Why the World Needs Ralph Lauren Now More Than Ever

12 Minute Read Ralph Lauren has created a language of design that speaks to the best of the United States: freedom, fairness and liberty. He is, writes Wei Koh, America’s poet laureate of style.

When it came time to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this magazine, I knew there was only one man who could be on our cover. And it didn’t bother me that he had graced the front of The Rake twice before, because each of those covers created some of the memories I treasure the most. The original cover story was a tribute to his inspiring the creation of The Rake. Throughout the perennially shifting winds of trend, Ralph Lauren’s brand has always been the steadfast beacon of classic elegance and eternal style. I remember the first words he ever said to me were, “So you created The Rake. I’ve always wanted my own magazine. But I don’t need it any more because I like yours.” I recall almost fainting at such lofty praise from the man I consider the embodiment of all I hold sartorially sacrosanct. I remember lunch with him at his flagship on Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris, and the incredible privilege of watching him receive France’s Légion d’honneur from Nicolas Sarkozy a few days later.

The second cover story with Lauren honoured his incredible efforts in humanitarianism, about which, in his typical manner, he is very modest. I recall being moved to learn he had built a cancer hospital in Harlem when he discovered that survival rates there were worse than in the Third World. And I vividly remember a magical, dream-like evening at Windsor Castle to celebrate his creation of a new cancer wing at the Royal Marsden hospital in London.

This story has a different purpose. Its intention is to express that in a time when the global perception of America and its leadership is in flux, Ralph Lauren continues to represent all that is best about the country: its optimism, its egalitarianism and its inclusiveness. This story, and the accompanying feature, which is taken from the 36th issue of The Rake, show Lauren as the symbol of hope for one of the greatest countries on Earth. Ralph Lauren is far more than the greatest designer of all time: he is also one of the greatest human beings in existence. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it…

It was a moment both seminal and seismic. On the evening of September 7 this year, to celebrate his 50th anniversary, Lauren, the single most influential designer America has ever produced, sent ceaseless waves of beautiful multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-generational models — holding hands with children of all races — down the runway. Earlier in the show, his use of Neil Diamond’s song Coming to America, a paean to the hopes and dreams of immigrants newly arrived in the land of opportunity, was not lost on anyone. Neither was the fact that despite his immeasurable success, Lauren has never lost touch with his roots as a child of Russian Jewish émigrés. His message was clear: at a time when the perception of America is miasmic, and the country is more divided than it’s been in half a century, Ralph Lauren’s vision of America is one in which egalitarianism, inclusiveness and optimism rule the day, because it is precisely these qualities that have allowed him to succeed beyond his own loftiest dreams. And it is for this reason that the world needs him now more than ever.

On the day I visit Lauren, a documentary film crew is following him round his office. The resulting film will not have aired by the time you read this story, but what I hope it will communicate is the vision of a man that for more than half a century has extracted the best narrative elements of American culture: clothing that expresses the freedom, fairness and liberty for which the United States has always stood. Lauren used these mythological themes to create a unique and singularly American art form; to call it fashion would be misleading.

Much of fashion is made up of aggressive symbols of wealth. But watch someone’s face when they put on a Ralph Lauren garment: a flowing Montauk-style summer dress, for example, or the perfect double-breasted blazer that appears gleaned from your rakish great uncle’s closet, or a fringe jacket or denim shirt that might have been discovered in a Santa Fe tack shop — only better, refracted through Lauren’s unique sensibility and crafted with his exacting insistence on quality. They start to smile because they’ve just entered into a dialogue with the unique narrative he creates. All of a sudden they are transported to a ranch in Montana and are channelling the ineffable cool of James Dean in Giant or Paul Newman in Hud. Or they are travelling back in time to the Jazz Age and the café society of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Putting on Ralph Lauren is like reading an amazing passage in a book, a line, say, about how we “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”; or listening to a perfectly evocative lyric (“The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves”); or watching your favourite scene in a film with Bogart and Bacall.

Published

May 2022

Tags

Also read