Imagine A World Without Ralph: Alan Flusser Discusses New RL Bio

Alan Flusser recently gave a talk about his new Ralph Lauren bio at the National Arts Club in New York as part of its FashionSpeak Fridays lecture series. Beforehand, I spoke with Flusser about the book, which was 12 years in the making. Photos below are by Jane Kratochvil and courtesy of National Arts Club.

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CC: You’ve known Ralph for a long time, and spent over a decade on this book. What did you learn about him that you didn’t know before?

AF: Regarding his 50 years of work, I don’t know what word transcends voluminous. It’s just overwhelming. One thing I learned was that he essentially invented the designer home furnishings business. He approached it like a fashion collection, with some two thousand stock-keeping items. And he insisted that any store build a shop that was 2,000 square feet, and carry everything together. Within a year or two everyone was trying to copy it. He revolutionized the entire way businesses did home furnishings. The other thing I learned about him is that he never rushes. He’s prepared to wait until he feels it’s right. Like the Fifth Avenue store, or the restaurant, he knows that the first experience is key. People in New York are pretty judgmental, and they won’t come back. So he just grooms it until it’s right, and that’s a great lesson for people. But the biggest challenge in the book was editing it, trying to figure out what to put in and what not. So I don’t have anything about fragrances or children’s wear.

CC: Is there any way to summarize his vast accomplishments? Would you call him a visionary? A world-builder?

AF: When I was considering writing the book, I thought I wanted to make the case that Ralph has done more for taste and elegance than any other person. People would say what about Calvin Klein or Armani, and I would say, “What designer has more clothing being worn today that’s 10 or 15 years old?” And the answer to that is that there’s Ralph and no one else. He was smart enough to surround himself with good people. But I think he’s a builder. The main reasons I decided to write it were because of the main message he has — style, not fashion — is one of the most important messages for people to understand. It goes back to Chanel and Yves St. Laurent. It’s part of my life and philosophy about clothes. So here’s a guy who built a giant fashion business based on non-fashion. You can imagine a guy in the early ’70s telling the industry that he doesn’t even like fashion. It had such maverickness, and yet was correct. That’s the theme I wanted to flush out, using Ralph as the example. I also wanted to get over the Jewish thing. You know, “What does a little Jew have the right to claim WASP fashion?” I just try to imagine what life would be like without Ralph. If you want to know, just go to Brooks Brothers.

CC: You once told me that Ralph is more Brooks than Brooks.

AF: Without a doubt. Before the Permanent Style Ivy seminar, I walked into Brooks, which is something I really, really don’t like to do because it’s so depressing. But so many things Ralph did people now take for granted, such as lifestyle marketing. No one even thought of that, and Ralph paved the way for all other designers. He forced retailers to build a shop within their shop, so that all the clothes could be shown together. Or can you imagine going to Bloomingdale’s and telling them you’re going to build your own store right in their backyard, and that it will actually improve the business they do with you? And yet that’s exactly what happened.

CC: What of you is in the book?

AF: The men’s section is more predictable, but in the women’s section I wrote an entire chapter that doesn’t even have his name in it, and just gives the history of fashion and how things changed since the ’60s. Every picture I chose has a kind of taste level that Ralph and I both like. All the pictures in there are worthy of teaching people something. My input is the tutorial, teaching people something, and how to apply it to your own life. I’m not just writing about Ralph to explain who he is. My favorite thing about Ralph is how he puts clothes together in an eclectic way: that kind of high-low, designer with vintage, etc. That’s Ralph’s message on how to dress; it’s how he dresses, and how I dress. I get a lot of criticism for it, but that’s what I always did. He spent more time putting clothes together on mannequins than anybody in the world.

CC: You interviewed The Andover Shop’s Charlie Davidson for the book. What did he say?

AF: I thought he was going to say that Ralph ruined the look, but he said he absolutely saved it.

CC: What do you think about the current state of Ivy-preppy-trad style?

AF: I don’t think you can use the term “Ivy” to characterize it anymore. Except maybe at J. Press, where you walk in and it still looks like it used to back in the day. What I’m wearing now is all about how preps dressed 30-50 years ago, how they put clothes together. This is a pure distillation of what Ivy League was. Reading your site, anyone can become pretty knowledgeable, so I’m hopeful. I used to say find someone in a store who dresses the way you want to, and have him show you. But that’s not really an option anymore, except maybe at Sid Mashburn or The Armoury. This way of putting things together is the desire to individualize the way you look. That’s what the Ivy League did. The Ivy League attitude towards dressing has a certain chic in the way those guys learned how to wear clothes. And Ralph has taken that and pushed it. All the things are there and you can wear them for the rest of your life. It’s just how you put them together. And that’s what the Ivy League was all about.

