In Conversation with Ralph Lauren

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The iconic fashion designer sat down with Oprah Winfrey
to discuss his career. Departures had a coveted seat inside.

There are few things that compel New Yorkers to rise to their feet for a standing ovation. Ralph Lauren is one of them. Oprah Winfrey is another.

When the notoriously private fashion designer walked onstage at Lincoln Center on Monday night for an intimate interview with the talk-show queen, the crowd of 600 power brokers jumped out of their seats to applaud the American legend. The audience stayed standing when Oprah joined him. And every boldfaced name in the city was in the theater—when Lauren and Winfrey invite you for cocktails, conversation and dinner to raise money for Lincoln Center and the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention, you simply cancel any other plans you may have had for the evening.

“You’re an icon. You’re a visionary. Your products have come to stand for America itself,” said Winfrey, clad in a red Ralph Lauren Collection custom gown, when Lauren took his seat for the interview hour. “Was there a moment when you said, ‘I have made it,’ and you embraced the success?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever said that,” Lauren replied. “I don’t think I ever will.”

“Not even tonight?” Winfrey asked. Keep in mind that Lauren had just received the highest possible gesture of praise from Barbara Walters, Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper, Matt Lauer, Michael J. Fox, Naomi Watts, Uma Thurman, Diane Von Furstenberg, Donna Karan, Barry Diller, Jerry Seinfeld, Martha Stewart and Iman—just to name a few.

“Not even tonight,” he said.

It was one of the many humbling and inspiring moments during the candid conversation, in which Lauren echoed five main themes.

Believe in Yourself and Your Vision: “If you believe in something, don’t give up,” Lauren said. “I never started out thinking how much money I was going to make or how big I was going to be or what my company was going to be or what magazines were going to cover me. That’s a message we should all remember: to believe in what you’re doing. Stick to your guns.”

Work Hard: “I’m living proof that if you work hard enough, you can accomplish something in this country. I had to earn my way. I know what it’s like to not have the money to buy, to have to earn everything. My father was an artist. I grew up in the Bronx. I just worked very hard. It came from inside.”

Look Forward: “Things get better with age. I don’t believe in old. I believe in new. It’s always about going forward and believing in that first. The philosophy I had as a kid—believing in myself when I had nothing—is the same [now]. Believe that you can do things, and you can go forward.

Give Back: “This is going to sound corny, but when you really give, and you feel like you are giving something back, it is a beautiful feeling. There is a world out there that is needy. It’s a very important part of my life: wanting to do good things. Not for anyone to hear about it and to get my name out there, but because I really believe in it.” (Check out Lauren’s philanthropic work with the Ralph Lauren Center For Cancer Care and Prevention, in Harlem.)

Family Comes First: Winfrey asked, “Even if you aren’t able to embrace your success, when you stand inside yourself and look at your life and your accomplishments, what makes you the most proud?” Lauren didn’t skip a beat: “I’m proud of my family.”

When the interview was over, Lauren and Winfrey walked off and the stage turned into a runway for a redux of the Ralph Lauren Spring 2012 show. As per the fashion flock’s favorite fashion week tradition, Lauren walked out following the last look. Winfrey joined him. The crowd rose to its feet again. “We are all given one life,” Lauren said earlier in the evening. “And that life is for you to do with what you will.” For the fashion icon, the life he chose was outfitting America and beyond. Now, as Winfrey said, “It’s hard to imagine the world without Ralph Lauren.”