It was a Moment. Not just a fashion moment — though it was certainly that. It was a cultural moment, which, in context of the larger, ugly cultural moment we live in, highlighted one man’s lifelong belief, well and beautifully registered in his megabrand’s identity, that civility is not only aspirational but possible, that it just takes open minds and effort. Oprah spoke of Ralph Lauren’s integrity, which is “a word we need more of.” A litany of famous guests came to pay tribute (and enjoy a glam night in Central Park): from Hillary to Kanye to the other two-thirds of American fashion’s ever-linked, transformational triumvirate, Calvin and Donna. The evening majesty of Bethesda Terrace, its arcade now set with velvet-covered benches atop a pastiche of a Persian rug, offered a sliver of New York at its idealized, romantic best. Then there’s the American Dream storyline, one of possibility realized and then some.
Given those threads, it may seem trite to focus too minutely on the clothes: Let’s celebrate the man and his unprecedented accomplishments now; plenty of time later to talk merch. But this was a fashion show, that essential seasonal statement of the clothes Ralph Lauren the man and the company want to sell right now (see-now-buy-now!). The personal accolades showered on Lauren surrounding this remarkable 50th anniversary are fully merited, but you don’t become a $6 billion man on positive thinking alone. In fashion, it takes a concept and vision and tenacity and all of those laudable characteristics. It also takes product. Product with perceived and inherent value that resonates within a single demographic or across numerous demographics enough to make people want to buy it instead of something else.
On the runway, Lauren played to the moment perfectly with a potent statement of his brand’s fashion relevancy — something he hasn’t always achieved. The ongoing themes of Lauren’s work — the American Southwest, British aristocracy, rugged, refined, retro glamour and vintage charm — are iconic. But there’s no getting around it, at times he’s gone overboard by too literally interpreting one of the above, or putting too many boats on too many sweaters.
Not this time. This show was great. Lauren’s brilliant we-are-the-world casting felt as natural as the greenery surrounding Bethesda Terrace. “This is about the world. It’s about change,” Lauren said during a preview hours before his show. “It’s about all kinds of people, all kinds of countries. This is an inspiration of what I feel is happening with young people that are individual and love individuality.”
That said, not everyone in the cast was young, and some were very young. The kids weren’t agency-cast but the children of staff members, friends and adult models, which made the whole construct all the more engaging. No one looked as if he or she were being paid to wear Ralph Lauren clothes. They all looked like they wanted to be wearing Ralph Lauren clothes.
“I think young women and men love the fact of antifashion fashion,” Lauren said. “I was totally inspired to do this. It’s vintage, it’s an individual, eclectic, one-of-a-kind type of thing. And it has nothing to do with trends of the moment. It has to do with an individual being who you want to be and wearing what you want to wear.”
Trend-chasing, perhaps not. Yet the show addressed two big-picture themes dominating fashion. The fun, feisty Polo Sport portion reminded with zest, humor and a lot of love (I know; I hate all the schmaltz, but that’s what it felt like) that the crossover of street and sport into mainstream style wasn’t born yesterday. At least one guy’s been there a while.
As for the section that comingled the women’s collection and RRL, the pictures tell a story of comfort, ease and a relaxed approach to getting dressed, which is how everyone looked in-person and on the runway. Yet along with their knitted caps, work shirts and cozy grandpa sweaters, the models wore some of the most beautiful and intensely wrought clothes we’re likely to see all season. Skirts and dresses that were wonders of fabric development and embellishment and some remarkable undone-tony patchworks, rendered variously in a sensuous Guinevere gown and a number of spectacular coats.
Some pilings were obviously runway-ified to make the point (read: a tad costumey, particularly some men’s looks); some could have walked out of the park and into the street. Either way, Lauren made a powerful case for approaching the exquisite with an everyday mind-set, extracting its preciousness and wearing the heck out of it. It’s a concept on which the long-term success of luxury is ultimately dependent. He delivered the message without compromising his creative ethos one iota. In the parlance of the day, that’s authenticity. Lauren would likely explain it differently, in words he’s used before: “I do what I do.” He’s done it pretty fabulously, for 50 years. Congratulations Ralph. And thank you.