EDITOR’S NOTE: Nathaniel Means was kind enough to offer up this review of Alan Flusser’s book on Ralph Lauren. It’s a thought and reaction-provoking review, and if you haven’t read through the book, you should. I revisited the book itself in preparation for this article, and here is what I was left with. First, it helps to know who Flusser is. Flusser, now retired, dressed Gordon Gekko. And other stuff sure, but he dressed Gekko. Flusser was (still is I would imagine, but he’s retired, so – ) one of the best at this – the balancing act between the clothes and the person wearing them. Flusser’s gift was designing and writing about that balance. He made it an equitable partnership – person and outfit. I am not sure that Ralph Lauren, who is the most influential designer in our space whether you like it or not, can strike that same balance. Lauren’s work is so epic it overshadows its subject. And on me, it never-point-never (an Animal House reference, let me know if you get it) fits, either. Second, I once sat next to Ralph Lauren and his wife in the balcony of a movie theater we had to ourselves, and he couldn’t have been more fun. We hung our feet over the edge (he was on crutches) and made jokes together. Uncommon for a person of Ralph Lauren’s celebrity to seek out interaction, yet he did. That always left a mark. – JB
Even at the risk of over-using superlatives, Ralph Lauren stands indisputably as a singular figure in men’s fashion and the unsurpassed promoter of the Ivy Style over the past half century. Finally, the entire span of Lauren’s life and contributions have been thoroughly explicated by Alan Flusser a designer and masterful prose stylist who stands as one of the most well-respected commentators on men’s fashion. For those interested in the Ivy Look, Ralph Lauren’s illustrious career, and the entire span of both men and women’s fashion over the past century, Flusser’s comprehensive study of Lauren is essential reading.
Flusser details the myriad of Lauren’s contributions in marketing both the Ivy Style and his many interpretations of it. Ralph Lauren was the first to convince department stores like Bloomingdales to feature an exclusive boutique of Lauren’s shirts, trousers, shorts and jackets all together in one place so that the customer was not just buying one or two articles of the brand but an ensemble meant to be worn together. His partnership with the fashion photographer Bruce Weber festooned nationally and internationally circulated advertisements his whole vision of an upper-class style suddenly democratized for aspiring men and women on the make far beyond the confines of America’s elite universities, New York, Newport, and Palm Beach.
Ralph Lauren sold a “look,” but he also made enormous contributions to a style that may have appeared permanent but one that was also constantly changing. Readers will enjoy a marvelous introduction to Brooks Brothers’ critical contributions to the style and accoutrements of the old WASP elite that wore the clothes that became and set the fashions. Lauren constantly re-invented the look with his own creativity. He favored two button jackets so as to reveal more of the tie and longer shirt collars, altering proportions to change how people saw the man in the clothes. Jackets bore enormous influence from English tailors: he adopted side vents and suppressed waists, embraced tweed, and favored softer shoulders borrowed from the English “dress soft” movement popularized by the Duke of Windsor. Ralph Lauren combined those English elements with the Ivy essentials of button down oxford shirts, Shetland sweaters, and polo coats to create his own take on the Ivy Style, neither completely formal nor casual, but leaving the man donning his clothes convinced that he had attained sartorial membership in the old Wasp elite to which people now referred simply as the world of Ralph Lauren. He helped to make “khakis” a mainstay of a man’s wardrobe, and popularized his own knit shirts that made Polo an eponym for those short sleeved, three buttoned, collard athletic shirts that are ubiquitous.
Equally thorough is Flusser’s attention to a wide array of Lauren’s other interests. Chapters feature Lauren’s houses, cars, and his love of the American West. Ralph Lauren’s limitless vision to see endless possibilities of creativity led him to transpose so many elements of men’s clothing onto his many contributions to women’s fashion: he put women in comfortable, outdoor country blends of tweeds, jeans, and corduroy. For one interested particularly in the Ivy Style, it is the first half of the book that addresses Lauren’s early career that will receive the most attention.
Followers of the Ivy Style will no doubt debate endlessly the extent to which Ralph Lauren changed the style, deviated from it, or invented something new altogether. Ralph Lauren certainly inspired generations of Americans to contend with the Ivy Style and engage in that same endless spirit of creative mixing with which undergraduates of Princeton and Yale and other Ivy League schools did in their own routine of choosing and dressing.
Alan Flusser’s painstaking detail and depth of analysis makes Ralph Lauren: In His Own Fashion an exceptionally fine, cogent study of one of the most important figures in the past half century.
More Editor’s Notes: got into the comments and thought, they are right, you never see Ralph in a button down collar. Here he is: