Ralph Lauren on his 50 years in fashion: ‘You have to stand for something’

American designer celebrates anniversary at New York Fashion Week with guests including Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, Robert de Niro, Steven Spielberg, Kanye West and Li Bingbing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 September, 2018, 11:33am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 September, 2018, 12:45pm

American soft power was on full display at Ralph Lauren’s 50th anniversary show and dinner during New York Fashion Week.

Celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, Robert De Niro, Steven Spielberg, Kanye West, Li Bingbing and Priyanka Chopra were out in full force to pay homage to the 78-year-old icon of American fashion, who welcomed them on a balmy September evening to one of his favourite places, the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain in the heart of Central Park.

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“Fifty years is a long time in fashion and you have to stand for something,” said a denim-clad Lauren during an interview a few hours before the event. “I’m the living Ralph Lauren and I’m still working and wearing it.

“My clothes and my company and myself are the same. I am who I am. There’s a lot of copies and a lot of clothes out there made by everybody, so if you put your name out there, you have to keep it going.”

Anniversaries are always bittersweet moments, and even more so in a forward-looking industry such as fashion, where novelty reigns supreme.

“I’m not sure I ever think about my legacy,” he says. “What do you think my legacy should be?”

I really feel that there is too much fashion in the world and consumers are looking for exclusivity and specialness and they’re understanding and appreciating vintage
Ralph Lauren

In the eyes of consumers around the world, Ralph Lauren is up there with Apple, Coca-Cola or Nike as a quintessentially US company, the fashion version of the American dream – a fact made more poignant by America’s somewhat tarnished image abroad.

While the designer – who has often dressed Clinton, who sat next to him at the dinner – wouldn’t comment on the current state of American politics, he said he was proud of what his brand had always stood for: inclusion and democracy.

His blockbuster anniversary show reflected both: it was a celebration of 50 years of American style, shown by models of all ages and backgrounds, and testament to the wide, cross-generational appeal of the brand.

“I really feel that there is too much fashion in the world and consumers are looking for exclusivity and specialness and they’re understanding and appreciating vintage. This collection is partly about appreciating vintage,” Lauren said.

“Doing clothes with a slightly vintage feel is kind of a statement, as people are appreciating vintage more these days, young people too. Vintage sometimes is even more expensive than new stuff and feels more exclusive.”

It’s his ability to take tropes of American culture such as cowboy boots, denim jackets, plaid shirts and Navajo motifs and making them relevant to a contemporary audience that has made Ralph Lauren’s signature aesthetic so recognisable, even if you know nothing about fashion.

“When people first see some things, they often laugh, but then it gets copied and becomes big,” explains the designer. “I’ve always done things that were personal to me. When I wear jeans with a tuxedo it’s because that’s how I wanted to wear it. People see it and all of a sudden go, What? But then start to do it.”

While you can’t deny Ralph Lauren’s incredible success around the world, in recent years the company has gone through some restructuring, due in part to the brand’s missed opportunities in Asia. “We’re still learning about Asia,” admits Lauren.

“Being in America you’re often isolated and at an early time I was mainly expanding into Europe and only later in Asia. I found a great reception in places like Japan and it’s exciting to see people there who like your clothes and what you do and to feel that you’re growing. You’re always making changes and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but my responsibility is to the company.”

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As was the case when she gave a rousing speech at this year’s Golden Globes awards ceremony, Winfrey’s contribution was the highlight of the event. She celebrated Lauren with a moving story about her early days in show business, revealing that when she was able to make enough money after moving to Chicago, her idea of success and feeling that “I had made it” was her purchase of a set of Ralph Lauren bath towels that she had desired for more than a decade.

Upon discovering them at a friend’s pool house, “I made a vow to myself: if I ever make some money, I’m going to buy me some Ralph Lauren towels!” said Winfrey, making everyone roar with laughter.

“That’s what you did for me and that’s what you do and what you have done for the past 50 years. Your designs represent integrity, a word we need more of today; they define integrity, as do you, and that is why we’re all here tonight because of your unwavering integrity,” said Winfrey, as Lauren fought back tears.

“We’re all here to say thank you for never straying from your vision, for remaining devoted and staying true to what is right for you, your designs, your world and your company. What I know for sure is that what is real is what lasts and we are here because you have lasted,” she said.