Oprah, Kanye, Bruce Springsteen, and more came out to celebrate the designer’s latest milestone—and some excellent clothes.
At the beginning of New York Fashion Week—a whole 72 hours ago—I was complaining to coworkers about how too many menswear designers these days dip into their personal reservoirs of nostalgia for inspiration rather than coming up with new ideas for how we should be getting dressed. The net effect is a lot of fine, wearable clothes in silhouettes familiar to any guy who’s been shopping in the last decade. Decoration, as opposed to actual design, is king, I lamented. And then Ralph Lauren’s 50th anniversary runway show happened last night and I was pleasantly reminded why Ralph is the master of walking that fine line.
The scene was Bethesda Terrace and fountain (no, not the one from Friends) in Central Park transformed into a sprawling courtyard of good taste, populated by excellent champagne and some of the world’s most well-known humans, all in black tie. Lauren, who is no stranger to turning his catwalk into productions that would put Broadway shows to shame (two seasons ago he took the better part of the fashion industry to his mammoth garage outside of the city that houses to his jaw-dropping collection of vintage cars) even outdid himself this time. Towering vertical LED screens played R.L. runway shows from the last thirty years (if not further back) as you entered. They surrounded a massive tunnel where inside, ad campaign images and product photos from decades past scrolled up and down on digital screens. Images where people are elegant and happy and dressed impeccably, regardless if they are standing next to a horse or a sports car—in front of some Downton Abbey-style abode, natch—or a rock on a stretch of pristine coastline. For 50 years Ralph Lauren has transported customers to every corner of his imagination but to see it all in one place and without any division between eras was glorious—and something the brand should sell tickets to.
The guest list quickly rivaled that of a Met Gala: En route to my seat, I saw Oprah (Oprah!) laughing with Pierce Brosnan.Chance the Rapper chatted with Iman. Robert De Niro was seated near Steven Spielberg and Tony Bennett was mingling nearby. Tom Hiddleston, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook were there as were the newly-engaged Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas. I spotted Tracee Ellis Ross, Ansel Elgort, Blake Lively and a slew of American fashion designers including Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Thom Browne, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Alexander Wang. There was also a contingent of older men whose faces I couldn’t place but just knew are currently in possession of most of this country’s wealth. And then Kanye showed up!
The runway show was split into two sections. The first featured western-meets-manor-house-meets-biker-meets-Peaky-Blinders fashions for him and her all rendered in a mashup of neutral tweeds and rich jewel-tone velvets. It was all undeniably elegant and definitely expensive but also—crucially—effortless, to the point where if you told me the suede-trimmed tan wool three-button sport coat with a circle patch on the right torso from look 9 was $3,000 or 30 years old I’d say yes to both. You can’t help but take stock of a designer’s aesthetic legacy at a show like this and each look was a reminder of just how strong and singular Lauren’s visual vocabulary is. Watching the show I was thinking that you could pull apart every outfit and trace each garment’s origins but in flipping through images again this morning, I’m less sure that’s possible. Is that weathered motorcycle jacket what one would have actually looked like in, say, 1954 or has Ralph taught me to believe that that’s what one looked like, because it’s the perfect version of it?
That’s what the second half of the 50th anniversary show was all about: the world of Ralph Lauren and what a powerful concept that can be. In terms of clothes, it was a parade of Polo Ralph Lauren gear, on models that spanned an age range from toddler to septuagenarian. (A note to other designers: if you want to see jaded fashion folks lose their shit, just put a cute kid or two in your next show.) There were perfect camel coats and Polo Hi Tech gear and pinstripe suits and Polo Bear knitwear and surplus trousers, all convincingly tossed together. It wasn’t a rehash of greatest hits but rather the purest distillation of what Polo is (sporty, dressy, classy).
Ten years ago the collection would be labeled “all American,” but in 2018, it’s just Ralph. It’s a global idea now. As if to drive the point home, the casting was refreshingly inclusive. (The only common denominator among the models was that they were all uncommonly beautiful). It was a tribe of shiny happy well-dressed people and I wanted in. Ralph’s bow was accompanied by a long standing ovation appropriate for the man who built an empire on the foundation of fat neckties. The business of fashion is a challenging one right now and the Ralph & Co. aren’t immune to the pressures that brands are retailers are facing (less customers, more competition, the Warby Parker-ification of everything). This show’s Ralph-for-all ethos is a smart way to combat those threats.
Then it was time for dinner. (R.R.L. filets from Lauren’s own R.R.L. ranch were served.) Shuffling towards the tables, which actually surrounded the iconic fountain, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain talked to Andy Cohen, Anderson Cooper held court, and everyone tried to introduce themselves to Henry Golding. Hillary Clinton appeared in a powder blue pantsuit. At some point, Bruce Springsteen showed up. The list of men or women who could summon this many icons into one place is short—and most of them were in attendance last night. There’s no question Ralph throws an excellent party but people didn’t show up for the canapes; they turned up to pay respect to a man whose business, creative, and philanthropic efforts have affected them personally.
Like many in my generation and certainly a few before that, Ralph Lauren was the gateway into the world of real fashion. Even if you bought a Polo R.L. pique cotton polo shirt at the mall, there was nothing “mall” about it. Yes, you were buying what was objectively a better polo than what you could find at some chain store but also, often for the first time, you were buying into who you could be wearing it. Watching the show elicited that same feeling. Suddenly I was 16 again spending $52 (the most I’d ever paid for a piece of clothing at that point) for a cherry red Ralph Lauren polo at my local Macy’s. The feeling then and the promise of the clothes on the runway was the same: to possess them is level up to a better way of living. Aspiration is a powerful thing and Ralph’s been providing it in a consistent, exceptionally well-packaged way for 50 years. Oprah, as she tends to do, said it best in her toast when she congratulated Ralph “for 50 years of you designing our dreams.” After the party, as I stood on the corner of West 72nd street undoing my tie with one hand and trying to hail a cab home with the other, I was reminded that the problem with dreams is that they don’t last forever. Eventually you have to wake up.