There is no irony to Ralph Lauren. That may be the most important thing to know about him. As Lauren enters his fifth decade in business, it is increasingly clear that he makes those beautiful clothes and perfect leather chairs and voluptuous quilts not to comment on the culture but to wallow in it. The man who has built a $4.3 billion company by replicating preppy fashions, Art Deco sophistication, and Adirondack ease isn't motivated by skepticism, and, no, he isn't driven by nostalgia either. Lauren isn't trying to live in the past. He's trying to get the past to live in the present, which takes a lot more chutzpah, because to make it work you have to get other people to sign on to your fantasies. No one—well, no one since Walt Disney—has done a better job of that than Ralph Lauren.
Fashion is one of the more cynical businesses in a cynical world, which makes Lauren's long career all the more astonishing, given that he operates with the sincerity of a character in a Frank Capra movie. Lauren takes it all very, very seriously—the clothes, the furniture, the houses, the whole aura of picture-perfect Wasp life that he has developed, piece by piece, over 40 years. He figured out a long time ago that Americans, for all they may talk about diversity, don't want too much of it in their physical surroundings. They are happy to watch The Sopranos, but they want their houses to look like Leave It to Beaver. Lauren based his business on the recognition that the ideal that people carry in their heads of what life is supposed to look like hasn't changed nearly as much as the world itself has changed. He realized that you don't have to be a Republican to enjoy dressing like one.
Lauren's take on American life isn't self-consciously retro. It's not self-conscious at all, which is part of its appeal. Lauren wants to serve you America straight up. The only twist is that his version tastes better than the real thing, because he has taken out everything that would make it sour. Real Wasp life, after all, can be messy. People get drunk, they fight, they let their houses get dingy and their clothes frayed. In Lauren's world, the silver martini shaker beckons, but nobody gets soused. The house has a patina, but never a hole in the carpet. The clothes are classic, not tired. When you enter one of Ralph Lauren's stores, or even when you look at one of his magazine ads, you see the world as better than it is. But you do not see a different world. Almost every other designer's stock-in-trade is that special frisson of the new. Not so with Lauren. If he has shocked you, he has failed. When people describe things as "very Ralph Lauren," they have in mind a world of old money and relaxed style that impresses not just because it is so beautiful but because it seems at once so familiar and so effortless.
And that world is complete in itself. If you look at the windows of Lauren's stores on Madison Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side, you don't see just clothes. You see exquisitely wrought tableaux of upper-class life, stage sets made up of meticulously arranged photographs and chairs and antiques. The furnishings are so dazzling that you could almost miss the mannequins done up in the latest Lauren fashions. I suspect it's not an accident that the clothes aren't front and center. By the time you notice them, the message of the window has already registered: This is how life is supposed to be. And you know, whether or not you are willing to admit it, that you like it. These aren't just things to wear. They are elements in a bigger operation, an attempt to re-arrange the world so it looks … well, the way Ralph Lauren always thought it ought to look.
Everybody knows that Ralph Lauren grew up in the Bronx, that his name was once Lifshitz, and that he was motivated by a nose-pressed-against-the-glass love for a culture he most definitely hadn't inherited. What makes Lauren different from every other Jew with Wasp fantasies is how completely he saw Waspdom in visual terms, and how determined he was to design every bit of it, down to the last detail, and then make a living selling his fantasies to others, starting with ties and then moving on to men's wear, women's wear, accessories, perfumes, household objects, and furniture. The things that seem to have inspired him most—the movie-star aura of Fred Astaire and Cary Grant, Cedric Gibbons's classic set designs for MGM, and Slim Aarons's lavish photographs of the rich at leisure—all suggest an environment in which everything is of a piece. I think Lauren was entranced by the notion that every last detail, from the clothes to the rooms to the cars to the views, and even the people themselves, could be orchestrated to look consistent and perfect. I used to wonder why every other designer's sheets and comforters are sold at Bloomingdale's out of racks on an open floor, while Lauren's are in their own separate area with pine-paneled walls. Or why the Armani, Zegna, and Canali sections on the men's clothing floor at Saks Fifth Avenue all have crisp, modern fixtures, while the Polo Ralph Lauren section looks and feels like an English club. It's because Lauren's products promise more than just the rush of pleasure that luxurious objects provide. When you buy them, you get to enter Ralph Lauren's movie. You get a tiny slice of that whole environment from which it comes, whether it is the perfect shingled summer house by the sea, the sleek ski lodge, the western ranch, or the streamlined penthouse. Everybody loves that stuff, and whether you think of it as your birthright or as something you aspire to hardly matters.
