The clothes are secondary. Almost everyone acknowledges this, including Ralph Lauren himself, who has long been vocal about not considering himself a fashion designer.
“I never liked fashion,” he told The New York Times in 2021. “I like things that get better with age.”
Mr. Lauren’s world building is the thing that has kept him in business for 56 years — his advertisements that can be mistaken for movie stills; his stores disguised as country estates; his restaurants that make you feel as if you’re at an equestrian club, even if you’ve never been within 10 feet of an equestrian club.
But how does Ralph Lauren build these worlds? It’s a question being pursued by several young American fashion founders, desperate to capture this formula (not to mention the revenue, $6.2 billion in the 2022 fiscal year, according to the company) and imbue their so-called lifestyle brands with nostalgia.
There’s Aimé Leon Dore, whose founder believes his customers are “buying into a world” when they purchase a single men’s wear garment, and who writes an annual thank-you letter to Mr. Lauren. There’s LoveShackFancy, a brand whose ditsy floral-printed universe is rapidly expanding — fragrances, suitcases, bedsheets, pool floats — and whose founder has transformed her stores into ultra-femme, Victorian-meets-Versailles parlors, filled with vintage furniture and family photos.
For these brands, and many others, here is one theory on the Ralph Lauren formula: It’s about combining familiarity and desire.
Mr. Lauren’s latest world, built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard for his women’s spring 2024 fashion show on Friday, emulated one of his homes — a ranch in Colorado with log-lined walls and rock-lined fireplaces, with Native American blankets slung over the leather furniture and guest teepees on the property.
Tables covered in classics: floral tablecloths, gold candlesticks, pink roses. Credit…Jane Kim for The New York Times
He has done this before. Last year, Mr. Lauren built a replica of his living room at his Fifth Avenue residence at the Museum of Modern Art, where models he has worked with since the 1990s, like Tyson Beckford (familiarity), made smoldering, glittering eye contact with the show’s attendees (desire).
The Brooklyn barn version of this Old West myth, constructed for this fashion show, had familiarity: faux-worn wooden framework and intentionally mismatched white chairs, a style known to anyone who has seen even five minutes of HGTV programming.
And it had desire: The svelte bodies atop those chairs belonged to Julianne Moore, Jennifer Lopez, Diane Keaton and Amanda Seyfried, seated shoulder to shoulder like the world’s most enviable group of girlfriends (or, as the internet might say, a dream blunt rotation). V.I.P. guests wore Ralph Lauren clothing in line with the upscale-saloon theme; there were cowboy hats and pinstripe suits and fringed dresses and big-buckle belts and bolo ties.
And it had that winning amalgamation of familiarity and desire: At the end of the show, Mr. Lauren emerged in a just-running-errands-on-a-Saturday outfit — olive button-down shirt, sleeves slightly rolled up, tucked into beige cargo pants — and waved to the crowd. (Familiarity.) At that very moment, the barn door behind him opened, revealing a lavish dining room: candlelit tables stretching beneath glass chandeliers, wineglasses waiting to be filled, filet mignon on the menu made from cattle that once lived on the Colorado ranch. (Desire.)
“He’s capturing this mystical Americana moment that maybe didn’t even really exist, but he knows what it feels like to want it,” said the actress Keri Russell, dressed in a black leather prairie skirt and white shirt, a sequined Western bow tie around her neck. “Having grown up in Colorado and Arizona, in all these big-sky places, I know what he’s trying to sell, and it feels so Americana to me.”
For the musician Sheryl Crow, who grew up in Missouri, this is the kind of clothing she gravitates toward: “vintage, Americana, dirt road, tells a story,” she said, as Bob Dylan and Cat Power played over the speakers. (“This playlist is like they Googled ‘Ralph Lauren playlist,’” said the art curator Brooke Wise, appreciatively.)
In Ms. Crow’s closet there are jackets and boots from Ralph Lauren that she has owned for 30 years, she said. On at least two tours she has worn studded, fringed and leather jeans from Double RL, one of the lines under the Ralph Lauren umbrella, known for applying a more rugged, pre-worn look to clothing inspired by military wear and work wear.
At a fashion week dinner a few days before the Ralph Lauren show, I had asked Stellene Volandes, the editor of Town & Country and a regular of Mr. Lauren’s events, if there were elements of Ralph Lauren’s world building that set him apart. Mr. Lauren, after all, has analogues in designers like Brunello Cucinelli and Giorgio Armani, who, as Ms. Volandes pointed out, “have created a very specific point of view and very specific story and have stuck to it and thrived because of it.”
When it comes to Ralph Lauren, Ms. Volandes said, there is “purpose” in the way the brand invites people into his worlds, designing guest lists and seating arrangements with political precision. And many supporters, like Diane Keaton, who wore Ralph Lauren while playing the boyish Annie Hall, have been loyal for decades. Ms. Keaton was seated next to Mr. Lauren at a dinner he held in California last year.
“Fashion week can feel like a free-for-all,” Ms. Volandes said.
Not at these tables, where more than 20 percent of the 250-person guest list may be considered famous, and not necessarily from TikTok.
Not at these tables, where the percentage of people wearing Cartier watches seemed higher than at any other event I was at during New York Fashion Week.
Not at these tables, where Laura Dern riffs on her appreciation for Mr. Lauren’s “humility” — speaking to The Times two years ago, he referred to himself as a “normal person, I think” — and how “true” the clothes feel to her.
Truth is an interesting concept when discussing a brand so devoted to fantasy. But among the gathered celebrities, this idea kept coming up: “We don’t go to anything fashion oriented, we’re pretty boring and shy,” Ms. Russell had said, referring to her partner and former co-star Matthew Rhys, also in attendance. “Maybe this sounds embarrassing or silly, but I have a really hard time doing anything that makes me feel like it’s not truthful.”
Still, she decided to attend this show. “I didn’t feel like we would be faking it,” she said. “What he represents, what he’s selling, I get it.” Familiarity and desire.