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Style: Best of the Best Designer Collections: Ralph Lauren Purple Label

William Kissel

In 1995, American fashion’s Renaissance man Ralph Lauren decided to build on his clubby aristocratic image by introducing a premium-priced collection of men’s suits and sport coats. To set this rarefied collection apart from his more pedestrian fare, Lauren created the Purple Label brand to reflect its regal aspirations. Few in the world of high-end suit making batted an eye, however. Lauren had the collection made through license by Savile Row tailor Chester Barrie, but Barrie’s custom suit making days were already well in the past by the mid-1990s. Despite opening to modest sales, Purple Label was roundly dismissed within bespoke circles. Even when sportswear was added to the mix in 1997, the label failed to generate much buzz.

Until now. The Purple Label Fall 2002 collection, which Lauren showed on a Milan runway in January, was a wardrobe of quite a different color. If Purple Label suffered an inferiority complex in its early days, it didn’t show within the rich, wood-paneled library at Via San Barnaba palazzo, where Lauren presented a collection clearly at its apex. It suggested “easy elegance and moneyed sophistication,” offered one viewer.

Over the course of his three decades in design, Lauren has always projected an aura of class and luxury by using marketing images of idyllic estate living and black-tie affairs. But the new Purple Label collection is the first time the Coty-award-winning designer and Fashion Hall of Famer has offered a well-made, high-quality product for those who truly live the elite lifestyle that Lauren has made a career of promoting.

Since last summer, Purple Label’s tailored pieces have been produced by SaintAndrews, one of a handful of Italian clothiers that still manufacture entirely by hand. “I wanted to make a statement about the level of quality and the level of sophistication in American fashion,” said Lauren prior to the Milan presentation. “I think my statement is that dressing up looks very exciting and very new again.”

To that end, he rolled out flawlessly cut suits and tailored sport coats with broad yet softly constructed shoulders worn over vintage-looking double-breasted vests—most worn with watch chains—and high-waisted trousers. The bulk of the collection was devoted to sportswear: plush turtlenecks and Fair Isle sweaters reminiscent of the glory years of Saint-Moritz, and retro-checked sport shirts often paired with silk ascots worn à la Cary Grant. While some of these clothes might have come from the closet of Jay Gatsby, the collection offers a thoroughly contemporary approach to sporty opulence.

Ralph Lauren Purple Label, 212.606.2100

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Photo by Ted Morrison