Czar by Cesar Galindo SS 13 New York Fashion Week Video
Ralph Lauren: Fashion Czar
SEE LOOKBOOK:RALPH LAUREN
"I said, 'Today I'm going home, so I'm going to go out there and run across the road, and no one's going to stop me!'" When the designer grins boyishly, delighting in this small victory of independence, his normalness is unmistakable. It's not what you'd expect from this hugely public, powerful figure. Normally, we see his elaborate class acts, like the picture-perfect black-tie dinner and fashion show he hosted at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Moscow, which he redesigned, down to the sapphire-blue dining-room curtains, the French tulips in the garden, and the heads of the waiters, all of whom got their hair trimmed. But none of this meticulously orchestrated hoopla detracts from the real behind-the-scenes Lauren, who lovingly entwines his wife's hand around his while strolling through Moscow ("I still think she's gorgeous," he says, clearly enamored after 43 years) or who consumes two ice cream cones outside the Kremlin. His warmth and self-deprecating humor are kept private — unnecessary, in his mind, for front-page coverage.
And what to make of the liberating athletic move? That's easy: No one dictates to Ralph Lauren. "I'm really proud that I went to my own beat, that I didn't sell out," he says. "I've always had a sense of self; I never wanted to be part of the crowd."
"He has stubbornness," says his knowing older brother Jerry, executive VP of men's design, who remembers being amazed by the booty — old army jackets and vintage Savile Row pieces — that Lauren would drag home as a kid. "He never let anyone talk him out of what he wanted to do."
That includes, of course, Lauren's singular vision of cool, privileged Americana laced with British propriety and his conviction that the Wild West rightfully belongs in fashion's upscale lexicon. His unique Navajo-blanket jackets, perfect knit shirts in juicy colors, turquoise-studded belts, curvy halter-neck dresses, sweeping lace prairie skirts, flag sweaters, and slinky silver gowns, which fall into rich puddles around the feet, are design icons destined for fashion's history books.
"He's competitive, wildly competitive,"observes Charles Fagan, executive VP of global retail brand development, who has worked by Lauren's side for 21 years. "He wants to be the best, but in a really responsible and healthy way. It's not weird."
"The competitiveness is with myself," Lauren qualifies. "It's how good can I do it? In looking at this company, how great can I be, how far can I take it?"
With .3 billion in annual revenues, 15,000-plus employees, and worldwide recognition as the head of fashion's tightest-running ship, Lauren is more than great; he is the gold standard in a benchmark-crazed industry. His crowning achievement, his conception of the modern-lifestyle brand, has revolutionized fashion in the past five decades. "It's been copied by so many people,"says Suzy Menkes, longtime fashion editor at theInternational Herald Tribune,"but he was the first to believe in inventing a kind of world that was a cocoon for everything in the brand."
Though Lauren did the early plowing on a plot of land that is now richly fertile and frequently mined by the rest of fashion, many of his trailblazing moves were criticized at their onset. Observers balked when he refused to change his very first product, men's ties, in order to sell to Bloomingdale's in 1967. ("I closed my bag and said no way. Six months later, I got a call to sell them.") They wondered why he'd named his brand Polo. ("They were like, 'Is it Marco Polo?' Very few people got it.") They criticized his massive renovation of the Madison Avenue Rhinelander Mansion in the mid-'80s as conspicuous consumption. (It is now the model for fashion flagship stores around the world.) They wondered what the heck he was doing buying 20 pages of advertising in one magazine in 1979. (He was educating the consumer on Lauren's World, and now, of course, everyone does it.)
So where can he go from here?
Russia. Interestingly, though Lauren's parents were both born in the region that is now the independent country of Belarus (they met and married at age 16 in New York and raised their four children in the Bronx), the designer had never set foot in his parents' homeland. "I've enjoyed it a lot," says the designer of his virgin trip, which included a visit to a genealogist to trace his family roots. Despite the search, Lauren feels 100 percent American. "In many ways, I feel like an ambassador here," he says of importing his Stars and Stripes brand to his parents' country.
Now Moscow's leading ladies and their powerful husbands are eager to drink from Lauren's chalice of classy elegance. "At first, all you could find were very garish brands in Russia,"says Polina Deripaska, Boris Yeltsin's stepgranddaughter and a guest at Lauren's fashion show. "I never liked them. Finally, we have more stylish things here." One feverish Muscovite managed to score five crocodile Ricky bags in a single swoop before the doors to the Ralph Lauren shop had even opened.
