The night Ralph Lauren let us into his personal fantasyland

One in a series on the moments that had people talking at New York Fashion Week:

BEDFORD, N.Y. — The car is stuck in traffic on the way to the Ralph Lauren show, which is not in Manhattan but in a small town approximately two hours away. The car is not a taxi or an Uber but a black SUV — one of hundreds, that has been dispatched by Lauren to ferry guests to his show.

After 50 years in business, the most recent focused on righting the public company amid a shifting market, Lauren has perfected a few things: interpreting the American mythology in cashmere and silk, indulging his own passions, and welcoming others to come along for the ride.

So it was not surprising when the limo driver cued up a CD with a playlist of jazz standards, selected by Lauren. Look out the window towards the Hudson River. The sun is low in the sky. The water sparkles. The cool piano tinkles. What traffic?

Lauren remains committed to the notion of see now/buy now.  So while other design houses were putting their spring 2018 collections on the runway, Lauren was presenting fall 2017. These clothes are in the stores. Yours for the shopping.

The show location was Lauren’s own garage, which is a bit of a misnomer. The space, built alongside a banal strip mall, was no bland storage facility but more of a luxury spa for exotic cars. These are Lauren’s passion: Ferrari, McLaren, Porsche, Bugatti. Even if auto technology gives you no thrill, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the elegant lines of the Bugatti, its perfect symmetry and sexy curves.

These are a rich man’s toys. And Lauren is a billionaire, several times over according to Forbes. You can look. But no, you cannot sit in the cars.

Everyone is greeted by staffers in dark suits and led inside, up a long black ramp. Champagne? Yes, please. There are rows of lush sofas set up for the guests, and waiters in black “Ralph’s Garage” coveralls pass deep-fried olives, which taste far better than one might think. Jessica Chastain, an ambassador for the brand, smiles in a white pantsuit. Katie Holmes stands tall in gold metallic trousers and a brown leather bomber. Diane Keaton wears a bowler. Armie Hammer is very, very trim in an eggplant-colored blazer. The world’s nicest porta-potties are parked out back: carved wood doors, white votives, bouquets of red roses.

The guests mingle among the cars. The setting is odd. A bit overwhelming. But this is how Lauren lives. The kid from the Bronx who loved basketball but was too short to play it well. The young man who started out selling ties. The guy who dreamed of Hollywood and glamor, cowboys and the West. The man who made the American dream happen for him by packaging it and marketing it to you. This is the life that all those Polo shirts built. Congratulations, Ralph. You earned it.

The models came sauntering out in Glen plaid and checks. Slim skirts, tailored jackets and crisp trousers. Then came the black leather and the race car references. But the glossy red coat and gowns were not aerodynamic and sleek; they were luxurious and elegant.

Lauren also showed his Purple Label men’s collection — an accompaniment to the ladies, but dapper and polished.

Lauren took his runway bow in dark coveralls, looking like he was ready to flip open the hood on one of his cars and start tinkering. His family applauded. The audience stood.

He walked past his cars and down a ramp to the lower level. The guests followed. More cars. And a seated dinner with a menu taken from his Polo Room restaurant: lobster salad, burgers (with tuna and veggie burger options, if you must). More champagne. Wine. And a farewell snack for the drive back into the city: a little bag of Ralph’s Garage caramel corn.

And then off into the night. With jazz tinkling from the radio. The George Washington Bridge all lit up. It’s the New York of fantasies.

Lauren may be trying to figure out how his company can speak to the next generation of shoppers, and he might be searching for the best retail strategy — but he is not giving up on his fundamental belief in elegance, in possibilities. So if you’re looking for some sort of wry, disheveled aesthetic, look elsewhere. All these years later, Lauren betrays no hint of cynicism. He still believes in his dream. Surely, you want to dream, too?

Earlier from New York Fashion Week:

At Oscar de la Renta, newcomers try a splash of paint to freshen a classic look

These bras aren’t what you would call practical. But they might be brilliant.

Leslie Jones cheering in the front row was the best thing at New York Fashion Week

It was New York fashion’s battle of the cool kids. Of course Rihanna won.

Dressing for a pep rally, with an artful twist, from Monse. Hey, Nicki Minaj approves.

Sparkly catsuits and SpongeBob prints, from a designer who wants you to dress like Katy Perry

Is that a dress or a shirt? Whatever. Tom Ford just wants you to be fabulous.

Fashion is finally figuring out diversity — in ways that actually matter

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