway barefoot. Yes, this is what people do on vacation. Yes, this feels light and airy and desirable. Yes, take us away, Ralph Lauren. Take us away.
But then things turned tight and stressful so quickly that the barefoot lady seemed almost like a mirage. The collection began to look controlled, buttoned-up, overly groomed, excessively done-up and, ultimately, exasperatingly hollow. The models were perfect; but in all that perfection, there was no life.
The collection shifted to a sailing motif and included brightly colored dresses that recalled the hues in maritime flags. A long dress had a train emblazoned with an abstract steamboat — like something taken from a vintage travel poster. There was a sailor wearing a peacoat with naval stripes and pleated faded denim. And another wore a yellow anorak.
Lauren also recalled some of his classic looks such as sweaters emblazoned with the American flag and a navy blazer with an RL crest on the breast pocket.
But too many of the men looked as though they were headed to Wall Street or an old-guard country club that’s all legacy and tradition and not an ounce of fun, rather than to the beach or a lazy supper by the water.
One model emerged with his dark hair slicked back and a navy pinstriped suit tightly tailored to his physique. He was so aggressively groomed that he seemed more robotic than human. A blonde man with his hair freshly clipped and pomaded was decked out in a blazer and multi-insignia tie. He looked like a prep-school punk rather than someone with whom you’d want to have a couple of daiquiris. And the guy in the blue vest and yellow sweater with his chin jutting out and his strutting gait — well, he just looked like a fella who was asking for it.
Lauren has never been focused on turning out cool clothes, avant-garde or overtly sexy ones. His goal has always been to exploit a particularly American notion of exceptionalism, aspiration and success — the kind of success that begets wealth.
Lauren sold customers on this glossy American promise. But so many things that once seemed so right and perfect and true have been revealed to be imperfect, rotten or fundamentally broken. Below the surface, the beautiful things are just not quite right: The once mesmerizing sweep of Hollywood, the shattered fantasy of fashion photography, the impugned standard bearers of media, beleaguered democracy.
Glossy doesn’t just seem ill-timed; it raises suspicions. It leaves one feeling unsettled. It leaves one asking: What fresh lie is this?
Under these new circumstances, the Ralph Lauren collection looked less like something to aspire to and more like something to flee. Get out of that exclusive country club that has revealed itself to be selective in unconscionable ways. Get out of those fine dining establishments where the staff is systematically harassed. Get out of your bubble. “Get Out.”
Lauren created a wardrobe for those who had achieved the American dream. And that wardrobe — with its Polo shirts, gray flannel trousers, turtleneck evening gowns, beaten-up leather jackets — became classic because the dream didn’t change from one season to the next. It remained the same from generation to generation.
And that’s why the Ralph Lauren brand matters in ways that others do not. It’s not only a billion-dollar behemoth — it’s a cultural institution. Ralph Lauren means something in the American psyche. (When Kanye West met Lauren backstage after a show not so long ago, the rapper’s face glowed with admiration and humility as the designer gently touched his cheek, as if he were the Holy Father of fashion.) If this country has anything close to a national designer, it is Lauren. The king of Americana is regularly entrusted with creating the Olympic uniforms. His financial support helped to restore the flag that inspired the “Star-Spangled Banner.” He dresses first ladies.
But the brand does not seem to be grappling with how the story of America is changing. Our ideas about the aesthetics of success have shifted. Luxury for many people is being able to roll through the day without ever having to wear anything more formal than leggings, limited-edition sneakers and a T-shirt that can only be purchased in Japan. That’s an extreme look. But it underscores the fact that today, informality is a luxury.
As Lauren ambled out to take his bows, his family gave him the usual standing ovation. His son David, an executive with the company, was wearing a denim peacoat over a dark turtleneck with a denim newsboy cap. It was more costume than clothing. The question is not who would wear such an ensemble, but who would aspire to? Outside of his father’s fashion show, would the son even wear it?
The doors, the windows in the Ralph Lauren atelier need to swing open. A breeze needs to blow through, unsettling things just a little, blowing off the dust and letting in the oxygen.
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