Lights, Camera, Action, Ralph!

In his spring collection the talented Mr. Lauren shows that million-dollar companies may be built on fashion’s latest trends, but billion-dollar empires are about much more.

There is a white tent the size of a football field running the length of Manhattan’s Central Park Conservatory Garden. It’s only a temporary structure, but once you step inside it feels as if you’ve entered the reception hall of an old estate from some forgotten Hampton. In a few hours Ralph Lauren will celebrate his fashion house’s 40th anniversary here, with a showing of the spring 2008 collection followed by a black-tie dinner for 450. The tent is nearing the stylized perfection that has made the company one of America’s most respected business empires and its founder an icon. There are teams of carpenters drilling and crews of electricians wiring and a vast runway cutting through the center of it all. The air-conditioning system whirs softly, cooling away the afternoon of this early September day. At one end a crew of painters applies fresh gloss to the Arcadian latticework framing a huge mural of men watching and playing polo. Around them teams of florists carry in hydrangeas by the thousands, then arrange the flowers in cast-iron urns, perhaps on loan from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon—or at least the Met.

Everything is just as it should be except for one thing: There is a faint gray smudge on the far wall of the tent. It is shaped sort of like a shoe but also somewhat like a hand—or maybe a large tennis ball? It’s the most beguiling damn smudge you’ve ever seen. No one knows quite how it got there, what it’s composed of, or worst of all, how to get rid of it. A Swiffer is borrowed from one of the women busily shining the runway—and now the tent is all a-Swiff and the runway gets shinier and shinier, but the smudge? It will not go away. Detergent is employed, additional hands are called for. This is just one very serious smudge.

Watching the whole scene, you cannot help but think of a film set and you cannot help but feel impressed by the sight of so many people in such hot pursuit of perfection. Lauren’s son David is there and provides the moment’s only narration: “My father is from the Bronx,” he says. “They started all this in their apartment. My mother used to sew the labels into the first ties he made, then he would go and deliver them.” And if this were in fact a movie—and it’s feeling more and more like one by the minute—now would be when you saw a bit of your best self in Lauren, in his character and his achievements. This would be when you realized that the man became an icon by leaving nothing to chance and never losing sight of his own finely honed, fully appropriated vision of American style.

Outside the tent waiters and bartenders with the chiseled features of runway models sit through professional hair and makeup while groups of photographers check their flashes and lenses. A coven of chain-smoking Russian models sits in conversation, exhaling soft clouds of Asiatic ennui. As the afternoon proceeds, a film crew appears and begins interviewing the models. Above it all, on the conservatory garden’s curving, landscaped terrace, silver and crystal are being set in advance of the evening’s dinner. The place is kinetic with dozens of extras polishing chandeliers, carting about cases of Champagne, and talking into headsets, making the park feel like some grove undergoing enchantment. A chef named Robert Gerber, who used to cook for Donatella Versace and bears a faint resemblance to Rupert Everett, is perfectly cast in his role, and he hits his mark with flair, giving me a kiss on either cheek before looking at the outlying action and nailing his line: “Ralph Lauren, honey. Everything’s fashion but the fashion!”

This is a remark that would likely come as a high compliment to Lauren on his special night. Because million-dollar companies are built on fashion, but multibillion-dollar empires are built on timelessness, on the designer’s ability to separate him- or herself from the Thermidorian tides of what’s in and attach himself to the far more certain currents of the classic. Which is exactly what Lauren has managed to do. By following his own stated goal—to never be so in fashion that he might soon be out of fashion—he has freed himself to be everything to everyone, or at least most things to most people.

It’s a startling accomplishment, really. Ask the average American who Ralph Lauren is and you are less likely to receive any single answer than a range of images: Why, he’s a rugged rancher in a weathered cowboy hat, brushing a mare. A tuxedoed tax exile, surrounded by dark beauties and winning at baccarat in Monte Carlo. A member of the Exeter class of ’58 and the Harvard class of ’62, calmly surveying past glories from above the Charles in a cream cashmere cable-knit. Some will note that this is all fantasy, that Lauren is not really any of these people. They are missing the point, though, which is that actually being one of them would only get in the way of his so beautifully embodying all the personas at once—and, in turn, allowing us to embrace them through him. This is no small feat and it’s the reason why, as the afternoon turns to night, he is preparing to be celebrated in the nation’s greatest garden. This country loves its dreamers, after all, and turns them into royalty. And if Polo is founded more in fantasy than fashion? Well, there is no better place from which to evoke the fantastic. This night belongs to Ralph Lauren—each and every one of him.