The drive to create a total environment reaches its apex, surely, in Lauren's own stores, where there are no competing labels to offer distraction. Their success is astonishing: in New York, the original Polo Ralph Lauren store, at 72nd and Madison, has now mutated into a whole colony of Ralph Lauren shops that fill the entire block between 71st and 72nd Streets—one for babies and small children, one for casualwear, and another for athletic wear. The only thing left on the block that hasn't been Laurenized is St. James's Church. I suspect he would have taken that over, too, but for the fact that it is one of the citadels of New York Waspdom, and he probably quite enjoyed having it in the middle of his private village.
The same kind of expansion has occurred 100 miles to the east, in East Hampton, long home to the Polo Country Store, which looks exactly like the relaxed country store of everyone's dreams if only that store carried $1,000 jackets. The casual perfection is, of course, the farthest thing from casual. The other day I saw a clerk adjusting piles of shirts and sweaters so that they would seem strewn about in just the right way on the distressed wood shelving. In his hand was a photocopy of the display that he was using as an instruction sheet. Earlier this year, an even more studied children's store opened next door, in an almost completely reconstructed old frame house. Inside is a double-height atrium with a spectacular tree house. There is talk that new stores will soon be taking over nearby buildings, including an old barn a few doors down that is one of the most historic structures on the town's main street. On Chicago's North Michigan Avenue, where Lauren evidently could find no existing building of suitable size—big enough to be a convincing stage set, small enough not to be mistaken for a banal department store—the Polo Ralph Lauren store, replete with mahogany paneling, was carved into the base of the new Peninsula hotel. A limestone façade was plunked onto the exterior, so it would look from the sidewalk like a separate building.
Lauren, with his ability to envision a whole world in idealized form and then persuade others to buy into it, casts the net of design far wider than almost any fashion designer in history. In a sense, Lauren's sales pitches are like the come-ons of a great politician, which is why I have begun to wonder whether Lauren may have more in common with figures such as Ronald Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt than with any other designer. Like them, he has built his success on a belief that the world is pretty good as it is, but that he can make it better still; all we need to do is to trust him and follow along. Lauren offers the one thing politicians promise and can almost never deliver, which is consistency. The reason we don't trust the vision of most politicians is that their actions are so often at odds with their words. Ralph Lauren doesn't use words. (I was not surprised when he declined an interview request for this article. He is shy and avoids talking about his work, as if he fears that by saying too much he might break the spell.) Lauren thinks in images and speaks through his designs, and the only way he could break a campaign promise would be by designing something that violated that air of relaxed, unself-conscious perfection. As surely as Reagan believed in his policies, Lauren believes in his vision. Both men have possessed a nearly magical ability to transform the conventional into something uplifting and optimistic. The elaborate book that Rizzoli is bringing out to mark Lauren's 40th anniversary, a slipcased volume that will sell for $135, presents Lauren and his family as the ultimate expression of the Polo Ralph Lauren ideal. It's the coffee-table equivalent of a politician's memoir-as-testament book.
When Lauren began to get very rich, he began to live very well, but it is revealing that his idea of living well is, like his designs, based largely on what the culture has already validated. He has an elegant apartment in one of the best Fifth Avenue buildings, a sprawling weekend estate in Bedford, New York, an oceanfront place in Montauk, Long Island, a ranch in Colorado, and the villa at Round Hill, Jamaica, that just happens to have been owned by Babe and William Paley. There is nothing unorthodox about any of his addresses, either in design or locale, and nothing controversial about his rich-man's hobby. Lauren collects old cars, which gives him a way to indulge in his fondness for beautiful objects while at the same time avoiding the realm of the untested—something that he could never do if he were a collector of, say, contemporary art.
Most designers who have changed the course of history—whether Frank Lloyd Wright or Coco Chanel—have done it by breaking, often radically, with what came before. Lauren may be the first designer who has transformed the world by not doing anything new at all. He isn't interested in edge as much as he is in convincing us how wonderful the world would be if it had less edge. He doesn't push the envelope; he remakes it in perfect vellum paper. It's worth remembering that in the late 60s and early 70s, when Lauren was getting up to speed, fashion was almost all edge—the times were defined by the flashiness of Rudy Gernreich and early Yves St. Laurent, and there was a certain brittleness to even the best designs. Lauren turned away from that, and was one of the first to think in terms of making things feel easy and natural. His work aspired not to an uncertain future but to a very familiar past.
