Ralph Lauren, who has always taken a cinematic approach to his collections, is finally the star of his own movie.
A new HBO documentary, “Very Ralph,” which airs Nov. 12, illustrates how Lauren successfully turned his dreams into reality, using storytelling and his aspirations to build a multibillion dollar powerhouse. Three years in the making, the film will have its premiere tonight at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, with a party afterward at the Temple of Dendur.
“Very Ralph” traces Lauren’s life from his early days growing up with his two brothers, sister and parents in the Bronx (sleeping on a cot and sharing a bedroom with his brothers) to selling wide ties out of a drawer in a showroom in the Empire State Building, to running into financial problems, getting his own shop on the main floor at Bloomingdale’s, opening freestanding stores worldwide and building a complete lifestyle business that ultimately went public and today generates over $6.3 billion in sales. It also shows Lauren’s personal side, his family, his homes, his passions and his love affair with classic movies, vintage cars, and baseball.
“I actually didn’t want to do it, but everybody was pushing me to do it,” said Ralph Lauren in an interview this week. He said the documentary came about after he met Richard Plepler, former chairman and chief executive officer of HBO, at Lauren’s Polo Bar restaurant, and Plepler said that the designer was an inspiration to him. He suggested an HBO documentary. “I liked him very much, so that was it….I didn’t want the publicity. But this is a momentous time. It was the 50th anniversary, and it all came together as something special,” Lauren said.
Designers who appear in the 108-minute film include Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Vera Wang and Jason Wu, while Martha Stewart, Tina Brown, Ken Burns, Joel Schumacher, Naomi Campbell, Woody Allen, Tom Brokaw, Paul Goldberger, André Leon Talley, Buffy Birrittella, Tyson Beckford, Jessica Chastain, Kanye West, and Hillary Clinton also offer up comments. Even people who are no longer with us, such as Marvin Traub, Karl Lagerfeld and Audrey Hepburn, share candid thoughts about Lauren’s career as do fashion journalists including Anna Wintour, Vanessa Friedman, Robin Givhan, and WWD executive editor Bridget Foley. And of course, his close-knit family, including his wife Ricky; children Andrew, David and Dylan, and brother Jerry provide commentary as well (along with home movies).
The film was directed and produced by Susan Lacy, creator and former executive producer of the WNET series “American Masters,” who directed “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” and “Spielberg” for HBO. ”Very Ralph” was executive produced by Graydon Carter.
Asked in an interview whether it was difficult to convince Lauren to do the film, Lacy said, “It’s kind of a dual answer. I think he’d been thinking about this for a long time, and as it got closer to the 50th anniversary, I think it got more real that he did want something of a legacy piece. When it came right down to it, I think he was incredibly nervous about it, and I’m sure there were times along the way that he wished he hadn’t said yes.”
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Lacy conducted about eight or nine lengthy interviews with Lauren at his various homes in Montauk and Bedford, N.Y., and Colorado, as well as his office, in an effort to get a greater understanding of what drives the 80-year-old executive chairman and chief creative officer of Ralph Lauren.
“He’s a very shy man. He’s not a guy who opens up easily. He’s very private and he’s shy and we got to know each other pretty well, and he ended up with a lot of trust in me,” said Lacy.
Lauren acknowledged, “This is Susan’s movie. I did interviews. She’s a smart woman. I got to know her a little better and enjoyed her. It wasn’t my time [working on it], it was her time. I’m working while I’m doing my life. She was working on discovering who Ralph Lauren is.”
Lacy did a lot of vérité shooting of him at work, which was a very difficult thing for Lauren to say yes to. “One of the first things he said to me was, ‘I like to maintain a little magic and mystery, and I think too much information takes the magic away. Not everybody wants to see how the sausage is made,’” said Lacy. “And I said, ‘Well, I understand what you’re saying, but on the other hand, there’s something to me incredibly inspiring and admirable and amazing about the fact that you still go to work every day. I just want to show that, and I think it’s really important.”
Lacy felt it was important to not only use archival footage, but to show current shots of him in his workplace. “He got that. He’s a very smart man. He participated in it and we did a couple of days of vérité shooting at the office, and also backstage at a couple of the shows, preparation leading up the final [50th anniversary] show, with the casting and accessorizing,” said Lacy.
