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TOKYO — Heritage plays an important role in Ralph Lauren’s universe, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary next year.
On the surface, a man like Lauren would seem at odds with Tokyo, Japan’s urban metropolis of crowded streets, a tangled infrastructure, high-tech architecture and a youth that embraces every fashion craze — as long as it’s colorful and crazy. But Lauren, on his first trip to Japan in 25 years late last month to open a flagship on Omotesando Dori, was a natural with the locals, who mobbed him, taking photos of him with their cell phones as if he were the heartthrob member of the newest boy band. Omotesando was even lined in American and Japanese flags in his honor.
“It’s very individual here,” Lauren observed. “The young people have an eclectic style. They get it when you show it to them. They love the cinema, fashion and are happy to experiment. They are absorbing and moving quickly.”
The same could be said of Lauren, who had little time to sit back and relax on this five-day journey to Tokyo. A day in the life of Lauren there consisted of a gym session (the Laurens brought along their Manhattan personal trainer); breakfast; briefings on the day’s schedule; several interviews with the Japanese press; trips to the flagship for a final polish before the ribbon cutting and opening party, which were held on March 29, and visits to local department stores that carry Polo.
Tokyo can be a daunting city for visitors, a notion that was perhaps most eloquently conveyed by director Sofia Coppola in “Lost in Translation.” Lauren, who maintains that each collection is based on a movie that takes place in his head, said he had too little time for any “lost” moments.
“My schedule is boom, boom, boom,” he said. “I get up, I work out in the morning and then I am on schedule. I do interviews, I go and see some stores and then I am working on my own store, going through the details that didn’t work and how we should do it.”
That’s not to say the trip didn’t have its share of memorable moments for Lauren, who was impressed by how much the city had transformed since his last visit.
“I see Ferraris and Porches on the street,” he said. “The streets are filled with fashion-savvy kids. I really felt a different, interesting energy.”
The designer was particularly taken with the commotion he caused on his first visit to the flagship on March 26. “There was a young Japanese rock star in the store at the time, so I didn’t even think much about the crowds,” Lauren said afterward, referring to Kazuya Kamenashi. “After he left, we walked out and I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ It felt very special. I am not in the movie business, and to come here and get such crowds that just grew out of nowhere was quite an amazing experience.”
For Lauren, that moment of recognition was probably only topped by a special Shinto shrine ceremony at Tokyo’s central Meiji Shrine for luck, success and good health. The shrine is dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji, the 122nd emperor of Japan, and his consort, Empress Shoken. According to the shrine’s official Web site, their souls were enshrined there on Nov. 1, 1920. Today, it serves as a blessing place, and foreign dignitaries and executives have passed through it, from President George W. Bush to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chief Bernard Arnault.
“We plan to come back for the first anniversary of the store and the 40th anniversary of the company next year,” Lauren told the shrine’s priest, before extending an invitation to him to come to New York and giving him a sterling silver box from his home collection as a gift.
The priest handed Lauren and his wife a tamamushi leaf, which he then placed on the table in front of the shrine.
“I was very moved by the experience,” Lauren recalled afterward. “I remember standing in front of the steps of the shrine and having a very spiritual feeling.”
As is customary, the group bowed twice, clapped twice and bowed once again. This was followed by a performance of four kimono-clad women in the shrine’s prayer room. The Laurens took their shoes off and sat on tatami mats to enjoy the performance, which ended with a sip of sake. “Here you are in Tokyo, looking at all the fashion and swinging kids, and then you go to the shrine and see the tradition,” Lauren observed. “I find that contrast to be very exciting.”
Lauren also met the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Thomas Schieffer, at the American embassy. The conversation ranged from baseball to America’s image in the world. “Before I came here, I had watched a special program on Vietnam, hosted by Brian Williams,” Lauren recalled. “Vietnam and Iraq had to have been on my mind, and we talked a lot about Iraq. I am with the rest of the world and America questioning how we are going to get out…[and] what the perception of Americans is. The ambassador was thoughtful, and what he said was very stimulating. He thought we did a lot of good things in the world, and America’s involvement has made a difference.
“We still found no solution on Iraq,” he said.
Lauren didn’t have much to say about the decor of the embassy, though. When pressed if he thought it should get a Polo makeover, Lauren smiled and said: “They did not ask me.”
That night, Lauren treated his New York team to a dinner at the New York Grill in the Park Hyatt hotel, where much of “Lost in Translation” took place. Lauren was particularly taken by the hotel’s modernist architecture and views. “It’s powerful and bold,” he praised.
While the Lauren family stayed together for much of the trip, some managed to sneak off to explore the different facets of the Japanese metropolis. Dylan Lauren, founder of Dylan’s Candy Bar, took some time to visit the local Toraya factory, which has been making candy for 17 generations. Andrew Lauren, a producer of the award-winning movie “The Squid and the Whale,” also explored Tokyo on his own terms, checking out local boutiques and bars.
Before the meticulously staged ribbon cutting, which came replete with a Polo consultant instructing the family in which directions to wave, Lauren took a moment to personally greet the Tokyo staff. “I have been here for four days and have not stopped to smell the cherry blossoms,” he told the staff. “I haven’t had the opportunity to do shopping. Every time I want to shop, my wife gets in front of me, and she does the shopping.” Plus, he added, “after you come to this store, there’s not much else to go shop for.”
These few words resulted in a lengthy speech by the translator, which bemused Lauren, who sighed a simple, “OK,” before venturing on. “He said all that?” cracked his brother, Jerry Lauren, from the crowd.
When Ralph Lauren introduced his wife, Ricky, he simply exclaimed: “The Ricky bag.”
“You mean the inspiration for the Ricky bag,” quipped his brother.
For the opening party, the Polo team transformed the mansion’s fourth floor into a maze made from 16,000 azalea branches. The maze led to four lounges decorated with wicker chairs and cushions from Lauren’s home collection and dimly lit with Japanese lanterns. The party had the feeling of a moonlit soiree in a Newport, R.I., garden.
The party attracted Princess Takamado; designer Hanae Mori; Sir Howard Stringer, chief executive officer of Sony Corp.; actor Mayo Kawasaki, and comedian Key Shimizu. “I already saw a tiny gold cocktail bag and plan to come back in the next few days to buy it,” Mori said.
Before long, Lauren will have to trade the sake for vodka. In November, he and his entourage are heading to Moscow, where the designer is opening two stores.