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Saturday In the Park With Ralph

Ralph Lauren is the man of the moment. With his 40th anniversary fete set for this weekend, he talks about glamour, staying power and his decision to take fashion way uptown.

How are you approaching the big anniversary? What are your emotions?

Ralph Lauren: What is my feeling? I’m happy about what I’ve done. I think if you look at 40 years of work, 40 years in this business of ins and outs, of trends, of changes, and to be stronger now than ever before is interesting to me, and that’s what the celebration is.

Certainly reason for a party.
Look, I’m very real about life. I never loved parties; I’m a private person. But I think every once in a while….When I opened my store in New York, I didn’t have a big gala; I just opened the doors. But knowing what I’ve lived through in this business, building something from nothing….Someone lent me $50,000 to start the business, and I worked out of a drawer at Beau Brummel. The salesmen all laughed at my ties. They laughed until I had a business. I built the company piece by piece — ties, shirts, suits, women’s, children’s, home. And then I did the secondary brands and opened up the stores and there was Lauren, Polo, Purple Label, Black Label, I built a conglomerate. There weren’t many people before me who were doing that, [especially] opening stores. When I did my women’s, I wasn’t the sweetheart of the press.

As you know, the October issue of W features a major shoot of clothes from your archives. When it was all together in the closet, it was amazing how current everything looked.
One of the things that I have always said is that my clothes will look better next year than they do this year. That’s always been one of my philosophies. In this book that I’ve got [“Ralph Lauren,” published by Rizzoli, due out Oct. 16], I laid out the clothes, and doing the book, I didn’t want to do any chronology. I don’t want my clothes to look new now, and I don’t want them to look old later.

Classicism trumps trendiness?
First of all, [it’s not mere] classicism. What I do I think is exciting. I designed these chairs. [Ultramodern, chairs with leather seats set into angular carbon-fiber frames.] I love them, but I also like mahogany chairs. I have a race car, a McLaren, an amazingly modeled car. This [he taps the chair frame] is very sturdy, powerful and strong. It’s light and durable.

The car inspired the chair?
Yes. The car was one of the first made out of carbon fiber, with tan leather seats. When I buy cars, I’m looking at technology, newness, modernity. I said I want to do a chair that looks like that.

That’s great.
Twenty years ago I did this black luggage to go with my Porsche that was all black. That car, it’s ugly-beautiful. It’s not a Bentley; it’s not one of these old masterpieces. It’s a utility car that by its nature is about the engine and the technology. That was an inspiration to me, because it never got old. It hasn’t changed for 30 years. It’s got integrity of design. They tweak it, because they’re in business. Next to that car I have an English car with a leather strap on the hood. They’re both great. That’s been the philosophy, that beautiful things never lose their appeal.

Nevertheless, any designer has to work to
stay current.

I could not retire and leave and come back in five years and say, “I’m going to do this great collection.” I don’t believe that will happen. Designing is about living, it’s about feeling the spirit and the moods, and I’m feeling it. And I do that; I can feel competition, I can feel where I should I open my stores.

Tell me about the new collection — a retrospective?
No, it’s not a retrospective, [but] it has a familiar sensibility.

Tell me about the inspiration painting you sent us [“Barbara au Derby” by Jean-Gabriel Domergue, right].
What did you get from that?

Exuberant polish. He’s very dapper in the background, and she’s, very, very pulled together, but happily so, in her bright flash of yellow. She’s worked at it.
That’s what the clothes are about, they’re exuberant, pulled together. They’re two things: glamorous and elegant. What you see in that picture, and I have other ones, is the spirit of celebration. Happiness and joy, the joy in going to a party, and the joy in things. Today there’s almost no one to look at, because everything is played down. If you look at the movie stars today, there are great actresses and actors, but….People ask me, whom do you like, whom do you admire today? I know a lot of actresses — they’re beautiful, they can wear anything and they walk around in T-shirts and jeans and they push their baby carriages and that’s stylish, that’s what’s happening. But I think there is something to the rarity of special clothes and dressing up.

Celebratory clothes for a celebratory moment.
I care and I appreciate that people have stood by me and done their job and worked in business really hard, and I wanted to say thank you. That’s very important to me.

So you see this as a thank-you event?
It’s a thank you to just do the best I can in my show, to feel good. Having a party in Central Park is sort of saying thank you, and that this is a beautiful city and I started in New York, and Central Park is New York.

Why that particular place in the park, the Conservatory Garden?
Because it’s beautiful and I want people to see it. This is a place of beauty, a place of glamour. There used to be horses in Central Park.

