“The man wants magic.”
That’s the mantra and message that has guided Buffy Birrittella, executive vice president, senior adviser to Ralph Lauren and senior creative director of Ralph Lauren Womenswear, for 50 years. As reported, Birrittella, who is Lauren’s “right hand,” revealed last week that she plans to retire at the end of March. The company, which for the year ended March 31, 2020, generated $6.2 billion in revenues, doesn’t plan to name a successor.
WWD spoke to the 77-year-old Birrittella, whom Lauren trusted implicitly with everything related to design and creative, about the past 50 years, how she was able to create that “magic” with Lauren, and what she hopes to accomplish during her retirement.
“Such a huge step for me, this has been 50 years with Ralph and the company,” said Birrittella. “I met him in 1968 when I was the men’s fashion editor of DNR [the sister publication to WWD that covered men’s wear]. Math has never been my strong point, but it’s been 53 years of knowing each other, and it’s going to continue because we’re family.
“I’m family with the company, that’s who we are as a company. I just needed to do this,” said Birrittella of her stepping down.
Asked why she decided at this point to make the break, she said, “I didn’t feel any time was ever going to be right, and it’s a very wrenching experience. But at the same time, it’s 50 years, I am so grateful to Ralph and everything we’ve built together. I just love working with the team….I love mentoring and building the team and creating this family that he’s allowed me to build and inspire and mentor, so I feel I’m leaving a good legacy, which is not for me to say.
“I’m going to miss it. It’s not like I’m jumping off a cliff. We’re still going to be family. We’ll have celebrations. We’ll have lots of dinners at the Polo Bar,” said the executive.
Ralph Lauren, executive chairman and chief creative officer of the company, told WWD, “Our company is 53 years old, and Buffy has been with me 50 of those years. She has been part of so many of the company’s seminal moments — in all areas of women’s design, in creating retail and hospitality experiences, and through her very special passion for telling our story through our cinematic advertising.
“Throughout it all, I have felt the unique quality of creativity, care and loyalty she has brought. She is a woman who stands for something with a voice of quality and taste, a refined talent and an instinctive intelligence that has always put my vision and our company first. Buffy has stood with me, encouraged and inspired me and so many others she has worked with throughout the many paths of her journey. I thank Buffy for all of this, but most of all for her enduring friendship,” said Lauren.
There’s no question the enormous challenges of working through the pandemic played a part in her decision.
“It just felt like the time,” said Birrittella. “As everyone has been going through this pandemic, with all these Zooms and everything, it’s all-consuming. There’s no personal space, and a lot of weekends. We do the Collection in Italy, which is in a different time zone. It seemed like nonstop. It was the right time for me to take a breather, to take some vacation. I haven’t been able to be in Utah, and I’ve been a little in East Hampton this summer.” She has homes in both.
“There was never any letup. The pandemic made it even more stressful, and people were working from home. I don’t have children and I can’t imagine having children and working from home and having them educated. I’m lucky, but at the same time, it was exhausting and stressful, but at the same time I’m so proud,” she said.
Birrittella explained that her friendship with Lauren started at DNR. “I became his sounding board for some reason. He would show me collections, and I would talk to him about it. He saw that I understood what he was trying to say with his clothes. Because I was a writer and an English major, I was able to put that into writing, and was able to put into words what his vision was, which I always thought was cinematic,” she said. In 1969, one of her first front-page DNR stories about Lauren was, “The Look Comes Straight Off Gatsby’s Lawn.”
Birrittella talked Lauren into hiring her, hoping she also could continue to freelance as a journalist. At the time, there were six people in the company. In addition to Lauren, there were two production people, two salespeople and a young woman who answered the phones and put together the scrapbooks. She’d put together a press kit and write up the press releases. She went on some journalistic assignments, and she continued as a sounding board on the collection and he’d take her to fabric appointments.
“Ralph just started branching out from tailored clothing and shirts and ties into sportswear. I’d go with him on a lot of appointments to work with him and be the follow-up person. He couldn’t do this all himself. I was there as his first creative assistant,” she said. She said when she did some traveling for journalistic assignments, Lauren began to rely on her, and at one point said, “This isn’t working and you have to be here full-time or else I’m going to find someone else like you.”
