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A New Book About Ralph Lauren Reveals the Designer’s Secret to Success

Alan Flusser's new tome sheds light on America’s master of style.

Ralph Lauren and Bugatti Courtesy of Abrams

Alan Flusser has a unique vantage point on men’s style. He’s the author of definitive books (including Clothes and the Man, one of the first style manuals), he’s run a bespoke tailoring business for decades in Midtown Manhattan, and he’s responsible for some of the most memorable tailoring in film (he dressed Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street and Christian Bale in American Psycho, among others).

Now he’s undertaken a job perfectly made for him: He’s written Ralph Lauren: In His Own Fashion (Abrams), the definitive book on Ralph Lauren, America’s master of style. He was given access to Ralph himself and, crucially, the complete archive of photos and clothes. It comes as the designer is being considered in a new HBO documentary, Very Ralph.

Flusser and I spoke in his meticulously appointed office at his NYC tailoring studio and showroom.

You’ve known Ralph for a long time and started this project 12 years ago. What did you learn that surprised you?

There are so many things he designed before their time. I was totally surprised that he invented the whole home business. In 1983, he did a complete collection of home products, divided into four themes—Thoroughbred racers, things like that. Nobody had ever taken wallpaper, towels, dishes and put them together, much less four of them. Then he said to stores, “You have to buy each of the collections.” And told them that in the store you had to walk into that environment.

I brought two sets of the sheets to college.

More than just the products, it’s the idea of it. Ralph’s been in the business of teaching people to wear clothes. Here’s a guy whose message in the 1970s was about having an arms-length relationship with fashion. “You should have style.” Imagine saying that to the fashion industry in the United States. And he built one of the largest fashion businesses in America based on non-fashion. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was because I think that’s the right message.

Ralph Lauren with polo coat

The polo coat, which became one of the brand’s staple.  The New York Times/Redux

Anybody can say they want to build an entire world, but how does it happen? Is it advertising? Is it the stores themselves? Is it his incorporation of his family into the storytelling?

Ralph saw clothes as just part of the picture. He focused on a lifestyle. He also saw that men wore something to work, something at home and something else on the weekend, and he wanted to put that all together. Stores were really resistant to that. At that time, the suits were here and the trousers there. So he went to Bloomingdale’s and said he wanted all his clothes in one place. They said no. And he said, “Well, then, I’m leaving.” They’d never had a shop for anybody. That was very courageous. And he did the same thing with Saks.

Even opening the Rhinelander Mansion [on 72nd and Madison]. Your biggest customers in the States are Saks and Bloomingdale’s, and you’re telling them you’re about to open your own, more elegant store within spitting distance of both of them. And you even have the audacity to tell them that it’s going to improve their business.

He has five homes, and you had unprecedented access.

They’re completely different homes. From a ranch to a sleek New York apartment, to Jamaica to Montauk to Bedford. Five different lifestyles and personalities.

Does it ever strike you as invented?

The criticism has always been from the more cerebral set that just because you have a ranch doesn’t mean you’re a cowboy. Whether or not you come from those backgrounds, everybody would like to have those homes.

Ralph’s not a designer. He doesn’t draw, he doesn’t sketch, he doesn’t drape, he doesn’t cut. But he would like to be considered a “designer.” I worked for Pierre Cardin, and he said a true designer should be able to design a spoon and a dress and you should be able to tell the same person designed them both. And in that sense Ralph’s completely a designer. He can take anything and make it look like himself.

Ralph Lauren Ranch

When visiting their ranch, the Laurens stay in the main house, called the Lodge.  Courtesy of Abrams

Let’s talk about his cars. How did he build his collection?

The cars are interesting because they’re not a collection the way somebody would go about building a collection. Ralph basically bought the cars he wanted to drive. Not to own and polish but to actually drive.

His Bugatti is, essentially, one of the world’s most famous objects.

Yes. It’s one of two that are left in the world. If it came on the market—and I don’t think it ever will—it would be over $50 or $60 million. The thing is that that car was blue. French blue. They made four, and one was black, but his car was blue. He said: “I’m going to change this vintage car’s color.” And he had it painted black.

It takes a lot of confidence in your own taste to do that.

He stained the fence outside his ranch to make it look like it had been there for 30 years. He just invented it. There was nothing old. Ralph has a visual intelligence.

Ralph Lauren and wife

Ralph Lauren and his wife, Ricky.  Courtesy of Abrams

Is it because he’s so much part of the establishment that we forget to see how radical some of his early work was?

Well, he’s still that way. A month ago Ralph took out a two-page ad in The New York Times for his restaurant in Paris. You can’t get a reservation there, and he spent that money in New York City. There aren’t a lot of people who think that globally.

Can we talk about the level of control that takes to do that? Attention to detail?

They took two or three months to prepare the restaurant in New York. Ralph understands that this is a very particular crowd, and he’s not going to open it until he’s completely confident that everything’s going to be just right.

Now they get 1,200 to 1,300 calls a day for a reservation. Some people say he’s got the Midas touch. Bullshit. Everything in that restaurant has a reason for being. If you don’t think Ralph isn’t involved in all of those decisions, then you don’t know Ralph.

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