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.