“There’s no one like me,” Birrittella recalled telling Lauren at the time.
“We were a very small company, Jerry [Lauren] wasn’t there yet, Peter [Strom] wasn’t there, he had no licensees, we were just doing it. The first women’s collection, I was the fitting model,” she recalled. She said she went to factories with Lauren to do their first women’s shirts in 1971 because Jerry Magnin, who owned and operated the brand’s Beverly Hills store, needed some women’s clothes.
“We weren’t in the women’s business yet. We had excess men’s shirting fabric. Ralph always wanted his women’s clothes to be made in men’s factories, with the same tailoring, with the same everything, with the same gorgeous fabrics from Italy and England, etc. That’s how it started,” she said. They made women’s shirts in the fall of 1971, and then the full women’s sportswear collection in 1972. “Starting with Jerry Magnin, we had been opening Polo shops within men’s specialty stores and they would add a little section for women’s clothes,” she said.
According to Birrittella, Lauren always knew what he wanted.
“His idea was always, ‘I love the way men’s clothes look on a woman, with the same tailoring, and like it was custom made on Savile Row for her.’ That was his primary mission and his starting point. He wanted something that did not exist in the women’s business, which was the same tailoring. That was his vision.” She said he said in the documentary, “Very Ralph,” he didn’t know what he was going to do after that since he didn’t know how to make a gown. “Then Jeffrey Banks came, Sal Cesarani, Gil Truedsson, then Jerry [Lauren] came to work on men’s in 1974-1975,” she said.
Asked about some of her favorite women’s collections over the years, Birrittella said, “The first one, and the 50th [anniversary].” At the beginning, she said, it was “OK kids, let’s open a women’s line. It was so personal. The 50th was also so personal, and the culmination of Ralph’s vision of the romantic, the masculine and feminine, vintage and timeless.” That was the one in Central Park. “In between there were some great ones, Western Wear, Santa Fe, the Folk Art Collection that included the quilts, and all the Americana folk art collection. Those were some of my favorites,” she said.
As to whether these were her passions or did she develop Lauren’s interests, she replied, “It was both of our interests in a way that kind of intertwined. I’m a close friend of Robert Redford,” she said. She had done a cover story on him when she was at DNR when he was preparing for “Jeremiah Johnson” and had just come out with “Little Fauss and Big Halsy,” which was after “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
“We kept in touch and one of the things I talked about was I was going to marry an architect, move to Montana and write the great American novel. That didn’t work out. However, I worked very closely on the fittings for ‘The Great Gatsby,’ [when Lauren designed the costumes for Redford]. Redford and his wife, Lola, invited her to spend a few weeks at his ranch in Sundance. “He taught me to ride that summer, and we just became really close pals. The following winter, we skied.
“I just loved skiing out West, because there was sun and powder and no frostbite. That became a relationship where I’d go out there and stay at his guest house and ski in the winter, and in the summer, go horseback riding,” said Birrittella.
She said Lauren was always in love with the West, having grown up watching Western movies. “He had this great fringe leather jacket he found at a vintage shop. The first summer I went out, I didn’t have clothes, and he lent me his clothes so I looked authentic. I wore this gorgeous deerskin fringe jacket and a great old cowboy shirt so I looked at least like I belonged there,” said Birrittella.
She said she worked with him on the Western collection and loved the vintage pieces he lent her to wear at Sundance. “That was a passion of his and it became mine. Plus, at the same time, I became close friends with Mary Emmerling, who opened the American Country Store on Lexington Avenue. I had always been vintage shopping with my mother going to antique stores in New England, and I particularly loved baskets. I started collecting quilts and baskets and picking up an odd Navajo blanket here and there. And so I started to integrate this American Country style, and that coincided with Ralph and Ricky and the children going out to Santa Fe and coming back with these amazing things and that inspired us to do the Santa Fe collection. It was all kind of seamless,” she said.
Consequently, their interests became intertwined.
