Master Class

By Alan Behr

The designer and author Alan Flusser has published Ralph Lauren: In His Own Fashion, his long-awaited illustrated biography of the master of American style.  In the field of menswear, that is rather as if Jimmy Stewart wrote a biography of Clark Gable.  More authentically:  :Flusser is not just a designer but also a scholar of fashion.  That comes through in this intriguing work, which quickly broadens beyond its nominal subject, using the career of Ralph Lauren as a starting point for multiple meditations on style, social class and the American aesthetic.

Flusser traces Lauren’s upbringing in a middle-class home in the Bronx to his early days in the fashion business – most notably the not quite six months during which he worked at Brooks Brothers, absorbing in its entirely a style, quite firmly grounded in a distinctive worldview, that was to become the guiding light for his professional life.  It was in 1968 that Lauren launched Polo – as a necktie maker.  With vision and exquisite timing, he presented wide, arrestingly colored ties made from unique fabrics just as the market was moving away from the conformity and predictability of the sack-suited my-wife-picks-my-clothes era that had preceded it.  

Lauren could have gone from that good start straight into participating in the sartorial theatricality (all too often expressed as low comedy) that was to characterize the next dozen years.  Instead, as Flusser carefully documents, Lauren took upon himself a virtually one-man mission to save the American look -variously known as Ivy League or preppy style – then falling rapidly from favor.  First, he had to rescue it from the Scylla and Charybdis of the corollary hippie and “Peacock” movements of the late 1960s.  When that was done, he next had to fortify it against the excesses of the 1970s.  Of the latter decade, Flusser says with concise precision, “For many, the seventies  will be remembered as the nadir of style and sophistication.”*  By the 1980s, Lauren had so unquestionably reinvigorated the American look that, from then on, it was mostly about refreshing and reworking it.

For Flusser, Lauren was paradoxically blessed by having received no formal training in fashion.  As did an equally unschooled Steve Jobs, in a very different industry, Lauren learned to trust his own instincts above all else – a trust that proved supremely well-founded.  His self-appointed mission for menswear and, later, his women’s and home collections, was not to deliver fashion but something much greater and harder to achieve:  style. 

Flusser notes that America invented sportswear in the traditional sense of the word, meaning coordinated separates.  In practice, that involves natural-shouldered sports jackets and comfortable jeans, khakis and button-collar shirts that work together without appearing to have been coordinated with any great effort (especially when efforts had been exhaustive).  If any of it should start to look a bit lived in, all the better.  Flusser is aware, however, that those points, often repeated in fashion publications, are both correct but tangential to the real message:  American style, properly executed, Is a tactile manifestation of a New World can-do attitude.  Call it approachable self-confidence.  Lauren understands that, if you build your clothing line around the attitude and the style that the attitude articulates, the world will come, literally to buy in.

From the perspective of a fashion lawyer, the career of Ralph Lauren underscores the importance of what stands behind a truly great brand:  its story.  Most of what Lauren has designed, being based on classics, is not protectable under American copyright, design patent or trademark law.  No great matter.  To enter a Polo company store or shop within a shop at a department store is to enter into a story – of American style, American ease, American aspirations and, ultimately, American success.  It comes at you from the scent in the air, from the Ella Fitzgerald songs on the sound system or the jazz played by a combo at the entrance.  It works at all levels, from wide cowboy belts to boardroom-ready pinstriped suits.  The legal strategy evolved from the design and business strategies:  you don’t need to worry about protecting the pieces; if the whole is so strong, nobody could infringe on the pieces and do it well enough to make much difference.  After all, brands as diverse as Uniqlo and Gap make attractive and easily wearable clothes in the American idiom, but you would never confuse them with Ralph Lauren or Polo.  That is the genius of good branding – something that, in the apparel business, is always best forged on the anvil of style and good taste.

Ralph Lauren: In His Own Fashion, by Alan Flusser, Abrams (352 pages)

* As I have reflected upon elsewhere, that was true in other disciplines. In Western architecture, the 1970s represented the lowest point since the Age of Pericles.