When it comes to classic, heritage, all-American style there is really only one name worth mentioning - since its founding in 1967, Ralph Lauren has epitomized all things Americana. In the face of volatile trends, it is one brand that has stayed the course. The polo player logo is one of the most recognizable signatures in the world, as is Lauren’s two-thirds tony Hamptons equestrian, one-third Wild West aesthetic. Over the past several years, the brand has branched out from clothing and homewares into eponymous restaurants, coffee shops, and hotel suites. Fifty years on, no one seems tired of what RL has to offer.
One loop through the designer’s Madison Avenue flagship - complete with tufted leather coaches, animal skins, and fox hunt paintings - is enough to give the impression that Lauren was born with riding boots on his feet. In reality, however, Ralph Lauren (born Ralph Lipschitz) was raised by immigrant parents in the Bronx. These humble beginnings are a decidedly more realistic representation of the American experience, but Lauren’s creative vision has never taken cues from reality. Instead, he manufactures it for himself.
In a market dominated by volatile trends, the RL brand retains a dogged grip on its original aesthetic, a commitment that has paid off over the years. Aside from veritable icon status, Lauren’s business boasts over 5 billion USD in revenue. He is also one of the few designers to successfully translate his vision on both a high-end and commercial level; crafting one of the few brands that you are as likely to see at your public pool as you are at a black-tie gala. What keeps the people coming back? Quality and reliability are key, of course, but still only make up half the story. A huge part of what keeps Ralph Lauren relevant after five decades is the fantasy itself. Indeed, when you buy a piece of Lauren’s clothing, it feels like you are purchasing a bit of the American Dream.
Presently, the phrase ‘American Dream’ is often a source of disdain. Young people in 2019 are more aware of the systems of oppression that delineate power and success in the United States; the idea that hard work alone is enough is generally scoffed at. The content of our dreams is also evolving, as it becomes slowly more acceptable to pursue paths other than business, medicine, or law. However, in 1957, when Lauren wrote “millionaire” as his goal in his high school yearbook, the I Love Lucy brand of post-war optimism was still at its peak. Lauren continues to disseminate this attitude through his brand. An attitude that people still buy into it, suggesting that many of us refuse to let the Dream really die.
It goes without saying that the building blocks of Lauren’s world are immediately recognizable as hallmarks of American symbolism. Accurate or not, the American people have been tantalized by both the tony world of East Coast equestrianism and the rugged ‘Wild West’ for centuries. The horse figures prominently in both images; as a former horseback rider, I would argue that we are drawn to both the animal’s physical beauty and its temperament, which can shift from serene to spastic in the space of second. This beguiling combination of elegance and barbarism is something the United States has always imagined for itself, but rarely succeeded at embodying. At some point, the country stopped lusting after purple mountains majesty and amber waves of grain and settled into a pattern of greed and power-grabbing. Lauren’s images of romantic bareback riders and golden fields offer us a bit of that old vision back.
Despite its fantastical origins, Ralph Lauren’s America is not without flaws. Like much of the media we see today, the brand reflects an ideal that is only really attainable for the one-percent. Horseback riding alone is a very expensive hobby; part of the reason I stopped was because I felt guilty about the exorbitant expense of even just a lesson or two a week. When Lauren does pursue a more down-to-earth vibe, the designs borrow heavily from stereotypical Native American imagery. As a result, the brand has had in more than one cultural appropriation controversy over the years.
One place where the company does not run into trouble is the founder himself. Now close to 80, Ralph Lauren is one of few men of his generation whose conduct has not come under fire in the era of #MeToo. In interviews, he is direct and confident, but not aggressive. Walking down the runway during fashion week, invariably wearing some combination of blue jeans and a jacket, he looks like a pensive child busy in his own imaginary world. Because both his dream and his persona have survived the test of time, Ralph Lauren has become one of fashion’s steadiest and most beloved icons.
Catalogues, commercials, and other marketing materials often refer to the “World of Ralph Lauren.” It is not a unique tagline, but it is a dead-on description of what Ralph Lauren in particular represents. RL carries everything from polo shirts and sports gear to housewares, yes, but it’s much more than that. Every product is a manifestation of Ralph Lauren’s American Dream; by interacting with the brand, we get the sense that we are siphoning some of that dream for ourselves. For Ralph, that fantasy is horses, polo fields, and ranches. For the new generation, that dream is that as a nation and as a planet we will evolve to be more accepting of all identities, to treat the Earth gently, and continue to use our voices for those in need. Perhaps we should take a page from Ralph’s book, and work towards making our American Dream a reality.