Experiential fashion. Everybody talks about it, both at retail and in the fashion-show sphere. In this age of social media, some megabrands approach their shows from an Instagram-first perspective, how the experiences they create will play on phones around the world.
Ralph Lauren takes a different approach; he rejects the Instagram-first agenda. At least, one gets that feeling, even if, truth be told, he fully gets social media. At 50 years and counting in one of global fashion’s most dazzling success stories, he knows how to adapt to the times. Yet everything about a Ralph event telegraphs that, at that moment, there’s no one more important to him — or no millions more important to him — than the people in the room. “This is my world and I do what I love…[there’s] an honesty to it,” he said during a preview.
That was the vibe on Thursday morning, when Lauren expanded his previously secret café nestled into the 72nd Street side of his Madison Avenue women’s flagship into a full-floor coffee shop, one impossibly elegant yet utterly inviting to the guests invited in for breakfast and a show. (On the menu: yogurt with berries, egg white frittata and, yes, bagels and lox.)
The intimacy of the setting belied the typical fashion-week frenzy: numerous bistro tables and bentwood chairs pulled up to forest green leather banquettes, three of which were joined in an outward facing circle, anchoring the center space. At their point of fusion, a golden branch sculpture reached majestically toward the chandelier. While it looked specially made for the event, it was in fact re-purposed, having been commissioned from Geoff Howell some time ago for the jewelry salon. When a guest commented on its perfection, Lauren chief executive officer Patrice Louvet deadpanned, “One thing about this house — we don’t lack assets.”
The focus on details carried over to the hearty “Ralph’s Coffee” signage that somehow seemed to fit right in at the Beaux Arts-style store. As for the service, it was handled exquisitely by staff moonlighting (or morning-lighting) from the Polo Bar. Krista refilled the coffee cup you didn’t realize was empty; her colleague covertly removed and then replaced a sugar bowl. The difference: He inserted packets of Splenda, lest a guest deem the Sweet & Low unacceptable.
After such attention to every guest at every table, a few bars of “Puttin’ On the Ritz” on the soundtrack announced the start of the show, and Lauren’s models started down the grand staircase. As the follow-up to his 50th anniversary Central Park fete, with its show that was vintage-inspired and highly decorative yet casual, Lauren wanted to highlight a different side of his range. He made spring all about polish, deftly working a naval theme in a treatise on chic control in black, white and gold.
A dominant silhouette featured a lean bodice over languid volume. It turned up in various ways — white knit dress, belted at the waist; admiral’s jacket atop super-wide pants. The silhouettes were mostly low-key, incorporating a fabulous floral print (leather jacket over a full-skirted dress) and gold flourishes for interest. Cases in point: a high-intensity metallic Aran knit worn with trim pea jacket and pants; a T-shirt dress in sparkly gold and black stripes. Lauren upped the flash factor with gold leather pieces here and there, and was at his most flamboyant with a jacket and pants in denim like you’ve never seen it — embroidered with silk thread and Swarovski crystals, with rubbery Mylar splashes.
Evening, too, got jolts of gold. But the most compelling looks came in black, whether solid or floral. The winner: a reed-thin polo shirt extended to floor-length and covered in sequins, with a tiny polo player just where it should be. When you’ve got it, flaunt it – but with discretion.
That’s some oxymoron to pull off, but then, graceful branding is core to Lauren’s ethos. As for that key concept, experience, the point of the experiential fashion show is to lure the viewer — retailer, press, and ultimately, consumer — to make that person long for inclusion into the world being experienced. Here, Lauren lured us with gracious treatment in a beautiful setting populated by happy (and happily fed) guests and beautiful, gracefully dressed models who sometimes made eye contact with those guests and — get this — even smiled. Who wouldn’t want in?