Who hasn't mused on what it might be like to step for a moment into that renowned, rareified world of Ralph Lauren's creation, the one depicted in those glorious Bruce Weber photographs? Nearly 500 people got the chance on Saturday night when Lauren invited them to the Conservatory Garden, a jewel of a spot way up on 105th and Fifth Avenue in Central Park — a world away from typical fashion crowd scenes.

Arriving guests walked past a pair of urns spilling over with vibrant pink hydrangeas that flanked the Vanderbilt Gate, the ironwork masterpiece that in its previous life kept the railroad magnate sequestered safely from hoi polloi curiosity while in his 58th Street manse. At Lauren's fete, no drama getting through, each guest treated like a movie star, a sip of Champagne and then into a grand white tent appointed simply in sleek black and white (albeit with a colorfully horsey Edwardian runway backdrop), where the people-watching was as delightful as the A.C. (Hey, everybody, take a lesson. This isn't Europe.) The front row shone with star wattage, but not of the typical I'll-show-for-a-free-dress actress ilk. Rather, Lauren's A-list weighed heavily toward New Yorkers important in various fields, starting with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his girlfriend Diana Taylor, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, Charlie Rose, Martha Stewart, Dustin Hoffman and his wife, Lisa, Stephen Schwarzman, Robert De Niro, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, not to mention the ultrasupportive competition — Donna Karan, Carolina Herrera, Vera Wang and Diane von Furstenberg.

In response to the invitation's request for black tie, many women turned up, not surprisingly, in black. But there was also a big showing of white with a shot of silver here or there in the crowd, which played uncannily to one of the evening's leitmotifs — the Ascot scene from "My Fair Lady," the soundtrack of which played in the background. And why not? That Anglo gentility has always featured prominently in Lauren's work, and he and Eliza Doolittle herself, Audrey Hepburn, became friends back when he designed her clothes for a PBS series on gardens. (The show-opening song, however — "Boring" by The Pierces — was atypical Ralph, with lyrics that delighted the audience: "Galliano, Donatella, Dolce & Gabbana — boring.")The party celebrated Lauren's 40th anniversary in the fashion business, and his remarkable ride from a drawer full of ties at the Beau Brummel showroom to the clout implicit in taking over six acres of Central Park for a night. It also gave ample credence to Lauren's oft-stated professional mantra: "I do what I do." At various times object of both laudation and lampoon in this most mercurial of industries, Lauren has ultimately thrived without compromise.

That focus led him to note last week: "This is also a working event. I'm doing a collection. It's not a separate party." Invariably when a designer links two such occasions he risks having the fete trump the show. But here, Lauren turned out a fabulous collection, one that strutted his signatures left, right and center without turning archival; these clothes were all about next spring. He opened with an au courant ode to Audrey — a curvy, white gown trimmed in ribbons and worn under a big hat. Out next: a dapper his-for-her look setting up a ladies-gents counterpoint that continued throughout. Impressionistic garden party gowns offered a waft of the Thirties, while slick and yellow sportswear revved up the mood. And Lauren celebrated the horsey life not only with paint-splashed jodhpurs but with vibrant silk prints that worked as well for a saucy cocktail dress as for a sleek jockey jacket. He finished with a stunner: a silver chain-beaded gown.

After the show, Lauren took a long bow, stopping to accept congratulations along the way. He was then joined by his wife, Ricky, and, as they reached the models' exit, the backdrop opened to reveal the spectacular outdoor party setting.

Then, the crowd followed the couple into the elegant garden, made only more so by hundreds of hurricane lamps, 11 chandeliers, custom Ralph Lauren linens and napkins and 10 more of those 400-pound urns filled with truckloads of pink hydrangeas.

"Is this what it's like every year?" asked Karan. "Because if so, I'm never showing again. I'm canceling my show, I've already made the call."

Indeed, no expense was spared — 700 bottles of Champagne were on hand for the crowd, which included John Mellencamp and Elaine Irwin, Clarissa and Edgar Bronfman, Bruce Weber, Robert Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Mary, and the Lauren children. Of course, Stewart stopped one waiter proffering caviar to ask, "Who did the catering?" FYI, it was Olivier Cheng.Bloomberg, admittedly not the world's most devoted fashion follower, paid tribute to Lauren for his civic contribution to the city. "If you called central casting and said, 'Find me a great New Yorker,' they would send Ralph Lauren,'" he said. "When the city needs something, Ralph Lauren is always there." Perhaps now it's time for the mayor, who did not dress in a Lauren suit, to return the favor. "I am potentially his worst client," Bloomberg said with a laugh. "I have some shoes and shirts."

There were plenty of other clotheshorses in attendance to make up for the mayor's lack. The best thing about Ralph Lauren, said Hoffman, is that "if you're short, you don't have to have anything altered. I'm telling you the truth," he said, tugging at his suit, "this is right off the rack."

Chances are that SJP's spangly Ralph Lauren frock was not, but the actress still enthused about the designer. "[Ralph] personifies classic design and has created an elegant lifestyle for people to be a part of — even if you're not really a part of it."

Both Sawyer and Walters praised him for his humility. "He rarely gives interviews, you know. He doesn't like to talk about himself," Walters explained. "But he is the American dream."

Police Commissioner Kelly agreed: "His is a classic American story. It's what this country is all about."

Maybe it was the bubbly combined with the sultry heat — or that interminably long cocktail portion before dinner, the one hiccup of the night — but superlatives did seem called for. Wang, who first met Lauren when she interviewed for a design job, was not surprised at all by the lavishness of the affair. "Ralph's life has been so successful," she said. "He's like the hedge-fund guy of fashion. He's like Google."

With Dean Martin crooning over the sound system and the garden fountain streaming high into the air, guests ascended to the terrace, lit with thousands of candles, for a supper of herbed haricots verts, New Zealand lamb and wild strawberry shortcake. "I can't believe I'm living this life," Lauren said. Yes, but if this is the manner in which he celebrates 40, how on earth will he top it at 50? "I think I'll take a rest first," he said with a smile.

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