Clearly, mission accomplished in Russia. Now it's back to the nonstop job of staying on top in the motherland. "I don't get nervous before a show at all," he says, assuming a serious tone. "I get nervous nine months prior. I have it hanging on me every day. It's like having a term paper you'll never get out of. I don't want to fail. I don't want my clothes to sit here and not work."
Even the knowledge that he is fashion's class valedictorian does not ease his angst. "That's yesterday's news," Lauren quickly adds. "It's always about tomorrow. I have to keep going. I have to stay with it, I have to be tuned in, I can't miss a trick, I have to take the company forward."
The pressure, oddly palpable, is what keeps him up at night ("Sometimes I come home and I'm reeling, totally reeling") and what gets him up in the early morning to take his solo jogs through Central Park. "You know, I was six foot six when I started," he deadpans with a grin. "Yeah, I was really tall. I don't know what happened."
Continuing with his wisecracks, he professes, "You know, I told George Clooney he looked like me when I was younger." Actually, as a lean youngster (with, in fact, Clooney-esque eyes), Lauren was camp counselor to hotelier Ian Schrager in upstate New York. He dropped out of college, and he has the same three best friends today as he had when he was eight years old in the Bronx. To say that he's down-to-earth is an understatement.
"I'm not a prima donna. I don't stand on ceremony, and I don't need my hand kissed," says Lauren, dissing fashion's usual formula. "I'm not trying to be the most popular guy out there." His attitude has allowed him to stay unbelievably consistent with his company vision and impervious to naysayers, unwearable fashion trends, and critics. One thing that annoys him is that "Americans look to Europe a little too much for their fashion. There's a bit of an inferiority complex."
When Lauren says, "I'm not a 'fashion' fashion person," you can understand what he means. "I think the world forgets very quickly," he says. "I can't say that fashion lasts." He is not even sure people will be talking about him in 50 years' time. "For me, it's who I am today, what I stand for. The legacy is now."
Over the years, he has flourished while other designers have floundered or imploded in their own hype. "When you're very hot, you're going to be cold," he warns. "And I don't want to be cold." Young designers, he says, are often guilty of this error. "They are very insecure. They want to be photographed, they want to be in the fashion press, but they're looking at only a small part of the business."
Of course, he cares what the fashion industry thinks of him, but that concern never supersedes his first priority: his customers. "If people buy the clothes, then you're successful," he says firmly. "If they don't sell, then you're not successful, I don't care how much press you got."
Lauren himself has gotten libraries of great press, but even for him a few hiccups occurred on the way to world domination — like at one show in the early '80s where the clothes weren't ready and the models were being sewn into their outfits as they walked onto the runway. "It was so unprofessional and so bad. I remember walking up Broadway by myself [after the show] just so stunned, thinking, How did that happen?" And another show at the Armory in 1983 where no one could see, neither him backstage nor the editors in the audience. "It didn't come across as a great show, and that's very painful,"he recalls.
Viewing fashion week as "report-card time," not an excuse to inflate his own ego, Lauren says, "You can't think of yourself all the time. You can't say, 'Wasn't I great?' when you've got 15,000 people who helped you get great." The more he talks, the further he positions himself from the circus of "bow down to me" fashion snobs who jostle for first place in hotness.
"When I walk down the runway at the end of a show, I never think I am genius," he continues. "I'm just thrilled I got it done. If the collection gets bad reviews, I'm embarrassed for my staff, that I let them down." Though an unheard-of statement in this industry, it does much to explain the adoration with which his team regards him.
"Working for him was one of the greatest experiences of my life," says Lauren alum Vera Wang. "His wisdom, intelligence, and passion for all things stylish are an inspiration."
"I care and I pay attention," Lauren says of his company and employees. "For me, there are not little people and big people." This explains why his private-jet pilot and flight attendant were welcome at the party at his Moscow store alongside Lady Gabriella Windsor.
And there is also life outside fashion, when Lauren unwinds by driving his vintage cars in Montauk or Bedford, New York. "I don't live thinking about fashion all the time," he explains.
Video: Czar by Cesar Galindo Fall/Winter 2013-14 | New York Fashion Week NYFW | FashionTV
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