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A Salute to Ralph

LONDON — Readers salivating for an all-American fashion scandal will have to skip over Colin McDowell’s latest book, "Ralph Lauren: The Man, the Vision, the Style" (Cassell Illustrated), which is a paean to the designer’s career, way...

LONDON — Readers salivating for an all-American fashion scandal will have to skip over Colin McDowell’s latest book, “Ralph Lauren: The Man, the Vision, the Style” (Cassell Illustrated), which is a paean to the designer’s career, way of life and character.

Ralph fans are sure to swoon over the book, which will be published in the U.S. by Rizzoli next March, and there is no doubt the cover shot of a smiling Lauren in front of Old Glory will complement coffee tables from Southampton to Santa Fe.

The book is fourth in a series McDowell is penning on designers he admires. The others focused on John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier and Manolo Blahnik. He’s due to start work on the fifth — the subject of which is still a mystery — next spring. McDowell’s books are far from tell-alls, however; the closest he gets to criticizing Lauren, for example, is to say the designer’s drawings aren’t exactly beautiful.

“I’m not interested in gossip, or in clipping anyone’s wings. And I’m not into scandal, it’s not part of my brief,” said McDowell in a telephone interview. “I do not set out to be negative — or uncritical. I love fashion, and in this case I wanted to write about the creative force of Ralph Lauren. I leave it to others to write the sniping books.”

Speaking of which, Michael Gross’ unauthorized book about Lauren, “Authentic Genuine,” is due out in the U.S. in January and reportedly is packed with gossip.

McDowell spent two-and-a-half years researching and writing the book, with Lauren’s cooperation — but not his seal of approval, the author pointed out. “The final book is mine, although Ralph helped out with the choice of pictures.”

The book charts the rise of Lauren — whose brothers changed their name, from Lifshitz — from a style-obsessed Bronx kid with a passion for baseball and Frank Sinatra to a global fashion mogul.

The book talks about the time the teenage Lauren partly shaved his head to give the effect of a receding hairline — like Cary Grant’s — and how he recycled and styled everything from his brother’s army clothes from South Korea to his father’s old-fashioned pinstriped shirts.

This story first appeared in the December 12, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“You could try to copy his look, but you wouldn’t look the way he did,” one friend is quoted as saying. “He was never the group’s shrinking violet.” McDowell also points out that when all the other seniors wrote their dream professions under their yearbook photos, Lauren simply penned “millionaire.”

McDowell goes on to talk about the designer’s first foray into fashion in the mid-Sixties, selling those first wide ties — up to four inches across — at a time when the usual neckwear was half that width. He talks about Lauren’s loathing of the trends, his love affair with posh English style and his ability to “giftwrap taste and sell it to the Americans.”

But there is also Lauren the business brain, pioneering in-store shops and lifestyle advertising, taking his company public in June 1997, and setting out to crack markets outside the U.S.

“He became a worldwide cultural force, changing the way we dress, the way we shop, how we see the home,” said McDowell in the interview.

“I’m not saying he’s the only one, but he is an original thinker. When the cultural history of the U.S. is written, will anyone really remember the Carter years? I don’t know, but you can bet they will remember Ralph Lauren as a cultural force. He sold America to the Americans, and that is no mean achievement.”