He makes his first appearance behind the tents an hour before the runway show begins. Awash in paparazzi flashes, he reviews the Russian girls that he has cast as American debutantes from the twenties, English huntresses from the thirties, and Batista-era Havanistas. He’s got a deep golden tan, made even more dramatic by the blue-and-white horizontal-striped sailor shirt he’s wearing, a look suggesting that he is perhaps just back from an extended so- journ with Picasso in the south of France.

History is Lauren’s greatest muse and, in his hands, becomes something of an aesthetic instrument; his evocation of every one of these disparate and bygone eras is truly pitch-perfect. The models are transformed by each of his designs; it is almost as if under Lauren’s supervision they have become entirely different people. One wears a white vest and wide-legged pants with a fitted houndstooth jacket, black top hat, and pink wedding shirt—Jay Gatsby meets Jay-Z. When I ask how it feels to be so reconceived, I’m taken aback by her response: “With Ralph, anything’s possible. He imagines it all like a movie and everything comes true.”

The film crew now joins the paparazzi to angle for shots and soon there is a wall of photographers in black tie, fast-releasing shutters and calling out to the models by name. “Paparazzo!” I feel like I should be exclaiming. “Marcello!” I half expect to hear back, because everyone is now in some very romantic character and it’s hard not to get caught up in the action.

Lauren remains very collected and steady—pleased, you might even say—that the night is unfolding in step with his vision. Soon he disappears, the Russian/English/American/Cuban girls with him. A rushing of publicists tells me the next scene will begin by the gates of the conservatory, and when I get there I find what seems like a hundred photographers assembled beyond the gates, clamoring for shots of the actors and actresses, heirs and heiresses, and billionaires and models arriving in tuxedos and evening gowns.

They shout for Ronald Perelman and clap for Michael Bloomberg and explode in great rolls of flash for Robert De Niro and Diane Sawyer and Charlie Rose and Steve and Christine Schwarzman and Dustin Hoffman and Lauren Bush and Barbara Walters and Martha Stewart and Vera Wang and Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick and Elaine Irwin-Mellencamp and John Mellencamp and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Wendi Deng and Donna Karan and Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller and Carolina Herrera. And if Ralph sees the world as a movie, his guests are fully honoring him by playing themselves to the hilt. Bloomberg has brought a full security detail as only a billionaire mayor can, and Perelman is wearing jeans and a button-down for a black-tie event, as only a billionaire playboy can, and Lauren Bush and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. make the night feel American but in a good way, and Matthew Broderick emits a comforting Ferris Bueller vibe as Sarah Jessica Parker’s voice-over begins: “By the afternoon of the Ralph Lauren party I still hadn’t found a dress, but Samantha came to the rescue….” Robert De Niro smiles—just like Robert De Niro. And Ralph Lauren? He is nowhere to be found. “Where is Ralph?” you hear people asking. “All over the place,” you want to tell them, because in his absence he is free to be everywhere at once.

Now our shot widens as the camera pulls back above the mass of beatified flesh and we see the crowd moving down from the steps and into the tent, reluctantly parting with their flutes to be seated for the show.

Inside everything is about to start and—improbably, wonderfully—the smudge on the wall is still there, somehow making everything else seem all the more viscerally flawless for its presence, like that lone uncleaned tile on the ceiling of Grand Central. The camera zooms in for a close-up and with this shot the spot is transformed: It is rewarded for its tenacity and is no longer just any smudge; it’s a Ralph Lauren Smudge. Fast music begins to pulse and the models make their entrances in front of the mural of nameless jazz-age gentlemen watching polo. One after another they strut down the runway in reconceived jodhpurs and hypertailored hunting jackets and flowing flamenco dresses. David Lauren sits front-row center, smiling his approval and bouncing his knee in time with the beat. Editors nod and celebrities sit at attention as Christine Schwarzman nudges Steve to point out a black gown.

