Ralph Lauren Is Still Behind the Wheel
But neither the engineering nor the automotive gimmickry was half as impressive as the overall aura of wealth and might that the collection conveyed. And very likely the symbolic point Mr. Lauren intends to make Tuesday evening is that, following a tumultuous year in which he wrested back control of a company struggling to retain its relevance in a fast changing market, the man who created the Ralph Lauren juggernaut is back behind the wheel. (Creatively, at least; in July Mr. Lauren named Patrice Louvet, who formerly ran the global beauty business for Procter & Gamble but has no experience in the apparel industry, chief executive of the company.)
“It’s not about the money,’’ Mr. Lauren said, when asked to put a price tag on his collection of rarefied toys. “That’s why I hesitate to give numbers. Cars and clothes and everything I’ve ever done come from passion. It’s how I built my business. I had no training for this.’’
Like many Americans, Mr. Lauren’s relationship to cars is sentimental and began in childhood. He can recall in almost rapturous detail the torpedo fins on his father’s navy blue 1949 Pontiac, the one with the now politically dubious Indian head hood ornament.
His own first car was a British-made Morgan he was forced to sell because he couldn’t afford the repair bills. He later bought it back, of course, and it sits in an upper level of the Bedford Hills warehouse, lovingly maintained — along with his 80 or more other vehicles, many in the matte black that is something of a tell’ among aficionados for true connoisseurship — by a curator and a full-time maintenance crew.
Along a path that saw Mr. Lauren transform himself from a house painter’s son to a brand name presiding over a globally recognized enterprise, and a businessman with a personal net worth estimated by Forbes at $5.8 billion, he found he could gratify his material cravings in the maximalist manner of an American pharaoh.
In addition to his clean-lined Fifth Avenue duplex looking out on Central Park, the designer owns a Norman manor in Westchester; an oceanfront compound in Montauk, N.Y.; a retreat in Jamaica that includes a house once owned by C. Douglas Dillon, secretary of the Treasury under John F. Kennedy; and the 16,000-acre Double RL ranch in the San Juan Mountains near Telluride, Colo.
It is there that Mr. Lauren, 77, most often takes to the road, sometimes astride one of his vintage motorcycles, but more often behind the wheel of a classic automobile from a collection that includes a 1958 Ferrari Testarossa; a 1938 Alfa Romeo Mille Miglia; a 1929 Bentley Blower; and a 1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK “Count Trossi” roadster, only one of which was ever manufactured.
“I drive all the time,” he said. “I love the open mountain roads.”
Sometimes, Mr. Lauren said, he revs up one of the Maseratis he has acquired over four decades. Or else he takes to his three-seater gull-wing McLaren (which can go from 0 to 62 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds) or, less terrifyingly, the 1956 Mercedes 300SL convertible he says is the vehicle in his collection he likes to imagine looks most like it would be Ralph Lauren’s ride.
If he seldom takes his 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic coupe for a spin, it is not because he is hesitant to put a ding in what is generally judged the supreme example of the automaker’s art. “It’s probably the most beautiful car ever built,” he said flatly of a car the industrialist Gianni Agnelli once made a pilgrimage to Bedford Hills to inspect. “But it doesn’t drive like it looks.”
Appearances, in general, were on Mr. Lauren’s mind, specifically people’s perceptions of the unusual setting he chose for his latest show. “I’m probably going to get some catty comments,” Mr. Lauren said of fashion show guests who will perhaps see ostentation and dollar signs and not passion in a billionaire’s decision to stage a fashion show inside his garage.
It doesn’t matter. “I’ve been in the business a long time, and I’m used to it,” he said.
It is worth mentioning here that Mr. Lauren’s longevity in a notoriously fickle and increasingly corporate industry, while it may be attributable to business acumen, is equally a product of his reliance on his instinct. It was instinct — and mutual agreement — that led him, in February, to part ways with his company’s chief executive officer, Stefan Larsson, after a clash over how to restructure and invigorate the venerable brand to appeal to younger consumers.
“Stefan is a nice guy,” Mr. Lauren said of the former Old Navy executive. “But he didn’t understand the vision.”
It remains to be seen whether that vision can be translated for an Uber generation, a group largely ignorant of the myths and motifs — Western, Native American, Anglophile, preppy — that have long been the designer’s stock in trade. Still, Mr. Lauren seems like a man of complete, untroubled conviction.
“Everything I’ve done in my career has been personal, ” he said, pausing alongside a sleek racing machine that could have been Batman’s weekend car. “Fifty years in this business is a feat in itself.”
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Ralph Lauren’s personal net worth. When the designer said that he set his worth higher than Forbes magazine’s estimate, he was referring to the value of his company, not his personal net worth.
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Stefan Larsson’s departure from Ralph Lauren. The designer did not abruptly remove the former chief executive officer from his role; his departure was mutually agreed upon.
Continue reading the main story