By  on May 16, 2007

MOSCOW — Just a few years ago Ralph Lauren considered this city, Russia's traffic-clogged epicenter of conspicuous consumption and rabid new-wealth oligarchs, unready for his understated American take on style.

"I didn't think they would get it," he said Tuesday. But as Lauren, who stressed his company's commitment to overseas growth, prepared to inaugurate twin stores in the Russian capital on Thursday, he emphasized how rapidly business and tastes have evolved in this vibrant luxury market.

"When they asked me to come here years ago, I felt that I wasn't ready for Russia with the clothes that I make," explained Lauren, dressed head to toe in black with a gold Rolex on his wrist. "I think they get it now. Russian people have a history of a lot of elegance and a lot of class. This is an old-world country. So it's in the blood somewhere."

Indeed, Russia — in particular, Moscow — has shaped up as an El Dorado for many of Europe's leading luxury players, from Cartier and Boucheron to Giorgio Armani and Prada.

And, if early customer interest is a reliable litmus test for Lauren, he, too, may strike gold here. He told, for instance, of a Russian woman who walked into his flagship Monday, brushing aside protests it wasn't open yet, to give her credit card in reserve for five Ricky crocodile bags for roughly $100,000.

At both stores, which will be operated under partnership with Russia's Mercury distribution group, customers have been calling to subscribe to long waiting lists because all the bags are on hold even in advance of the opening.

"I'm totally impressed by Russia," enthused Lauren, whose first trip here included a dinner and fashion show at the residence of American Ambassador William Burns on Tuesday evening. The evening began with a cocktail party outside in the gardens, followed by the show in the hall of the residence. Lauren, in black tie, took an emotional bow.

Burns did not attend because he was at the Russian state dinner for Condoleezza Rice, so his wife, Lisa Carty, hosted the evening, which drew Russian energy moguls as well as polo player Nacho Figueras and Lady Gabriella Windsor, who has become a brand ambassador for Lauren in the U.K. The show was followed by a sit-down dinner at three long tables covered with china, glass and huge silver candelabra.

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