24 Comments on "Imagine A World Without Ralph: Alan Flusser Discusses New RL Bio"

  1. Grey Flannels | November 29, 2019 at 3:04 pm |

    I can very easily remember a world without Ralph: The world before 1967. Virtually, no literally, everything we wore then is still available, and it really doesn’t take much effort at all to find it.

  2. No doubt Mr. Lauren changed the face of fashion, but his biggest contribution was the many talented designers that he he took under his wing and inspired to start their own collections and brands.

    Joseph Abboud, Scot Meacham Wood, Todd Snyder, Thom Browne, and John Varvatos are all alumni of Lauren University.

  3. Gentlemen, I hit the road tomorrow AM, so give me a couple of days to set up the new Ivy Style headquarters and update you all then. Enjoy the rest of your long weekend.

  4. Christian,
    Wishing you Godspeed.

  5. Best of luck and travel mercies, CC.

  6. “All the things are there and you can wear them for the rest of your life.”
    says Alan Flusser

    This applies to J. Press, O’Connell’s, The Andover Shop, and Cable Car Clothiers.
    says Aivii Riigu

  7. Safe travels, CC.

  8. Why does ‘gout’ come to mind looking at that photograph?

  9. NaturalShoulder | November 30, 2019 at 12:34 pm |

    Safe travels and best wishes to you.

  10. I’m as much against shallow political correctness as anybody, but even to quote and reference Lauren in that way is anti-Semitic and shameful and ought not to appear in print.

  11. Why does ‘gout’ come to mind looking at that photograph?.
    Because Flusser looks like the contemporary image of the obese gout victim
    as depicted by Gilray:

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/ba/An_obese_gouty_man_drinking_punch_with_two_companions._Colou_Wellcome_L0006235.jpg

  12. Down Tradden | December 1, 2019 at 6:25 am |

    @ Roger Sack
    I’m glad somebody said it.

    And really how can anyone take seriously a sartorial pundit who doesn’t know how to play down his physical imperfections by choosing clothes caarefully?

  13. Henry Hardcastle | December 1, 2019 at 7:03 am |

    The sartorial pundit whom many of us do take seriously is G. Bruce Boyer. A gentleman of the same generation (four years older than Alan Flusser). He has impeccable taste.

  14. Shame on some of you for criticizing his physical imperfections. Care to show us all your Adonis perfection? Given his age he could very well be suffering some health issues, which are none of our business.

  15. CC
    Safe travels to Charleston sir. If you haven’t already, I’d suggest a deep dive into Pat Conroy, particularly the Prince of Tides, The Water Is Wide, and The Lords Of Discipline. This will help you understand the darkness behind the sweetness.

  16. MacMcConnell | December 1, 2019 at 12:52 pm |

    Shuman
    I would show you my Adonis perfection, but I signed a none compete contract with the Chippendales. My stage name was “Hot Sausage”, some of you might has caught my act. 😉

    Seriously, Flusser and Boyer are both tasty guys, as is Ralph. Flusser and Ralph get the American style outside the Ascella corridor as well inside it. It’s all good.

  17. Charlottesville | December 1, 2019 at 1:25 pm |

    Best wishes, Christian.

    I agree with the idea that the best of RL is timeless, as is the classic Ivy style of Press, the old Brooks, and a few others. Looking forward to the book, which I hope is copiously illustrated.

  18. @ Roger Sack
    I’m glad somebody said it.

    I did not intend to editorialize/criticize Mr Flusser.

    It’s just that my visual memory extends beyond the sartorial.
    As soon as I saw the word”gout” I knew it had to be one of the
    British 18century caricaturists.

  19. René Lebenthal | December 2, 2019 at 5:00 am |

    I wish you a safe trip and a lot of energy for your installation Christian.
    A whole new world is to be discovered. And you will open another important chapter of your life.
    All the Best,
    René

  20. Mr Flusser on Ivy style:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYJ-_Hdkrxk

    00:04:55 – 00:09:35

  21. Anglophile Trad | December 2, 2019 at 8:00 am |

    M. Lebenthal:
    Alan Flusser uses the term “chic fatigué” in the above clip. I’ve never encountered this term elsewhere. Could you explain?

  22. Henry Contestwinner | December 3, 2019 at 11:30 am |

    Tom, when you can unclutch your pearls and put your fingers on the keyboard again, maybe you can tell us just what, exactly, is so “anti-Semitic” about that comment. Is that Ralph Lauren is being identified as Jewish? Was it the adjective little, which is both physically accurate (Ralph & I share the same suit size, 37 short) and metaphorically correct, as in “little ol’ me’?

    Ridiculous.

  23. I can imagine a world without RL, but not a world without Charlie Davidson.

  24. Tough to imagine that Flusser meant the description to be anti-Semitic, since he’s Jewish as well.

    It’s still a dumb comment to make on his part, considering Jacobi Press, Arthur Adler and a bunch of other haberdashers instrumental in creating the Ivy look were Jewish as well. It’s not like Lauren had a lot of walls to batter down.

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