It's Ralph's world
As he talks about the French Riviera in the Roaring '20s (or the way the leather strap looks on the hood of a vintage car), a team of artists will be drawing silhouettes and his fabric team will be thinking about materials.
Next he is presented with a "rig," a concept board that captures the spirit for a specific collection. The rig for his women's fall 2005 couture show, for example, featured a photo of Amelia Earhart, a silver beaded pillow, and a photo of the grille of his 1929 Blower Bentley. As the seamstresses and tailors transformed these deco touchstones into gowns, Lauren tweaked them until the final result looked like the way he would have costumed "The Aviator".
He is fascinated by items with a heritage, adopting their durability as part of his fashion DNA. "I never wanted to be in fashion, because if you're in, one day you can be out," he says of his aesthetic, while sitting in a chair made of buttery leather and sleek carbon fiber whose design was inspired by one of his cars (specifically the 1996 McLaren F1, which was the fastest car in the world until it was surpassed by the Bugatti Veyron; Lauren has one of those too).
The setting is his wood-paneled office six floors above Madison Avenue, where his lifestyle and his products merge with little deviation. A version of the desk in his Office - a glass planning table supported by two stainless-steel sawhorses - can be purchased for $16,000 in his furniture collection. (Called the Highbridge, it's featured on polo.com.)
Lauren's office is part of a three-floor complex designed to evoke a gentlemen's club. Visitors wait in the Reading Room amid Beaux Arts oil paintings, Persian rugs, and crackly leather sofas. As a self-described "ambassador" from a country that believes in upward mobility, he is exporting an aspirational dream. The son of an artist who made ends meet as a house painter, Lauren has never failed by trusting his taste and his street smarts.
He makes it a selling point that he's his own best customer, that the look is authentic because it's what Ralph wants for himself. Sometimes his design process for his men's wear collections is as simple as "I want some suits with a sharper silhouette."
As a result, his lines have expanded as his interests (and his family) have. He launched his first collection for women in 1972 when his wife, Ricky, was having a hard time finding the sort of clothes that Diane Keaton would later popularize in "Annie Hall".
"What Ralph felt was missing from the women's market at the time was men's wear for women. So Ralph's idea was to use the same two-ply broadcloth shirt fabrics and Harris tweeds that we used for our men's wear," remembers Buffy Birrittella, Lauren's executive vice president of women's design and advertising. Lauren's clothing line for boys started in 1976 when Ricky couldn't find anything for their two young sons to wear that wasn't polyester.
The launch of Purple Label in 1994 was his attempt to create an American alternative to Armani's power suit by drawing on classic Savile Row styling. "He is often creating the idealized version of the suit that Cary Grant wore in a movie," says Jeff Madoff, a director who has worked with Lauren for the past 24 years on various projects.
These days Lauren has more labels than Johnnie Walker has Scotches. But he is not content merely to dress every member of your family. He wants people to sleep in his sheets, dry themselves with his towels, splash his paint on their walls, and then curl up in his furniture. There are a few categories he still hasn't licked: Jeans is one of them, which is a thorn in the side of America's Designer. He also feels there is a large untapped market of consumers who are yearning for good taste, moderately priced. The department store is his vehicle to reach them.
The American Living line for J.C. Penney will debut in 600 stores this February, eventually rolling out to all 1,048. It will comprise 50 merchandise categories, from apparel to home furnishings. Lauren's name won't be on the items, though word will surely get around that it's his merchandise at a congenial price. "After I went public, I was thinking about how to grow the company, and it occurred to me that there was a world that I neglected, a kind of customer who has taste and who has gone to college. Someone who says, 'I want good things, but I can't spend that money,' " says Lauren.