US icon Ralph Lauren turns his focus to Asia
Retail expansion is high on the agenda of the American designer, who stays modern by breaking both new ground and the rules
It's been 47 years since Ralph Lauren started a small necktie business. That venture is now a multibillion-dollar empire, but the 75-year-old isn't slowing down any time soon.
"I'm very hands on because I can do it," says the softly spoken Lauren, seated on a plush leather couch in his New York headquarters.
"I'm energetic enough to do it, and that's part of my life. It's a public company and that's a challenge because you have to present growth, viability as well as be true to yourself and say 'it's the good stuff' because I really believe in it."
Retail expansion in Asia is high on the agenda, and Lauren's top-tier luxury is at the forefront. Last year Ralph Lauren launched its first men's flagship store in Asia in the Landmark Prince's in Central, wrapping a suitably evocative image of French artist Octave Guillonnet's Bridle Path at Hyde Park around a corner of the building.
In October, it opened an enormous "mansion" store at the Lee Gardens complex, presenting accessories, watches and jewellery as well as men's and women's fashions.
And just a few days ago, the American design mogul opened a new restaurant in New York, The Polo Bar.
As the uncontested king of American fashion, recipient of the CFDA's (Council of Fashion Designers of America) first American Fashion Legend Award and one of the biggest living industry names today, it's with some irony then that Ralph Lauren confesses that he doesn't like fashion much. "It sounds strange for a fashion designer to say 'I don't like fashion' , but it's true. I like style, I love individuality," he says, dressed simply in a black cable knit sweater, black jeans and trainers.
"Wearing clothes and saying something about yourself is interesting. You don't have to wear million-dollar clothes to look cool; you can be cool in so many ways."
The Lauren empire now embraces the world - the embodiment of the Bronx-born designer's American dream. At the helm, Lauren dictates the point of view of the brand, setting the tone and running all the fashion shows.
From his carefully curated Madison Avenue mansion stores and headquarters, Lauren has carved out dreamy environs of aristocratic elegance - perhaps the core image of his brand. Old-style leather couches from where you imagine yourself enjoying a whisky sit in dark, wood-panelled rooms, surrounded by black and white photographs and collectibles that recall a stately home.
Yet Lauren's personal office is playful and light, filled with toy figurines collected over the years: Batman (one obsession) is present in many iterations. A stylish bicycle is perched at one end, while moody black and white photographs of Lauren and his wife Ricky are casually displayed throughout.
You can instantly see that his influences are heavily cinematic.
"I love that old-school masculine look of the movies when I was growing up and still today," Lauren says, citing stars from Cary Grant and Fred Astaire to Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. "I go to the movies and see the star, and think I wanna look like him ... It's not like you totally want to copy them, but it inspires an image."
As a young man, he viewed fashion as the way to look "like the guys in the movies who got all the girls". Even today, Lauren says that his clothes are not about fashion in that typical way - "it's about being an individual and wanting to make your own statement".
He explains: "My father was an artist and struggling, and he didn't have an easy life. When I wanted to go out on a date or wanted to look cool, I couldn't ask my parents to buy my clothes. I had to work, to save up and buy them myself."
At 28, he started making ties in interesting fabrics under the Polo brand, selling them out of a drawer in the Empire State Building. The repertoire soon expanded, and people wanted more: "I went from ties to shirts to suits at a time in America when there were no real designer brands."
Then came womenswear for the woman "who is active, energetic and sophisticated" - very much like his wife Ricky - and a series of lifestyle spin-offs.
Before he pioneered the business, the lucrative lifestyle market was relatively untapped in the fashion world. Now, it's part of the strategy for most fashion businesses. For Lauren, though, the evolution of all those different lines was entirely personal.
"Organic, yes, that's the right word," he says. "I've lived the life that I designed for. I designed children's clothes when I had kids; I designed women's clothes when I married and saw what my wife liked to wear and thought that I could do better."
The rugged leather motorbike jackets he designs stem from his biking days. Although he stopped riding after breaking a leg, those jackets remain. He also ventured into more slick, modern clothing after he started working out every day at the gym. As Lauren points out, the various lines derive from his life.
This May, the Ralph Lauren Centre for Breast Cancer Research opened at the Royal Marsden in London, a proud moment for the design mogul following years of activism.
It all began when Lauren learned that a long-time friend and editor, Nina Hyde, had cancer. He tried to help, introducing her to important doctors. "She didn't live, but I started to get committed," he says.
In 1989, Lauren founded the Nina Hyde Centre for Breast Cancer Research in honour of his friend and five years later led the industry to establish the "Fashion Targets Breast Cancer" fundraising initiative.
He has used his influence and money to restore an icon of America, the Star Spangled Banner, for which Hillary Rodham Clinton presented him with the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal this year.
It's another addition to the many awards he amassed over decades; Lauren remains the only person in the CFDA to have won in the four top categories - designer of the year for menswear and womenswear, retailer of the year and lifetime achievement. In 2010, France awarded him the Legion of Honour.
"Those moments, are kind of 'Oh, my god,'" Lauren says. "I mean, I'm from a little borough in New York. It's a great fulfilment but it's not my whole life, I have three kids and a wonderful wife."
There is no disputing Laurence's influence on American style - consider those ubiquitous Polo shirts or upper-crust East Coast chic. But in an industry often driven by outlandish runway designs and season "mini-trends", some fashionistas have come to regard Lauren's aesthetic as too classic, too consistent.
"Classic to me sometimes sounds 'ordinary'," Lauren says. "Timeless is really the word. Classic might mean no imagination, I move with the times, but I've always believed in the timelessness of good things. Notice how with stylish people who stand for something, there is a consistency of their point of view, but they are not sleeping."
He stays modern by "breaking new ground and breaking the rules" - often seen through the hi-tech innovations of his business, now led by his son David (his other son Andrew is a filmmaker and daughter Dylan runs a candy business).
Lauren developed the first really wearable tech biometric shirts, which debuted at the US Open tennis tournament in August this year.
His men's spring-summer 2015 line ranges from sophisticated, three-piece suits to sporty flannel shirts, preppy sailing outfits to leopard- and floral-print trousers. His women's show delivered vibrant jewel tones with a base colour of khaki - sporty separates mixed with luxe gowns and Indian-inspired costume jewellery.
As much as there are the hunting suits, tuxedos and society gowns and preppy looks we associate with his brand in Asia, there is part of its DNA that evokes the American West - particularly in the denim most evident in his RRL line.
"The spirit of what I do is in there with the romance of the product," he says. "It's not just a pair of jeans, it's the rugged anti-fashion thing."
From Gatsby-esque glamour to cowboy ruggedness, he has built his world of American masculinity. And with that Lauren comes full circle to films, perhaps his first big passion.
"That's how I see things," he says. "I'm sort of the writer that writes through clothes or an actor in a movie. It's really about stories."
In another life, might he have worked in the movies?
"I wanted to be an actor and a director - particularly an actor because I think that actors have all the girls," Lauren says with a laugh. "I'm lucky that I didn't. I think I've done well. For some reason my expression came out through clothes. I never thought I'd be an artist, I didn't think I was good enough, but it came."