NEW YORK — At the end of his 50th anniversary show in Central Park, Ralph Lauren cried, and the audience stood and applauded. At the beginning of the elegant dinner that followed, Oprah Winfrey toasted the powerful symbolism imbued in his work, reflecting not only his own American success story but that of so many others. By the time guests drifted off toward the hazy lights of the city, they had the undeniable sense of how big, how defining and how magnetic fashion can be.
Lauren has long said that he was not interested in creating clothes that go in and out of style. There is, of course, a difference between a garment that always seems timeless vs. one that appears to exist in a bubble. Lauren hasn’t always made that distinction clear.
He has a studied approach to style — the jeans wrecked just so, the collar flipped at a prescribed angle, the boots weathered but not scuffed, the model’s stubbly beard grown out to a precise 5:01 p.m. shadow. If there is ease on his runway, it’s often the self-conscious sort, as if the models are silently telling themselves: breathe in, breathe out, smile, now swing your arms.
Friday night, it was a different story. Perhaps it was the joy in the occasion, or perhaps the sheer scale of the show during this city’s Fashion Week prevented it from being so taut. Maybe it was the range of models, from several gray-haired men — and one similarly mature woman — to children and one sleeping toddler, who injected energy and humanity. Grizzled men with flowing hair showed off giant tweed blazers and mountain-man hats. Nimble young women strolled along in silver fringed skirts and crewneck sweaters. Jeans and black-tie, cowboy style in the city. Costumes for life, yes. But it looked like a life that one might want to live.
It was impossible to absorb the endless details of nubby tailoring, patchwork velvets, leather bombers, ski jackets, flannel shirts, denim overalls, heirloom cardigans and charming children’s clothes that, although a bit too posh for the playground, would look spectacular on the family Christmas card.
These clothes were inviting, aspirational and beautifully made. And although they weren’t breaking any new ground, they underscored what has already been built. It was impossible not to marvel at that feat of construction — a fashion house erected on a foundation of sheer stubborn optimism about the power of dress.
The story that Lauren was telling as models poured down the steps of Bethesda Terrace was one of breadth, depth and influence. It was about what we strive for professionally; how we yearn to belong; our passion for big-sky freedom; and our enduring belief in the promise of bootstrap capitalism. His work ranges from the formality of banker stripes to lumberjack plaids. And it was invigorating to see it en masse, as an all-encompassing universe.
The spectacle was less about clothes and more about the narrative. It was an assessment of a long-standing story about American fashion as both a business and a part of our popular culture.
The entertainers and business moguls, media titans and politicians all rolled in to pay homage to Lauren, spanning generations and races. Hillary Clinton, Steven Spielberg, Chance the Rapper, Priyanka Chopra, Jessica Chastain, Robert De Niro, Bruce Springsteen, Tracee Ellis Ross, Tony Bennett, Kanye West, Iman, Anne Hathaway, Lauren’s family and, of course, Winfrey.
The guests also included the many designers who have worked for Lauren, who have been inspired by him or who simply have admired his ethos: John Varvatos, Jeffrey Banks, Thom Browne, Carolina Herrera, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan.
The diversity reflects the many roles that Ralph Lauren plays in the culture. He hasn’t just shaped his own company. He has helped to shape an entire industry. There are designers such as Varvatos whose work represents a kind of stripped-down, rock-and-roll iteration of Ralph Lauren. Browne draws upon Lauren’s ethos of classicism and tailoring. Other designers subvert Lauren’s preppiness. They copy his lifestyle business model by branching into housewares, furniture or restaurants. So much of what is now common practice, Lauren pioneered.
The audience defines what Ralph Lauren is: a dream factory, a billion-dollar publicly traded company, one of the original pillars of Seventh Avenue, a philanthropic organization, a cultural touchstone, a husband, a father and a guy from the Bronx with a love for the movies, the usual human insecurities and an abundance of ambition.
In her toast to the designer, Winfrey described a moment early in her professional life when she began to feel that she was making headway in her career. She was coming into her own. She was making money. She stocked her bathroom with Ralph Lauren bath sheets — not bath towels, but luxurious, indulgent, enormous bath sheets. They symbolized having accomplished something, having gained entry, perhaps just a toehold, into the American clubhouse of success.
The night unfurled with cinematic élan. Guests arrived at the entrance to Central Park where they boarded little white trolleys that rolled through the park, past the curious evening joggers and dog walkers, to the entrance of Bethesda Terrace where they disembarked in their tuxedos and evening dress. The entry was aglow with LED screens projecting archival images of Lauren’s work, which is essentially the story of all the things in our closet that we think of as quintessentially American: the jeans and polo shirts, button-down Oxfords, crewneck sweaters, Western jackets and cowboy boots and flannel shirts. Lauren didn’t invent them; but he turned them into a cohesive vocabulary that gave us the capacity to describe a collective aesthetic identity. He gave us a national uniform.
The vintage footage reminded guests that he brought racial diversity to his runway — and to his advertising — before doing so became a rallying cry, long before there was social media and the capacity to tweet a company into submission.
The waiters served cocktails, the guests mingled, and the rain held until everyone was seated for dinner under rows of white canvas umbrellas. There was filet mignon from Lauren’s ranch, mini chocolate cakes and key lime cheesecakes for dessert. And in the distance, a view of this city that served as a reminder of why Hollywood, small-town dreamers and ambitious strivers can’t shake its allure.
For any American company, 50 years is something to celebrate. For a fashion company, it’s remarkable, particularly because Lauren remains at the helm. For years, American fashion was defined by Ralph, Calvin and Donna. Calvin Klein long ago sold his business. Donna Karan has also moved on and the collection was shuttered by its owners. Other monumental names such as Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass have died and the legacy of their brands is yet to be determined.
Ralph doesn’t simply remain. He continues to dream.
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