Ralph Lauren is first and foremost a storyteller—one with a cinematic vision. Whether he's designing clothing, furniture, or accessories, the influence of the great screen classics is never far from the surface. "People ask, 'How can a Jewish kid from the Bronx do preppy clothes?' " he once famously said. "Does it have to do with class and money? It has to do with dreams." Just as was the case with the birth of Hollywood, it took an outsider, with an outsider's ability to romanticize and celebrate, to create such a comprehensive vision of the American good life and all the glamour and drama it entails.
Bel Air collection, 2005
Lauren became a major player in the design world just as Hollywood was entering a renaissance. In the 1960s and '70s, young filmmakers were not only reinventing the art of cinema but also reimagining the iconography of earlier decades: the 1940s noir of Chinatown, the Western grit of Bonnie and Clyde, the postwar New York of The Godfather. (Lauren himself created the costumes for the 1974 production of The Great Gatsby, the ultimate story of a self-made outsider fashioning his own version of the American dream.) Like Coppola, Polanski, and other filmmakers of the era, Lauren took timeless American symbols and talismans and made them grander and dreamier. He made them distinctly his own, even as he made them accessible.
Clivedon tableware, 2003.
Ralph Lauren Home's Modern Hollywood collection, 2005.
By the time he launched Ralph Lauren Home in 1983, the extension of his brand from fashion into lifestyle seemed like a natural move. If his clothes had always suggested the wardrobe of a classic film, his furniture and home accessories carried his aesthetic from ourselves to our surroundings. His home collections are the literal settings for the stories he wants to tell, detailed down to the teacups. Lauren draws from long-established genres, creating the mise-en-scène; you are invited to write your own script, enact your own dramas.
Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, 1955.
Those genres are wide-ranging. Significantly, he has often drawn upon films that conjure images of Old Hollywood. The lush all-white palette of his Modern Hollywood collection, from 2005, wouldn't look out of place in an Astaire and Rogers musical; the sleek tablesettings of his 2003 Clivedon collection almost could have stepped out of the 1930s. And yet, for all their fantasy, these interiors and fittings feel modern and practical, and right for today: The filmmaker's love of drama is combined with a real eye for livability.
Pacific Heights collection, 2006.
Modern Hollywood ottoman.
Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968.
One-Fifth collection, 2011.
Like an earlier generation of filmmakers, the designer frequently looked abroad to Europe for old-world allure. The Ralph Lauren interpretation of England is one of country houses, with their finely tailored denizens, large staffs, and intrigues. The rooms of his imagined estates are filled with detail—classic, faded English chintzes, a tarnished heirloom vase, a carelessly gathered handful of flowers—all of which evoke an entire world: the family dramas of Howards End or even Rebecca-style ghosts.
Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in Howards End, 1992.
Lauren returns again and again to the safari-inspired clothing and sepia-tone interiors that conjure such films as Mogambo and Out of Africa (which his 1984 collection of zebra rugs and khaki fabrics actually anticipated by a year). Indeed, a ruggedly elegant safari setting—billowing canopies, hunting trophies—now suggests the cinematic style of Ralph Lauren more than the work of any actual film director.
St. Germain furnishings.
St. Germain collection, 2007.
Morgan Hall collection, 1990.
The designer has frequently taken on that most American of genres, the Western, transforming the rough and hardy into something romantic and resonant. His American West is wide-screen–size and Technicolor-hued. It has less to do with history than it does with myth. This is the West as filtered through John Ford movies—not Wyatt Earp but handsome John Wayne and Gary Cooper. His 2005 Desert Hills collection might borrow tropes like cowhides and Native American prints, but it is purely a Ralph Lauren creation.
Denis O'Dea, Grace Kelly, and Ava Gardner in Mogambo, 1953.
Lauren is famous for his collection of vintage sports cars, so it's not surprising that his love of a certain sleek, hyper-American speed also figures into his work. At times his collections imagine the world of a dashing playboy—like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief or Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair—that may never have existed outside of Hollywood but is inextricably linked with our perception of American masculinity. Lauren embraces the pared-down lines and stark palettes of these films but takes them further, offering us a peek into the private lives of their heroes. What does Thomas Crown's furniture look like? The angular RL-CF1 lounge chair, of course.
California Romantic collection, 2011.
California Romantic tablesetting.
Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in Out of Africa, 1985.
For all the designer's diverse cinematic antecedents, the Ralph Lauren look is immediately recognizable. A quality of lived-in luxury, an attention to detail, a mixture of the past and the present are all hallmarks. But what makes his designs stand out? Walk into a Ralph Lauren room and you feel as though you're entering a dream, wholly conceived and fully tactile. By now our dreams are as indelibly tied up with the Ralph Lauren aesthetic as any of the films that helped inspire it. The master designer has homed in on our wishes and fantasies, refined them, and made them deliberately, graphically real—and iconic.
John Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949.
Desert Hills bedroom set.
Desert Hills collection, 2005.