Ralph Lauren: New in an Old World
By SUZY MENKES
Published: April 19, 2010
“You represent an America we like very much — you and Barack Obama are the American dream,” said Mr. Sarkozy, before pinning the Légion d’honneur medal on the pinstriped suit of the designer, who he said represented “beauty, democracy and quality of life” and whom he recognized for his philanthropic activities.
Mr. Lauren opened a historic town house store, restored to its original gilded and frescoed glory, on Paris’s Left Bank last week. It has a “Ralph’s” restaurant across a cobbled courtyard in the former stables.
The iconic designer compared Mr. Sarkozy to Mr. Obama and reminisced about how on his first trip to Paris he had to stroke the Arc de Triomphe to believe he was really in the City of Light.
Mr. Lauren, who turned 70 last year (his kids gave him a motorcycle as a gift), brought his entire extended family, including staff who had shared the journey to build his $5 billion empire.
Ricky Lauren, his wife of 42 years, told guests how she had rolled up her sleeves to teach the restaurant chef how to make “Hole in the Middle,” a calorie-filled concoction of fried bread and eggs. Meanwhile the dinner at the American Embassy was a formal affair with long tables lined with crimson roses in silver bowls.
Hubert de Givenchy praised the four-year restoration of the store, from digging out a Roman well and skulls in the cellars to re-gilding the upstairs boiserie.
“He saved the building for France,” Mr. de Givenchy said.
Other designers supporting Mr. Lauren included Alber Elbaz of Lanvin, Karl Lagerfeld, and Sonia and Nathalie Rykiel.
In his speech, Ambassador Charles Rivkin said that Senator Hillary Clinton had sent a personal letter underscoring Mr. Lauren’s ongoing work for his cancer charity and for refurbishing the American heritage.
The previous night’s event, with a menu offering hamburgers with beef from Mr. Lauren’s ranch, drew a star-studded crowd, including the French actors Anouk Aimée, Isabelle Huppert, Vincent Perez and Gérard Depardieu.
“I like Ralph Lauren because he has built this empire very discreetly over a long period: he has taken time — and the restoration is marvelous,” Mr. Depardieu said.
Guests clustered in the first floor fashion area, with its immaculately restored parquet floor, gilded cornices and Rococo tableaux, as a backdrop to the women’s clothes in denim blue.
“St. Germain blue,” the designer dubbed the color, referring to the store’s position on the Left Bank boulevard. The color also appeared on a crocodile bag exclusive to the store, selling at a cool €16,000, or $21,000, while a watch salon displayed tony timepieces.
The interconnecting rooms also carry Polo Ralph Lauren menswear, with vivid-colored sweaters and a whiff of a weekend in the Hamptons; while the Double RL denim collections nestle under the ancient beams in the attic area.
Mr. Sarkozy summed up Mr. Lauren’s fashion range when he talked about “the chic of New England, the Indians of Santa Fe and the glamour of Hollywood.”
Wearing his habitual garb of darned denim, worn cowboy boots, seasoned leather jacket and a “St. Germain” blue scarf, Mr. Lauren sat down to discuss his feelings.
“What a week!” the designer said. “I’m in love with Paris — everywhere you look my heart is high, and when I go into the store it feels so good. I was a little intimidated by Paris. I didn’t speak the language. But now I have three stores, it feels like I’m living here — I am much more at ease and comfortable.”
Like the designer’s tribute to Mr. Sarkozy, whose popularity slumped in recent elections, Mr. Lauren’s vision of Paris is picture-postcard perfect. Even he admits that “other than the swagger of a scarf,” fashion is now much more global than when he opened the first Paris Ralph Lauren store in 1986.
“In truth, I don’t know if I am American, English or French — the world is one,” the designer said. “But I felt that even though I am considered an American designer, in my mind I am connected to Europe. Europeans have a very fine taste level, quality and sophistication.”
“My clothes are not about fashion — it’s about timelessness. That’s how to continue to grow for 42 years. It’s about what I see and what I love. I believe in what my vision is: ageless and timeless, but contemporary. I want to be now: a new Old World.”
But what about the wired world, which is already challenging the need for bricks and mortar?
“This is more than a store; it is the biggest statement the company could make,” said David Lauren, just back from his father’s first visit to China. He sees the Web site — http://www.polo.com — which he has helped develop as a complement to the grand mansions. The company does not break out e-commerce figures, but someone familiar with the figures said that it was well over $100 million.
There will be another big statement in New York this year, with a “new old” building constructed opposite the existing mansion on Madison Avenue.
“And all this is the very beginning,” was Mr. Lauren’s take on the week’s events in France. “I don’t believe it’s the end.”