Ralph Lauren has been in the hospitality business for 20 years, dating back to the opening of his first restaurant, in Chicago, in 1999. Since then he has famously opened flagship restaurants in Paris, New York and London. But did you know that, in addition to the monstrously successful Polo Bar on Fifth Avenue, he also has an intimate little café in New York? Ralph’s Coffee opened in December, in his women’s store on Madison Avenue.
Opened as a holiday-season pop-up in the intimate salons on the store’s 72nd Street side, there’s as yet no closing date due to its instant popularity. “We looked at coffee shops up and down Madison Avenue, and wanted to offer something different,” Lauren said on Tuesday, during a store visit. “We didn’t advertise. I like to keep things where it’s a surprise.”
That is, until now.
On Thursday, Lauren will show his women’s collection for spring — buy-now-wear-now still works for him — in an expanded version of Ralph’s Coffee. As the show invitations delivered on Tuesday reveal, the entire first floor of the store has been reimagined and redesigned, its cozy, deep green leather banquettes and hearty coffee-shop-type tableware proclaiming “Ralph’s Coffee” juxtaposed against the opulence of the interiors, constructed in 2010 to look straight out of the Belle Epoch.
The space oozes charm and elegant comfort of a sort seldom experienced during fashion week. And yes, breakfast will be served. This isn’t a one-day frolic, but a fully operational coffee shop. And it’s about more than a fun show installation. Lauren knows that today, experience matters. It matters at retail, it matters at showtime. It matters for invited guests lucky enough to attend the show, and for the Instagram moment. “Today, everybody talks about the experience,” he said. “How do you create excitement and a spirit? I want people to see the show, to see models and the clothes in a way that you haven’t experienced before — being comfortable and relaxed. You can have your coffee, your croissant or whatever you want, as it’s happening. That’s the spirit of it.”
Extending that experience to those customers who won’t be at the show also matters — a consideration front-and-center in Lauren’s mind. To that end, the expanded café will remain installed through Sunday. Clients will be able to book a “reservation” to dine and shop via a link on Open Table.
Lauren thought long and hard about how to follow up his glorious 50th-anniversary show at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park, where industry regulars mingled with the likes of Hillary and Oprah. He wanted the spring experience to be very different, yet as true to who he is as a designer and as a person. “You do what your personality is,” he said. “This is my world. It’s what I love and the clothes reflect that — casual or sport or rugged or RRL, it’s all a part of the vision of the consumer that I know and like. I like the diverse concepts; I like the mix.”
The follow-up had to be special in its own way, and in its own way answer the question he posed to himself: “How do you present what you do in the best way possible? How do you get the heart beating?”
To Lauren, the answer doesn’t lie in deliberate overstatement. While he fully buys into the importance of the fashion show experience, he feels no need to follow the lead of the major European luxury brands, for which staging megashows has become the prevailing approach. “Anything you can do I can do bigger” flies in the face of Lauren’s brand ethos. “We did a big show in Central Park but it was heartwarming. It had honesty. There was an integrity to it,” he said.
This time out, he wanted a much smaller scale. The event will be very intimate — about 120 guests at each of two shows — while reflecting what Lauren identifies as a key aspect of the cultural moment — the obsession with dining. To that end, two decades flexing his restaurateur’s muscle haven’t been for nothing, which circles back to Ralph’s Coffee. “It’s where the world is right now,” Lauren said. “Dining, food, the experience of food — it’s the fashion of the moment. It’s timeless, but it is the fashion of the moment. Going to a restaurant — where are you going to go? There’s so much entertainment all around, but dining is a different spirit.” The idea for the show café came organically, and long after the collection had been designed. (Just as the café presentation will differ significantly from the Central Park show, the collection itself promises to be very different than that vintage-inspired tour de force.)
In addition to his flagship restaurants, several Ralph’s Coffee outposts have opened under the watch of Charles Fagan, executive vice president, hospitality and Lauren’s chief of staff and longtime confidant. These include permanent coffee shops opened in 2018 at Ocean Terminal, Hong Kong and Omotesando, Tokyo. Last year, in addition to the Madison pop-up, another opened in New Town Plaza, Hong Kong. Then there are Ralph’s Coffee trucks in Hong Kong, Japan and Europe, to be joined in April by one at Rockefeller Center.
The New York location is the one Lauren can watch up close, and from the start he saw how it broadened perceptions of the store. “Upstairs is all about luxury and service. But [the coffee shop] says, ‘Come on in.’ It’s important to be approachable. It’s relaxing to come in here, meet someone for lunch or breakfast, and go upstairs and shop.”
He wants the show to have that same feeling of relaxation. “We’re not looking to make it a formal event,” Lauren said. “It’s, ‘Come in, relax, have a cup of coffee. Enjoy the clothes.’”