By now, Lauren's versions of common American designs—the canvas overnight bag, the striped dress shirt, the navy blazer—have come to feel not like imitations but like things unto themselves, the benchmarks against which other things, including the originals that inspired them, are measured. Lauren didn't invent the idea of polo as a symbol of upper-class life, and he wasn't even the first designer to market his own version of the pullover shirt that is named for the game. But who remembers that now? There are any number of polo shirts, but there is only one Polo shirt, and it is his. Lauren's designs have overpowered their sources, in much the same way that Walt Disney's idealized version of Main Street is now the platonic image of a small town, looming larger in many people's minds than any real small town ever could.
There is always the temptation to dismiss Lauren as an expert marketer whose talent lies in convincing people that tweaking the classics constitutes creativity. Can you be considered an artist if your art consists not of making new things but of remaking old ones so that they are more appealing, and often better, than the originals? So what if Ralph Lauren is to Karl Lagerfeld as the architect Robert A. M. Stern is to Rem Koolhaas? It's more interesting to ask what actually constitutes authenticity in our time. A Robert Stern knockoff of a Shingle Style villa in East Hampton, with precise climate control and every available technological gizmo, is a lot more pleasing to live in than the drafty, creaky, 100-year-old original that inspired it. And Manhattan's Rhinelander Mansion, a handsome French Renaissance limestone-clad villa from 1898, never looked as good as it has since 1983, when the architect Naomi Leff renovated it into Lauren's flagship store. The grand, mahogany-paneled central staircase, the impeccable carved plaster ceilings, the ancestral portraits, the Oriental rugs—this is everyone's dream of genteel New York living, but almost all of it is make-believe, added or re-created after the house was bought by Lauren. When Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo lived there, it was probably musty, stuffy, and dark. And in the years before Lauren took it over, the mansion, like so many old buildings, had been pushed and pulled in every direction by unsympathetic alterations. Which is more genuine—a real house in decrepit condition, or a considered remake that corrects every flaw?
Stern, who mines architectural history in much the same way that Lauren plunders the rest of material culture, would probably say that a building is authentic if it uses the best techniques of its time to fulfill its purpose. And part of its purpose is to make its occupants feel comfortable. Wrapping modern innards in traditional garb is one way of doing that. Lauren's business is to wrap our own innards in traditional garb, and he presumably believes that this makes you no less a person of your time than if you clothed yourself entirely in Issey Miyake.
If Lauren's vision of America was invented out of whole cloth—no pun intended—that hardly matters. Today, his odes to American style are American style to the rest of the world. Polo Ralph Lauren is the one American brand that has a significant international presence, on a par with Prada, Gucci, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton. The only American name that comes close to Lauren as a global luxury icon is Tiffany, and it doesn't make clothes. Ralph Lauren makes pretty much everything, and you can buy his products as easily on New Bond Street, in London, and in the Ginza, in Tokyo, as in Chicago and Dallas. Lauren's stores in Jidda, Riyadh, Kuwait City, Dubai, and Tel Aviv—not to mention Munich, Athens, and Shanghai—are the best advertisements for America that you could ask for. Ralph Lauren should get an award from the State Department, since he has done more for this country's image than the Voice of America. When you walk into the Polo Ralph Lauren shop on Place de la Madeleine, in Paris, you don't think of the United States as the country that invaded Iraq. You think of it as the country that made it possible for everyone to be rich, or at least to have some of the trappings of the good life.
And that, in the end, is the essence of Lauren: luxury for all. If America is based on the idea that everyone should have an equal opportunity to get rich, Lauren's idea is that everybody should have an equal opportunity to look and feel rich, however much money they have. Is this elitism masquerading as democracy, or democracy masquerading as elitism? It is tantalizingly in between. The real rich wear Polo Ralph Lauren, and so does the upper middle class, and they often buy their Lauren duds at super-luxurious, stand-alone Polo Ralph Lauren shops. But, unlike most other luxury brands, Lauren's company also sells its goods at discount stores such as Kohl's and J. C. Penney, as well as at a large network of its own factory-outlet stores. Yet instead of being dragged downmarket, the company seems to bring these other places upmarket. The association of Lauren's name with luxury is so solid that nothing this side of Wal-Mart seems able to shake it. Maybe that's because there is nothing snobbish about Lauren's designs, for all they mimic the accoutrements of the rich. His genius is in selling the image of the upper classes to the masses without diluting its appeal to the people who made it in the first place. He has made aristocracy feel entirely democratic. What could be more American than that?