Ralph Lauren Talks Cinematic Approach to Dressing, Dream of Film Directing

Ralph Lauren - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Ralph Lauren Corporation

The fashion icon shares insights about his life and work on the eve of the upcoming HBO documentary 'Very Ralph': "When I started designing, it was never about just the tie, it was about the hero."

Inspired by Fred Astaire and a look that he observed in old Hollywood films but could not find in stores, Ralph Lauren created a handful of wide ties in 1967; nearly 52 years later, his name has become globally synonymous with American style. Signifying much more than a collection of clothes and home decor, the 80-year-old designer’s $6.3 billion empire — including more than nine brands, as well as restaurants in New York, Chicago, Paris and London — has shaped a vision of the American dream. "What I do is about living," the designer tells THR. "Living the best life you can and enjoying every moment, from what you wear, to the way you live, to the way you love."

From cinematic ad campaigns featuring cowboys and upper-crust New Yorkers, to famously dressing Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Robert Redford in Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby, Lauren is a pioneer in epitomizing aspirational lifestyle. For Priyanka Chopra’s January wedding to Nick Jonas, the international star donned a custom Ralph Lauren look embellished with 32,000 pearlescent sequins, along with a 75-foot tulle veil. Hillary Clinton stepped out at several 2016 presidential debates in Ralph Lauren pantsuits. And who can forget Gwyneth Paltrow, channeling Grace Kelly in a bubblegum pink taffeta Ralph Lauren gown at the 1999 Oscars, when she won for her leading role in Shakespeare in Love?

Lauren’s own rags-to-riches story mirrors the lifestyle he has peddled. Born in the Bronx as Ralph Lifshitz, the son of immigrants from Belarus, Lauren lives the dream with an apartment in Manhattan, a ranch in Telluride, a mansion in Bedford, multiple properties in Montauk and a beach retreat in Jamaica, where he additionally co-owns Round Hill Hotel and Villas in Montego Bay. Among his personal treasures is a covetable collection of more than 50 rare automobiles, including a $40 million 1938 Bugatti 57SC Atlantic, said to be the world’s most expensive car.

While he stepped away from his role as CEO of his eponymous company in 2015, Lauren continues to direct the design team, serving as chief creative officer and executive chairman. Now the creative lens has flipped to zoom in on Lauren himself, as a documentary of his work and life, Susan Lacy’s Very Ralph, premieres on HBO on Nov.?12 — complete with cameos from Woody Allen, Jessica Chastain and Ken Burns. The designer looks both backward and forward on his career and shares his one unfulfilled ambition: filmmaking.

In your own words, when something is "very Ralph," what does that mean? 

Hopefully, that means something that is of quality, authentic and timeless.

Can you speak to your cinematic approach to dressing? 

Growing up, my friends and I would meet every Saturday at the local movie house. We’d watch our favorite movie heroes on that big screen and when I walked out, I imagined that I was the cowboy on the white horse or whoever that hero was that day. From that time on, movies and storytelling have always been an inspiration.

When I started designing, it was never about just the tie or the shirt or the dress. It was always about the hero or heroine I had in mind. They are the stars of my movies and express what I have to say. I study their character and I create for them and through them. I guess you could say, in some ways, I am the director and the screenwriter. I write through my clothes.

You mention in the documentary that you are most inspired by ’30s and ’40s films such as Holiday, Desire and The Women. Would you say it is about escapism?

Not escapism. The films of those eras, mostly in black and white, had a romance and a real glamour that I found inspiring. The men and women had such style. The way they dressed was so thoughtfully presented. Particularly the evening clothes. Maybe that’s why I had to create my own special set — Ralph’s Club — for my last fall 2019 women’s collection, which was all about the art of black tie dressing. I couldn’t find a location that expressed the story I was trying to tell. So I created a glamorous night club that brought the clothes to life and let you dream a little. Maybe I do offer a little escapism, given the world we live in today.

Do you think that experiential runway presentations, such as your Ralph’s Club show in September, are the future?

The future is now and the concept of the "runway show" is changing. The way people are experiencing fashion is evolving, and they’re searching for a deeper, more authentic and personal connection. Today, the designer must create a cinematic backdrop for his or her collection. I have created these in my own store, in my garage among my cars and, yes, just recently by creating a one-night-only Ralph’s Club to bring my fall 2019 women’s collection theme of black tie to life.

Ralph’s Club was a combination of the vision of my collection [and] a vision of what I felt was missing in the world right now. There are so many negatives and so much pressure that people find it hard to relax and enjoy themselves. Ralph’s Club was about getting dressed up and wearing something that you love that makes you feel good and then going to a place that lifts you up for that moment. I felt the spirit of Ralph’s Club was something we all needed, and so I created it and invited you to dance to the music, even [if] just in your imagination.

What is the value of the red carpet these days?

Not something I love, but certainly a showcase for stars and the designers that dress them.

How do you keep a brand relevant in the digital era? What are your thoughts on social influencers — these self-nominated leaders of style?

I try to stay relevant, not by changing my vision to suit the trends of the moment, but by staying true to myself. How I communicate and share what I do has to change as that world moves on. We now share our message on all forms of social media and on our Ralph Lauren website and Polo App, allowing our customers to shop wherever they are.

In the documentary, Ken Burns says, "In another era, [you] would have been one of the great producers in Hollywood" and Tina Brown shares, "I think if Ralph has one regret, it would be that he was not a movie director." Do you agree? Is there a film you dream of making?

I am flattered by what Ken and Tina suggest. And of course, directing a real film would be incredible. And who’s to say that couldn’t still happen? I had always thought about directing a movie about The Bentley Boys, that great group of British race car enthusiasts and bon vivants who raced Bentleys in the 1920s.

Do you think that people should value clothes and fashion more than they do, given all the work that goes into them?

Clothes are essential to our lives, but it’s up to the individual to decide how important they are to them. In a more disposable world, we should consider the importance of our relationships to each other and saving our planet.

There’s been a call in fashion for diversity, not only in terms of race (which you have championed), but also size inclusivity. How is Ralph Lauren, the brand, adapting?

Diversity has always been part of our world and our story. Not just race or gender, but different ways of living. I’ve always tried to create collections about character and quality and a way of living, whether in a cabin on a ranch or in a penthouse in a big city.

Your brand and personal identity are so intertwined; how do you see this playing out for the future identity of the company (i.e. Calvin Klein without Calvin)?

We have a very strong brand identity. With or without me, Ralph Lauren will continue to offer authenticity and quality in all the things we create to inspire the dream of a better life.

Interview edited for length and clarity. 

This story first appears in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.