Is there an equestrian motif going on?
A little bit. I do what I do. I don’t like to promise, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. I do what I do, and I feel what I feel, and this mood and the party are part of the whole picture.

Is that why it’s a black-tie fete, because you’re feeling for glamour and celebration?
I think so, I think [this kind of party] is very nice, and you don’t really see it in New York. This is the party I want to go to.
What will the guest list be like in terms of celebrities?
It’s not about celebrities; I’ve never really had celebrities. There are people who wear my clothes, people who might be celebrities, but I don’t know if they’re going to come or not. This is not about “let’s see who’s there,” because I’ve never liked that. I would hope that some of the people I’d want to come who are friends would come. But it’s not about that. It’s a celebration for the people I work with, the people who have taken care of me through the years, photographers and all the people….You know, I worry about everything, I worry about my collection, I worry about the people I work with….

What does take it to say thank you in Central Park, in terms of commitment to the park?
I wanted to do something in Central Park years ago, and I didn’t; I really wasn’t clear what. But I use Central Park, and I will do something.

A check? A specific program?
There will be something, there will be checks, but that’s not what it’s about. There are a lot of charities that I support that I believe in, so this is not about buying Central Park.

Any thoughts of showing some men’s wear along with the women’s?
I think I’ve shown men’s and women’s together maybe once or twice, and I think it somehow gets confusing. This is also a working event, I’m doing a collection. It’s not a separate party. I still have a job to design a collection where writers are going to write about it, and do their critique.

I just wondered if for this particular event, given your history…
I thought about it. For a while I was going to do it and then I changed my mind. I change my mind a lot of times….

Forty years is a long time. Do you think of retirement? The word is that you still work as hard as ever.
I love it, I love the company. It is growing and moving and I want to make sure it grows and goes the way I want it to….I can run as fast as my sons. I’m in great shape….If I look at 40 years, I say, “God, how old can I be?” You know, I didn’t start when I was 10.

How do you think you’re perceived by younger designers?
I think I’m perceived well. I think it’s great company. I don’t know if they perceive what I do as what they want to do themselves, but they want longevity and the financial [success]….Someone said, “When you go public, your company will change,” and I thought, “It will get better.”
But you had frustrations along the way.
Yes, but frustrations are very personal. If your stock goes down, you take it personally….I live in New York, I’m not living in a foreign country, so it’s a very personal report card. I get a report card from Women’s Wear Daily, I get a report card from the Wall Street Journal. I get reviews and it’s hell: It’s good, it’s not good, it’s boring, it’s black, it’s too dark, it’s this, it’s that. Think of 40 years of that, 40 years and the weight.

That’s a lot of weight.
Picking yourself up and doing it again and again and again, [even] when your own personal vision is not keeping necessarily with the trend, with where the magazines are, because they’re saying, “This is what we believe in.”….It’s a world that every once in a while says, “We love you,” [or] “We love that you’re doing your own thing.” But other times, it’s, “I wish, you’d get this; why aren’t you [getting this]?”

Longevity has a roller coaster of its own.
What is wonderful is that I have had success doing what I love and what I believed in. I didn’t sell out; I didn’t wine and dine anybody. I just learned how to kiss on both cheeks. I’m proud that it worked. I think it’s inspiring for my children, and for young designers. I care about this industry….This is a very intimate business.

One in which you constantly have to prove yourself.
There’s a confidence I have because I’ve been around, and I know what I’m doing. At the same time, there’s still the excitement of wanting to do a great job. People say, “Ralph, you’ve achieved a certain success. Why are you still worried?”

Ralph, you are exactly right. You have built a fortune by virtue of vision, talent, grit and hard work, and after 40 years, your business is still flourishing. People do wonder: Why do you care what anyone thinks?
Because you’re human. This is what I love. What I’m doing is coming from the heart, so I’m very sensitive to it. Now, can I take it? Yes. Do I pick myself up?

What is most frustrating?
One of the things people think is that you’re rich and successful so you’re not creative. They think, “The guy struggling downtown, he’s really big. Oh, Ralph Lauren, he’s got this big empire, does he really do his clothes?” It’s sort of brushed aside as being a business as opposed to creative. I work and I worry about everything. I do care about it and I want it to be good, just as when I was 22 or 25. It hasn’t changed. But now you know your world doesn’t end.

It’s just not always perfect.
Believe me, having a bad collection is embarrassing, it’s painful. It’s all the things that everyone feels, it doesn’t matter if you’re 18, 25 or 55. And then [you] pick yourself up and get out there and do it again. You face the same people and do it again and again, and do it on your own terms. That’s what I’m proud of and that’s what I believe in.