“I know. I am so blessed. I feel so grateful. It’s been an incredible gift,” she said.
In trying to describe how she’s able to interpret what he’s thinking, Birrittella said, “It’s hard to unravel that because it was just so instinctive, and he trusted me to be able to implement and complement and enhance his vision. There’s this amazing trust there and his belief in me that I can do it. He had a young family, young kids, and I was the person who was his rock in the office, just as Ricky was his rock for the family,” said Birrittella. “There was this incredible trust there.”
Birrittella said she never harbored any thoughts to design her own collection. “No, no. That probably continued to contribute to that trust because it was never about me wanting to be this great designer. It was always about me wanting to be his right hand and partner. He was the visionary. I didn’t want to be the visionary,” she said.
When he asked her to take over women’s design in 1988, she said, “Not without you. I can do it, but I don’t want to do it without you.”
So how will he survive without you?
“You’ll have to ask him.”
You’re not worried?
“I love him, and we’re very close friends, and of course I worry. He’s very resilient and he’s just amazing,” she said. “I’m not going to speak for him. He’ll always be here for me, that’s how we’re going to do it. As friends.”
Describing some of the low points over the years, Birrittella said it was when the company had to close some divisions. “Having to close Rugby was a big disappointment. Having to close Denim & Supply. We loved the clothes, the clothes were successful. We had the customer, it was about having too many labels. And they all represented parts of Ralph Lauren, so why not consolidate them, if you will. To not be so confusing to the consumer. They were all very consistent with Ralph’s vision, and they all had their identity. It’s just taking those identities and that product and morphing them into existing labels rather than “abandoning the business,” she said.
As for the high points, she said it was opening the Rhinelander mansion on Madison Avenue in Manhattan and when Lauren was presented the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award by Audrey Hepburn. “Just every day being challenged and growing and excited and never a dull moment.”
Birrittella’s background clearly pointed her in a creative direction. She said she always had an interest in architecture and her dream was to marry an architect. She graduated from Skidmore College with a dual major in English literature, with a focus on American literature and journalism, and art history. “I wrote my senior thesis on Philip Johnson’s Glass House for the art history part. I was always interested in fashion and decorating and I don’t know why,” she said.
During the 1970s, she’d make biannual design trips with Lauren and Jerry Lauren to Italy, Cap d’Antibes, Paris, Rome and London.
“You just absorb and learn these things, and I’m learning from Ralph what he loves and why he loves it, so that translates into me being able to take forward his vision on what a mahogany molding should look like.…You study these things, the gentlemen’s club in London…and you learn things as you go along. That’s one of the great parts of my working with Ralph. He was always pushing me in a good way to really be able to grow and contribute and understand his vision and be able to work on all the details because I understood the big vision.”
While she’s terrified about taking the next step, she fortunately has plenty to keep her busy. “I’m just going to take time to breathe. And spend time with my family in Florida, and my houses in Utah and the Hamptons. I’ll probably not spend a lot of time in the city. I’ll probably just take the summer off. People have been saying, ‘Oh, you should write a book’; that will come. Maybe teach at FIT. I just want to take the time to breathe and relax and enjoy and work in my garden and ride my horses.
“The company has been my life for 50 years. I just need to just be me,” said Birrittella.
Birrittella’s colleagues and friends all agreed that the relationship that Lauren and she shared was unusual in the industry.
“To me, Buffy and Ralph were the husband and wife of the brand,” said Donna Karan. “The wife takes care of everything. She was there 24/7. The two of them trusted each other so much. She was the voice of Ralph in the design and fabrics. She understands Ralph’s image. The minute you saw her (and how she was dressed), you knew who she was.”
She said Lauren and Birrittella shared so many common passions. “The way they skied, the way they were out West together, the way they were in the Hamptons together. Their lifestyle was so much alike. I don’t think they’ll ever leave each other. It’ll be just the next chapter,” said Karan.
Vera Wang recalled how she worked with Birrittella when Wang headed up Lauren’s accessories design. “We were together all the time and I was stuck to her hip. As you become very good friends, it’s practically your family. We spend more time in our work days than at home. In my mind, I define Ralph Lauren Women’s with Buffy. They’re almost inseparable.