You would expect a warm reception on the house’s 40th anniversary, but this collection is exceptional by any standard, and a series of rave reviews in tomorrow’s newspapers will validate the early, wild praise. Lauren has taken his favorite elements of so many 20th-century Anglo-Latin moments, placed them on Russian women with cornflower-blue eyes and corn-silk hair, and called it America 2008. And he’s done it with such elegant confidence that everything feels right. Yes, you think. This is just about where we stand.

The show ends with dizzying applause and Sinatra singing “The Best Is Yet to Come” as Lauren makes his grand entry in a wide-lapel tuxedo. He shakes the hands and kisses the faces of everyone who embodies his style and whose style he in turn embodies. The crowd is on its feet, beaming and clapping. It’s like a Roman triumph. Soon Lauren stops to hug his wife, Ricky, and this is when the cheers reach their loudest. The tent is now fully awash in light.

All around there are cameras flashing and rolling, capturing this most dramatic and recent scene in Ralph Lauren’s big American life.

With a single motion the polo mural at the far end of the tent whisks away—smoothly, perfectly, on hidden pulleys—disappearing to reveal the magnificent sweep of what has become the Ralph Lauren Central Park Conservatory Garden. The gently lit fountain gurgles blue water up into the warm evening while perfectly cast waiters stand holding sparkling glasses of bubbly on silver trays. The hydrangeas fluoresce in the glow of chandeliers and candles, flickering above and atop the dining tables set along the terraces. Soft music. The glittering crowd moves out beneath the mural, then out into the yellows and blues of the lustrous night. The people spread around the fountain, drink Champagne, and fill the air with fine chatter. At dinner Bloomberg raises a toast to the designer, extolling his life and achievements to great applause.

Soon it is past midnight and the candles and party begin to peter out. A camera swoops over the garden and we see countless women in satin and silk with tuxedoed men alongside them, heading toward the limousines waiting to take them to the next stop of the evening. Lauren’s daughter, Dylan, walks elegantly on the arm of her boyfriend; a man in an ascot strolls happily alongside his Austrian girlfriend; and a young writer from departures is improbably recognized by one of the Russian models he earlier interviewed, and then invited into a waiting limo.

Inside the car there is laughter and Champagne and a flurry of Italian, Russian, and British accents and—you really could not make this up—someone is wearing a turban. As the car drives down Fifth Avenue, it occurs to the writer that where he’s going hardly matters. Because Ralph Lauren sees the world like a movie and his night felt like one, too—and this is in every way an ideal closing scene.

History is Lauren’s greatest muse and in his hands becomes an aesthetic instrument.

Scenes from the Collections

We open in New York, 1967, on a varied selection of extra-wide ties. A chalk-stripe suit joins the frame and with it the influence of Britain—its tailoring, countryside, and aristocracy—settles in and never leaves. In 1972 the first women’s collection is equestrian-themed. Lauren creates a look for all the male characters in The Great Gatsby in 1974 and becomes forever linked with green lawns and navy-blue crested blazers. Three years later Diane Keaton plays Annie Hall in Ralph Lauren oxford shirts and baggy, pleated menswear-inspired tweed trousers. A western wear collection in 1978 is followed by a Santa Fe–inspired line; Navajo blankets and jewelry become signatures. A pair of faded jeans worn with a turquoise belt buckle is somehow “very Ralph Lauren” (and the vintage jewelry counter at the Mansion, Lauren’s flagship in the old Rhinelander pile on Madison Avenue, is never without an impressive array). In 1984, a year before Out of Africa hits the screens, he debuts a Safari line (ah, remember Safari?), chock-full of tan linen, zebra prints, and later, an accompanying perfume. If she were alive today, Isak Dinesen would wear Ralph Lauren. One of his first women’s tennis dresses is rumored to be modeled after the college uniform of his wife and longtime muse, Ricky, the namesake of a leather tote inspired by vintage saddle luggage. It’s now available in red crocodile. We close on the polo shirt, today available in upwards of 70 colors.