Words: Henry Farrar-Hockley
On the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 55th Street is a handsome Twenties neo-classical building with an imposing limestone façade embellished with bronze-trimmed windows. To its west stands the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Duke Ellington performed his career-defining Concert of Sacred Music in 1965. To the south is the St Regis Hotel – the fêted Beaux-Arts style monument in which Salvador Dalí resided for much of the Sixties and Seventies – and a few blocks north, white-blossomed Callery pear trees mark the entrance to Central Park. In short, this is a prime slice of New York real estate. And late last month, this lovingly restored landmark reopened as the world’s first Polo Ralph Lauren flagship store.
‘When I began designing, I started with the timeless elements of a classic style I called Polo,’ explains the brand’s eponymous founder, chair and CEO. ‘Over many years, the brand has established a reputation for quality, heritage and authenticity. I believe there’s a tremendous opportunity to extend Polo’s enduring appeal around the world, and I’m thrilled to be opening our flagship at home in New York City.’
Lauren’s is the quintessential rags to rag-trade riches success story: of how a regular American guy with no formal fashion training saw a gap for a new style of wider tie and went about turning it into an international retail empire with a turnover of $7.5bn. The man renowned for his penchant for ‘non-fashion fashion’ was born Ralph Lifshitz. The son of lower-middle-class European immigrants, he was raised in the Bronx suburb of Moshulu Park, and even in childhood exhibited a keen appreciation of style, experimenting with the preppy clothing combinations that would come to define his ubiquitous aesthetic. In his 1957 high-school yearbook, under ‘goals’, he wrote simply ‘millionaire’. A decade later, he approached Bloomingdale’s to pitch his concept for a 5in-wide tie, having already borrowed $50,000 to found his own business under the aspirational Polo name. But when the store insisted he tone down his designs and remove the branding, he rejected its offer on principle. His single-mindedness paid off, however, as Bloomingdale’s relented, with the ties turning out to be a huge success.
Today, Polo Ralph Lauren is the defining symbol of an accessible modern style that never succumbs to fashion’s ceaseless desire for reinvention. Its logo – a mallet-wielding rider astride a galloping horse – is the equal of Apple’s in instantly identifying it as a covetable lifestyle brand. And after nearly 50 years of shaping the way we dress, its striking new home represents arguably its most ambitious undertaking to date.
If you’ve ever set foot in a Ralph Lauren store, be it on New Bond Street, on Boulevard Saint Germain, or in Shibuya-ku or Chicago, you’ll know these are no ordinary stop-and-shop retail experiences. Part of the appeal of Lauren’s world is the scale and scope of his imagination – an attention to detail borne out in his meticulously storyboarded temples to all things sartorial. In this regard, 711 Fifth Avenue is no different. The 38,000sq ft space is a paean to the Polo brand, and will be the first of a roll-out of similarly fully featured flagships the world over, with a London address due to be added in 2015.
As well as acting as a showcase for the first complete lifestyle range of the Polo Women’s label, which launched earlier this year, the ‘mothership’ also carries the full gamut of Polo menswear, including a completely new suiting proposition that deftly addresses the needs of today’s multitasking alpha male. The four-storey edifice houses Ralph Lauren’s first restaurant in New York City, too – a 150-cover dining room with log fire and saddle-leather banquettes – and an artisan-coffee bar. Sourced from organic blends, Ralph’s Coffee is another example of its creator’s understanding of how an aspirational lifestyle brand can operate beyond the conventional.
Numerous fashion labels claim to offer their customers that all-important ‘top-to-toe’ experience, but Lauren has always taken this concept a step further than the competition. He was the first fashion designer to launch
a full home collection, back in 1983, and while countless other clothing brands have made the logical expansion into haute horology, few have done so with the same ambition. When Lauren announced his £33,000 RL67 Safari tourbillon at last year’s SIHH industry fair, the watch world certainly took notice. He had decided to transplant one of timekeeping’s oldest, most accurate and complex mechanisms into a gunmetal-finish sports case intended for the great outdoors.
Ralph Lauren’s stable of style collections reflects an innate understanding of the diverse demands of today’s man – it ranges from the full bespoke finery of Purple Label’s classical elegance to Black Label’s modern luxury wardrobe staples, and from RLX’s outward-bound technical wear to the preppy, all-American collegiate sensibility of Polo. The Polo marque is undergoing a transition that goes far beyond the walls of its recently unveiled New York centrepiece. Key to its new direction is a fresh approach to pared-down tailoring that blends its traditional aesthetic – chalk-stripe flannels, Saxony woollens and rich tweeds – with a sleeker, more European silhouette that has higher armholes, a closer fit through the chest and an unlined construction with more natural shoulders.
The suits are available as separates, and the jackets – from £345 – have a drop of seven inches to ensure a better proportioned waistline. Bedford is an equestrian-inspired design with strong shoulders, double vents and a natural roll on the lapel, while Polo is, as the name suggests, a classic house cut with a single vent and soft shoulders. Morgan blends tailoring and sportswear. As with all Ralph Lauren garments, the end products are the result of time-honoured craftsmanship and state-of-the-art technology.
To this end, there is perhaps no better example of Lauren’s ability to keep things classic while training an eye on the future than the other ‘first’ his company chalked up last month. Ten miles east of the Fifth Avenue flagship is Flushing Meadows, home to the annual Grand Slam tennis event, the US Open. It was at this year’s tournament that the ball boys wore simple black Polo Ralph Lauren athletic tops fitted with biometric sensors that accurately measure everything from heartbeat to respiration, stress levels and the wearer’s energy output, and send the stats to a smartphone. It’s the designer’s first foray into wearable tech and, while only in the test phase, it could be lining the shelves of the Polo flagship as early as spring 2015. Now, that’s something to get the pulse racing.
Available from Ralph Lauren, 1 New Bond Street, London W1S 1SR (020 7535 4600); also Harrods and House of Fraser; ralphlauren.com