Wang described Birrittella like “a massive general.”
“I have the highest respect. I say I was mentored by Ralph, but in the most real way, I was mentored daily by Buffy,” said Wang. “The work ethic and the understanding of staying loyal and on brand and being who you are no matter what was going on around you is very Ralph. Ralph always said, ‘I don’t want to see all this other staff, I’m on my own path,’ and Buffy executed every bit of that.”
“Ralph and Buffy had a incredibly unique creative relationship. Designers today could only wish for someone like this to be by their side,” said Robert Burke, chief executive officer of Robert Burke Associates, who previously spent 11 years at Lauren. “I think Buffy was Ralph’s alter ego on everything. There was absolutely total trust for both of them. Ralph really relied on Buffy for so much. If you want to know what Ralph was thinking, Buffy knew his reaction, especially in the design and advertising front.”
Asked how he thinks Lauren will survive without her, Burke said, “It’s certainly going to be an evolution without Buffy there. He has some strong people in place now. It will be a transition.”
Bruce Weber, who photographed countless campaigns for the brand, said, “I was part of the team for about 40 years or more, going on location and working together with Buffy, and she was our captain. She was a tough captain to us and a loved one. It was tough love right away. Nobody knew more about what was in Ralph’s head than Buffy.”
Each day was a 24-hour day on the road together. “It was like studying for your final exams in college. She was a real force to live up to. I learned so much from Buffy about the idea of discipline for hard work and never have an excuse that it’s not done.” He added that the job wasn’t over when they turned in the photos. “Buffy stood up for us, which was really amazing. She defended us, defended the ideas and the pictures,” he said.
He recalled one shoot in San Francisco and Hawaii where there were earthquakes in both places. Some of the girls were crying and the guys were trying to help. After the land settled down, she’d say, “OK, what’s next?”
Sheila Metzner, a photographer who also shot Ralph Lauren campaigns, said she’d always call Lauren whenever she was assigned a collection to shoot, and he would express his vision for the season. Then they would have a meeting and Buffy would be at those meetings. “She was involved with her creative aspect of the shoot from then on. Hands on. It was always a huge team.
“Our photo shoots for Ralph were like a [Francis Ford] Coppola production of ‘The Ten Commandments.’ If the waves didn’t recede from the beach on schedule, she would stand and watch till they did, so we could start shooting, on time,” said Metzner.
She said Birrittella’s home at Sundance, her loft in TriBeCa, her jewelry, her lifestyle, are breathtaking, “and the equivalent of Ralph’s personal style. She had, and rode horses, she skied. Her life and her work were inseparable. No one was more dedicated,” said Metzner.
Bethann Hardison said, “I can’t imagine her no longer being there [at Ralph Lauren]. She was such a piece of the fabric. She was always the quiet storm. It’s wonderful to have someone in your life for that length of time. Ralph kept a foundation of muses around him. That was his crew, they were reliable and dependable people who were your eyes, ears and thoughts. Buffy was someone who was that person.”
Cheryl Sterling, former president and chief operating officer of Ralph Lauren Womenswear and a consultant, said, “Buffy and I worked together for over 35 years and when we developed a mutual respect for each other, she became my favorite ‘dueling partner.’ She is tough, no nonsense, no time for gossip, and always had Ralph’s vision and image as her priority. We both had the same goals in mind, sometimes with a different thought process, but we were always united under Ralph. I consider Buffy a trusted friend.”
Jeffrey Banks recalled how he shared an office with Birrittella at Lauren when they both started in 1971. “She was wonderful, she was fun, and extremely smart. The thing that’s so great about Buffy was she totally got Ralph, and what he aspired to and what he wanted to create. She understood it intuitively. Her literary background, her love of [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, she understood the romance. He valued her opinion above everything. She went with him on fabric appointments. He listened to her and she listened to him. She could speak on his behalf. He trusted her more than anyone else. She was a loyal defender of him. She always wanted the best for him.”