Ralph Lauren’s Fading Fantasy

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Ralph Lauren isn’t a company in trouble, Virginia Postrel says, but its brand image depends on an ideal of the good life that, to those unaccustomed to hardship, looks out-of-touch and even a little dull:

Glamour isn’t about a specific style. It’s about channeling the audience’s longings into compelling images of escape and transformation. Both those longings and the images that embody them change with the times.

“The world of Ralph Lauren” isn’t universally alluring. It’s created from the images and ideals that enchanted a poor Bronx boy born in 1939: the country life of the WASP leisure class, cowboys in the American west, exotic African safaris, aviators wearing bomber jackets.

Lauren often compares his work to filmmaking. “What I do is make movies with my clothes,” he recently told the Telegraph. But he isn’t talking about today’s films. He’s talking about yesterday’s.

Explaining his “timeless” approach to fashion, he cited a movie from his teens: “Watch Cary Grant in ‘To Catch a Thief’ tomorrow, next year, whenever — you would still want to be him at the end of it. And a woman will want to be Grace Kelly. That’s timeless.”

In fact, that’s 1955, with stars born in 1904 and 1929. Grant and Kelly are still compelling, their clothes still look good, and the film is much loved by classic-movie fans. But “To Catch a Thief” is a historical artifact. Its vision of leisured, international wealth spoke to the striving, upwardly mobile, little-traveled American audiences of the mid-20th century, including the young Ralph Lifshitz. The children and grandchildren of those moviegoers live different lives and dream different dreams.

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