Ralph Lauren's Timeless—and Endangered—GlamourRalph 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.