“She knows her business a lot better than I know her business,” said Lauren, who gave Lacy access to the company’s archive downtown with all the collections and the ad campaigns. “She did a lot of research and spoke to people in the company. The doors were open to her,” said Lauren.
Lacy drew up a list of people she wanted to contact for the film, and showed it to the Lauren people. There were also people she interviewed that she didn’t run by them. As a result, there are plenty of compliments, a few criticisms, and a lot of really interesting explanations about what makes Ralph “Ralph.”
“I didn’t tell her who to call,” said Lauren. “She did a lot of research. I didn’t have control over who she talked to. I didn’t call them and say, ‘you better say something nice.’ I have to trust my reputation, one way or the other,” he said.
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In one scene, for example, Calvin Klein recalled seeing Lauren when they grew up in the Bronx and Lauren dressed in a way that was so different from everyone else. “He had the courage to dress like that. It was so cool,” recalled Klein. Lauren’s wife, Ricky, spoke about the early days living in the Bronx under the El train after they got married. “We didn’t have very much but we were very happy with what we had,” she shared. Tina Brown noted in the film that if Lauren has any regrets, it would be that he’s not a movie director. And Wintour said that Lauren is quite isolated, and surrounds himself with a close group. “He feels most secure in these amazing environments. Remaining in that cocoon has kept his vision strong,” she said.
Interestingly, Lauren’s older brother, Jerry, admits he was the person who decided that he wanted to change their last name from Lifshitz to Lauren, and asked if his brothers, Lenny and Ralph, wanted to join in. “It was a tough name to live with. I never wanted to escape my origins,” said Jerry Lauren.
And in one honest assessment, Ralph Lauren admits in the film that he doesn’t get invited to parties in the Hamptons (he sees all the cars parked in front of houses), and probably wouldn’t go anyway, but it’s nice to be invited. During his down time, he prefers to spend time with his family, rather than visit with friends.
So were there any topics during the filmmaking that were off-limits?
“No, absolutely not,” said Lacy. Surprisingly, there was no mention of Lauren’s brain tumor, which was successfully removed in 1987.
“A lot of people have asked me why I didn’t include it. I didn’t because it wasn’t really a story. We talked about it at our first meeting. I’m a cancer survivor. Our very first meeting we were like best friends. I’m exaggerating. It was very immediate, we liked each other, and we got right down to business. I said that must have really changed your life in some way, and he said, ‘It didn’t really, I thought it would, but I went right back to work and that was it.’ There wasn’t really a decision. It was my decision, it was not his. He would have been fine with it,” she said.
Lauren agreed that he would have been fine with the mention of the brain tumor, and added that there wasn’t any mention of his involvement with cancer charities. Lauren said he doesn’t have to talk about his cancer work, or get publicity for it.
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Throughout the film and during the course of his life, there don’t seem to be too many major disappointments, except for early business troubles, which Lauren admits in the film he was afraid to tell his father about. “He does talk about the criticisms, and that if he listened to the critical remarks he would have quit,” said Lacy.
Asked if he considers himself relevant today, Lauren told WWD, “No, I don’t worry about being relevant. Thirty years ago I didn’t worry about it either. I was never relevant. I was very not relevant. I did what I did and it came my way. You got to believe in yourself or else it’s a waste of time. You take a risk and that’s what it’s about.” He said he feels very good about the future of the company. “Our team is better than ever before…There’s a good mix of people and a good mix of talent, and I’m working all the time,” said Lauren.
As a private person, Lauren was questioned whether he’s excited for people to see the film and to get to know him better. “I’m still private, said Lauren. “I work and do what my job is. I think I consented to do this because it was the right time, or else I wouldn’t have done it. I don’t do anything flippantly.”
HBO and Lacy had final say in the film and not Lauren, although out of courtesy, Lacy showed it to him three days before it was locked.
“We don’t want the person to wince every time they see it, if they don’t like one or two shots. It’s not worth it,” she said. “I saw it with Ralph and we both cried. I think it’s a very emotional experience to watch your life, in a way that you might not have told that story. He didn’t know what I was going to do. Some of it was a surprise to him. At one point he looked at me and said, ‘I could never have made this film. If I could have, I would have,’” she said. “I think he loved it, and think it was also wrenching in some ways. It is hard watching something all about yourself,” she said.
