Ralph Lauren: Still King Of Glamour

Despite recent missteps, the designer's vision has not lost its luster.

Forbes , October 20, 2009

Ralph Lauren, who turned 70 last week, is the most successful purveyor of glamour since the golden age of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Like studio-era movies, Lauren sells dreams of transformation and escape–all those green lawns and polo fields, safari tents and Rocky Mountain ranches. His designs transport the audience out of everyday experience and make the ideal life seem palpable.

Critics may mock him as a faux WASP parvenu and dismiss his customers as “yuppie arrivistes” (as a New York Times letter writer put it in 1992), but Lauren’s work has authentic emotional power. It expresses his own “yearning for something beautiful and timeless that conjures up a world and takes you there.” His genius as a designer and businessman was to find a huge audience that shared his yearnings.

If fashion is of the moment, Lauren is an anti-fashion designer. “I’ve never designed for obsolescence,” he wrote. “I’ve designed for longevity.” Flip through the massive volume of photographs and reflections he published two years ago to mark 40 years of designing and you see what he means. Only the most subtle differences in silhouette distinguish today’s clothes from those of decades past.

A brand built on timeless glamour faces special challenges. Glamour is eternal, but its embodiment changes with the audience. Aspirations and tastes formed in one era may not suit the next. Lauren writes that the songs of Frank Sinatra “have no time.” A child of the ’60s–or the ’90s–would disagree.

And glamour is a delicate illusion. Anything discordant can break the spell. Lately, Ralph Lauren the brand seems determined to puncture its audience’s reverie.

First, the blog Photoshop Disasters caught the company using a freakishly retouched image in a Tokyo ad. The model had been digitally slimmed down so much that her head was bigger than her pelvis. The item was picked up by the much larger blog BoingBoing, whose readers reacted with mockery and condemnation. “I had no idea Pez had a ‘Fashion Week’ dispenser line,” quipped one. Another called the ad “pornography for anorexia.”

Instead of ignoring the ridicule, the company foolishly threatened the sites with legal action, alleging that reproducing the ad violated its copyright. (Illustrating criticism is, in fact, a classic example of “fair use” of copyrighted imagery.) What had been an amusing critique instantly became an Internet cause célèbre. Site after site reproduced the ad, portraying Ralph Lauren as a bully with bad taste. The company eventually apologized for the “poor imaging and retouching,” but not for the threats.

Compounding the public-relations disaster, model Filippa Hamilton then appeared on The Today Show, claiming that the company had dismissed her in April for being too big. (She is 5’10″ and weighs 120 pounds.) The company denies the allegation and says she couldn’t meet her contract obligations. Whatever the truth, much of the public now believes that Ralph Lauren fired a thin, beautiful model for not looking like a Photoshopped freak. And now a second example of digital hip removal has turned up. A brand once known for wholesome images of the good life is becoming a symbol of concentration-camp chic.

So much for glamour.

As for timelessness, Ralph Lauren’s most recent runway collection was unfortunately historical. Prompted by the economic downturn, he presented Depression-inspired looks: Dust Bowl cotton house dresses, tattered jeans, ripped overalls, newsboy caps. Ripped jeans are trendy, but this brand isn’t about trends; instead of patina, the collection glamorized rags. “The Grapes of Ralph,” Women’s Wear Daily called the collection. A Boston Globe columnist condemned it as a “fashion faux pas” that romanticized “Depression-era starvation and despair.”

“Are there really folks who want to look like subjects of a James Agee and Walker Evans collaboration?” asked The Washington Post‘s Robin Givhan. “‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’ should not serve as a style guide.” And surely no one aspires to silver lamé overalls.

Despite the missteps, including the too-literal attempt to make the brand relevant in hard times, it is Ralph Lauren’s dedication to timelessness and glamour that should be ideal for the moment. Classic style is well suited for a new age of thrift where clothes are less disposable. Escapist glamour is the original Depression chic. Ralph Lauren the man speaks inspiringly of tough, sexy, natural women–”women who stood up for something and who were strong,” the antithesis of retouched waifs.

Time for the company to remember who it is, to forcefully reassert the brand’s identity with images of strong, healthy, natural beauties in emotionally resonant settings. Time to rely less on lawyers and more on longing.