An American flag, a pocket for your shades, a white t-shirt and jeans as rustic blue as his eyes: Ralph Lauren as photographed by Bruce Weber.

Polo vaulting with an Olympian of impeccable taste and style.   A Ralph Lauren exclusive interview by James J. Spina

At this prime-of-life stage of the game you might say it’s all in the cars.

No. Not the cards.

The cars.

Even though Ralph Lauren has one of the most-esteemed automobile collections in the world we’re not talking about the prestige of ownership he gets from possessing these vehicular gems. We’re actually talking about the power of inspiration the legendary creators of these innovative, wheeled dreams have had on a man arguably unattended by would-be peers in his chosen tastemaker profession.

“At some point in my long relationship and love of cars,” Lauren observes, “I became aware of a powerful degree of admiration for these highly creative individuals such as Ettore Bugatti and Enzo Ferrari, and David Brown at Aston Martin and Jaguar’s William Lyons. These men were spiritually connected to the cars they were developing. They were their brands. Their origins were based in something I look on or beyond as exciting sensibility. And that ‘exciting sensibility’ is an important part of what it takes to make people connect with what these automotive innovators were creating.”

It happens right there. We’re just about midway through this generously timed interview with Ralph Lauren in his (Oak-cloistered\Oxford-ish) Madison Avenue office and two simple words make a unique connection—‘exciting’ and ‘sensibility’—and a man who has spent the last 40 years developing a lifestyle and lucrative livelihood based on products people adore has captured his own core.

Style RL 8020 as photographed by Carter Berg.

This meeting has been months in the making, always hedged by the corporate observation that “Mr. Lauren” doesn’t really DO “too many” interviews. So 20/20 reads that gentle snub as gracious gospel, noting just in the recent past his polite abstaining from offering solid quotes and face-to-face time to a literal host of publications searching for the quintessence of what makes up Ralph Lauren as a business, a brand, a lifestyle and, most importantly, a unique designer and hugely successful business man.

Lauren greets me by literally bounding over to his office door in a manner and a visibility that is at once simple … yet excitable. He realizes we’ve met before (nearly 30 years ago when I was an art director at W magazine and Lauren was debuting his first licensed luggage collection) and comforts the whole interview process by “filling in” his senior VP of communications director on the exact details of that previous meeting.

“I was coming out with my first take on luggage and it was happening just as I was getting into my new turbo Porsche Carrera,” notes Lauren. “The car had a sort of nasty ugliness to it but I reinterpreted that roughness to a ballistic outer material on the luggage that could literally take a bullet. And I completely lined the insides of the luggage with wonderful, soft kid-leather. No one had done that sort of secret switch before. It was function encasing luxury.”

On this particular day Lauren is obviously (and probably as usual) enjoying the freedom of his unique style when it comes to dressing up and being “very Ralph Lauren.” His jeans are well worn. No stone washing here. These blues are rubbed exactly right by Ralph. He’s in a skin-tight black t-shirt (funny, but we never really recall seeing him in a … Ralph Lauren Polo shirt) and that close form of fit works well on what basically looks like the build of a teenage athlete, perhaps slightly small (compact might be a better description) but exceptionally lithe.

He ushers us over to the comfort of one of those modern, carbon-fibre-armed RL Home chairs and props his battered boots up on an expansive coffee table heaped with magazines, lavishly bookmarked art books and centered by a chrome/ bronzed caricatured sculpture of a raging race car. Everything about him is faster than this reporter: his eyes, his smile, his hands, his energy… all of

it laced with youthfulness only denied by some strong facial character lines and his full white shock of close cropped hair.

Immediate talk centers on the potential aspects of pasts shared growing up in the boros, for me, Queens, for him, the Bronx… he in the ’50s, me in the ’60s.

Serious fashion considerations rear communal heads instantly. He too has issues with the word “preppie” so often used to summarize details of his early forays into lifestyle clothing design. “In my day it was a matter of being either collegiate or a hood,” agrees Lauren. “And I really understood that classic approach of following a look we also call Ivy League. Although if you look at me right now I’m looking more like a hood.”

Far from it. Lauren is self-admittedly one of his best customers. “I’m totally involved with all of my products. Everything I make is my message and for years my goal has been to make the things I love.”

Teetering on rugged good looks somewhere in between a younger New Yawk version of Paul Newman and a healthier, kinder Steve McQueen, Lauren is at ease and forthcoming about his early roots as a tie salesman aspiring to brand his own bold take on wide ties back in the late ’60s. “I was working for a tie manufacturer doing private label for stores such as Brooks Brothers and Paul Stuart. I tried to convince them to do their own brand but they weren’t interested. So I approached another tie maker from Cincinnati and they got it. I’ve always loved sports but it didn’t make much sense to call my brand ‘Basketball’ or ‘Baseball’ so I decided on ‘Polo.’ Of course I didn’t play polo but I liked that it represented a feeling of being international, European and yet very healthy American.” For Lauren the name of the brand was simply a “symbol for a great quality of life.”

He notes that these were the days long before branding ruled the apparel industry in the manner and majesty it does today. “Back then when I mentioned Polo most people would look at me funny and say ‘You mean like Marco Polo?’” He admits it might have been a lucky guess but one gets the distinct impression part of Lauren’s charm is a version of lucky that involves intense forethought and intricate planning and attention to minute details on all fronts. “I’m forever grateful that the company then through now has always had a substance of great dimensions and the potential to grow on a vast number of levels with attitudes and ideals shaped by my initial dream to express myself.”

One of the goals continually guiding Lauren in his journey through many different phases and facets of Polo has been a faithfulness to understanding the company’s constant future potential without the pitfalls of overexpansion. That particular forte leads him to his current licensing partnership with Luxottica.

And though I’ve been warned he might seem cool on the subject of eyewear, he literally leaps to his desk to retrieve his glasses so I can have a closer look at his personal eyewear. He shows me a pair of metal P3s describing them as his “John Denver” look. “I also wear a pair of large square-shaped black frames—I have them in dark tortoise shell too. I call those my ‘Cary Grant’ frames. I wore frames just like those long before I even needed to wear glasses. I just love the way they look.”

Exciting Sensibility: PL 9763 and PH 2009

Lauren says he’s always favored a larger frame size in any of the styles he wears. He prefers the more dramatic statement they make on a person’s face … and on their personality. “Your eyewear needs to represent your confidence. It’s an extension of all your taste and style … and it’s right on your face, your eyes.” When we point out his “Cary Grant” frames were actually featured in a 20/20 Modern Man feature (Ralph Lauren Purple Label 9751 from Luxottica) recently paired with a vintage string-back driving glove, Lauren inquires about ideal lenses for driving, stating he always wears sunglasses when he drives and since he likes to drive fast he needs optimum lens tech. We volunteer some information about the new Drivewear technology from Younger and he is eager to experience the difference. (We are waiting for his personal Rx in order to have a pair prepared for him in his choice of Luxottica Ralph Lauren frames.)

So here we are, rolling along on a definite “eyewear” high with Lauren even asking to see my glasses, a pair of P3 crystals from Anglo-American, and stating he knows and respects that brand. I cautiously ask him to sign the leather case of my new Ralph Lauren sunglasses (PL 9734) but he’s more than pleased to practice some celebrity scripting.

And then the wind-down rears its head. Lauren is notified that his next meeting is patiently waiting in the wings. But there is no rush/push from Lauren and even as we’re easing into our good-byes, he lets rip with one last quote that’s a dazzler, saying “fashion is a function of lifestyle, and style a function of quality, integrity and timelessness.”

He’s got that right. No one could say it better. That’s why HE’s Ralph Lauren.