Lacy said he only had one criticism. “The only thing he was concerned about was some shots during the vérité where he didn’t think he looked very good,” she said. “I had no problem with that. He’s a handsome man. He’s gotten older. You want to look your best,” said Lacy, who removed the photos in question.
Asked how he reacted to seeing the completed film, Lauren said, “I felt it. It choked me up a little. Maybe it was seeing my kids. That always gets to me.” Lauren said he had an 80th birthday party last week and showed the film to his family and two friends from second grade, cousins, nephews and nieces. “Those are the critics. They loved it. It’s very hard to judge your own self.”
Lacy said that Graydon Carter got involved as executive producer because of his relationship with Lauren. “He knows Ralph very well, and is close to HBO. It was a natural thing. They didn’t know me at the beginning at all. Graydon’s presence was comforting. He wasn’t involved on a day-to-day basis by any means. I really did spend quite a lot of time with Ralph,” said Lacy. She said she conducted over 99 percent of the interviews herself, and the only one she didn’t do was one with Tyson Beckford because she was traveling.
Lacy said she wants people to come away with a greater understanding of how someone who doesn’t sketch or didn’t go to fashion school can have such a huge impact on the culture. In the film, Lauren says he never thought he was in the fashion business, and if someone would ask him if he were in the fashion business, he’d say, “No, I hate fashion.” While he admits that he never went to fashion school and doesn’t sketch, he said, “I had the eye. I don’t know where it came from.” He says his father was an artist and painter, so his color sense must have come from him.
“I wanted to make a film to put Ralph in a cultural context,” explained Lacy. She said she wanted to show the process of where he gets his inspiration, how he envisions the world that he created, and show that it has a process of its own, without showing somebody sketching something. HBO financed the film completely.
“I’m inspired by everything I see,” said Lauren in the film. “I love old things, cowboy boots, I love details and cars, and somehow it all ends up in my clothes.”
One thing Lacy learned that surprised her was “how very humble he really is.”
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“I’m not saying he doesn’t have ego, his persona is very humble…. I loved it when Anna Wintour said, ‘Sometimes he can’t believe he’s really Ralph Lauren.’ You see this very self-assured handsome man in the ads, who looks like he’s got everything there. Even he is surprised by what happened to him.”
Lauren’s patriotism shines through in the film with Hillary Clinton noting that he pledged $13 million to repair the Star-Spangled Banner. “He understands icons because he is one,” said Clinton. It’s revealed in the film that two of his fondest moments were throwing out the first pitch at a Yankees game and receiving an honorary knighthood from the Queen of England. But the most important award he ever won was the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award presented by Audrey Hepburn.
While it’s evident in the film how successful Lauren has become, Lacy said she didn’t want to make a big deal about how incredibly wealthy he is. “I tried to stay away from that as much as possible,” she said. “There’s always that fine line when you deal with somebody of that wealth between doing a portrait that’s honest and ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.’ I really try to avoid that, which is why I did not include the incredibly valuable vintage car collection. I wanted to show him in a car and I wanted to show that he drives them. It’s a part of realizing the various movies of his life that he envisions. There was the Cary Grant part, there was the Steve McQueen part, there’s the Humphrey Bogart part with the leather jacket and there’s the John Wayne part. I didn’t want to go overboard. To not show him driving one of the race cars, which we shot in Colorado with a drone, would have been an incomplete picture,” she said. “But one doesn’t then go and include the first or second most valuable car collection in the world. You don’t have to go there.”
But all his beautiful houses in Bedford, Jamaica, Montauk and Colorado are depicted in the film.
“I showed his houses because it’s part of the business story. I think it’s really true when his sons say he needed to get into this because he needed to put stuff in his house. He needed napkins. He couldn’t find what he wanted so he designed it, that became his inspiration,” said Lacy. “That’s the reason I included the houses — it related to the lifestyle and branding he did. Honestly, I was in almost all the residences. They don’t feel fake. Montauk was my favorite of his houses. It’s very humble. It’s not a McMansion. It’s a very small little house. It has a beautiful location on the ocean. You walk the grounds and there are a few cottages where his kids stay.
“When he told me that story when he showed his mother [his home in] Bedford and she said, ‘What do you need that for?’ Ralph said, ‘I didn’t really need it, I got it because I wanted that little barn.’ I was very moved by that. That’s the real Ralph.”
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