On the occasion of the exhibition in Paris of some of the finest examples from his collection of cars, Ralph Lauren, master of style and lover of cars as an expression of art, reveals to The Official Ferrari Magazine the secrets of his passion and of his way of interpreting the finer things in life
Estimated reading time: 19 minutes
How should one dress for a meeting with Ralph Lauren? It might seem like a trivial question, but not if you pause to think about it for a moment. Lauren is a man who, in the finest tradition of the American Dream, has created an empire out of his talent as a designer of lifestyles. Out of respect, if nothing else, a meeting with this celebrated architect of style demands great attention to detail.
Our appointment with him is at his company’s fabulous Manhattan HQ, on 650 Madison Avenue. As you come out of the lift on the sixth floor and into a dark wood-panelled atrium, you’re confronted by a tall bronze horseman on a pedestal, involved in a game of polo. We have arrived.
The wait is brief, the room immaculate in its every detail just like his emporia, famous the world over as signifiers of a very particular way of thinking about life. Ralph Lauren employs a comfortable and relaxed methodology, one with deep roots and an enviable consistency. Style is a constant, even if fashion is always changing and time does not stand still. When he appears, smiling broadly, he is dressed with a refined simplicity. There is no jacket, but a single-colour sweater with buttons and a tie, also in one colour, over a white shirt. It’s the look of a man with nothing left to prove. His office mixes the easy charm of a games room with the sort of forwardthinking approach you’d expect of an individual who has been at the top of such a fascinating, demanding business for as long as he has.
His apparel is in stark contrast to the tie I have chosen to wear for him. This is the man, remember, who actually began his extraordinary adventure by selling ties to his schoolmates while still a student.
Mine is a rare example from the collection created by the famous architect Ettore Sottsass at the beginning of the 1980s, the period when he founded the postmodern movement, called Memphis, in Italy. He notices it, asks if he can look at it, touches it as is fitting for an expert. He doesn’t say anything, but we have started off our discussion. And beginnings are always important. Our meeting today is a major coup for The Official Ferrari Magazine: Ralph Lauren very rarely gives interviews. Perhaps he understands the power of mystery. However, we have much to talk about, not least because he has decided to put some of his fabled car collection on show to the public. The exhibition, which opened at the Musée Des Arts Décoratifs in the Louvre in Paris on 28 April, is a testimony to his remarkable dedication to the automobile. Among these cars (17 in all, transported to Europe with due care and attention) are no fewer than five Ferraris. Very, very special Ferraris, both classic and contemporary, and the mark of a long-standing passion.
Which leads to the first question: what, for Ralph Lauren, is good taste? ‘I’m not about fashion, I’m about style,’ he answers. ‘There is a big difference. My products are about timeless elegance, they go on forever and never become outdated. And, in a funny way, Ferrari is a very similar concept. I think Ferrari has maintained its image and its brand through constantly working on the quality of what the Company is. And it creates this design, and the designs become classics. I work very hard to design my collections, but they become the classics in a person’s wardrobe; they become the thing that, when the time comes you say, “Oh no, I don’t ever want to lose that, I don’t ever want to give that away,” you want to keep it. Ferraris, at least in my experience, get better with age. They are always exciting and new and dramatic, but they become classic. That’s pretty good.’ Lauren has a natural tendency to look ahead. Take, for instance, his assertion that a Ferrari is so much more than just its classic colour scheme. ‘I think the world has changed and Ferrari certainly sells a lot of red cars, but they sell many other colours. I think it’s good for Ferrari that they are not all about their red car any more; it’s not a racing team, it is a racing company, it is a universal company that does business around the world. I can go to China and see Ferrari, the perception is certainly exciting but that has nothing to do with its colour… [pause] what’s happened with Ferrari today is that they’ve become a more universal company. They are dramatic, but they’re for people who have taste and they find that taste in their automobiles. They respect the brand because it stands for something. They don’t need to be red, they can be any colour.’ This universal profile is something that goes beyond “Italianness” – there’s a neat parallel to be drawn with Lauren’s own styles, which go far beyond the classic idea of American elegance. ‘There is an American spirit but it’s also a very international spirit because I am now around the world. I think if you walk into my stores in Europe you would say, “Oh, Ralph Lauren, I know him, I like his things,” but then ultimately you don’t know “Is he American? Is he English? Is he French? Is he Italian?” Wouldn’t you say that is the same for Ferrari? People look at it and they know the brand, they know the name, they know that it’s Italian, but they all love it.’
The majority of Ferraris in Lauren’s collection are red. However, as he’s keen to stress, the value of the Prancing Horse brand goes far beyond a mere colour scheme. ‘It’s a racing team and the red is the
racing team colour. Ferrari is a total thoroughbred, it’s not simply a flashy car, it’s a car that has developed from years of conditioning and established itself as a true leader in technology. It’s a car that you can purchase and enjoy and not have to worry about its quality. And in a world of mass consumption it is exciting. There are only a few brands in the world that have that kind of recognition.’
Having visited, just before the interview, the sumptuous Ralph Lauren store on Madison Avenue, in which every detail becomes an inspiration for the decoration of one’s home (in addition to the choice of one’s clothing), it seems a little odd that the large building housing his cars is rigorously white inside, with no similar decoration. Why? ‘Because I feel the great beauty of the cars. I designed the garage to be a gallery, so that when you look at them you see the simplicity of the background, but the excitement of the cars.’
The building, which in addition to so many Ferraris, has stupendous pre-war Bugattis, Jaguars and Bentleys that won at Le Mans, Mercedes, Alfas, Porsches… all proof of his genuine passion for racing cars, is called the “Garage”. Or, to be precise, the “D.A.D. Garage”, bringing together the initials of his two sons David and Andrew and his daughter Dylan. ‘It’s because it’s cool. Because I don’t want to be pretentious, I like people to be surprised when they come in. So when they say, “Where do you keep your cars?”, I say I keep them in the garage. But then when they walk in they say, “Oh wow, some garage!” If I said it was a museum, they would say, “Oh my God, this doesn’t look like a good museum.”’ [laughs] Lauren’s love of Ferrari began almost by chance.
His first experience was of driving: ‘I always knew about Ferrari and I had a British Morgan and a Porsche Turbo. I didn’t really have as much experience with Ferraris, though. A friend of mine was the owner of Rolling Stone magazine and took me for a ride. He wanted to drive my Porsche and I wanted to drive his Ferrari and, when we were out in the Hamptons, we took a drive in the morning and I fell in love with the sound of the Ferrari.’
However, the real eye-opener came during a visit to London. ‘I was coming out of the Connaught Hotel and saw a black Daytona Spider; a 1972 Daytona Spider. It was black, black top, black body, black interior and I said, “What is that car?” I thought it was fantastic. And I fell in love with it and I said, “Where can I get this?” And I came back and found out how many cars they made – just 125 – and thought that this is a different world we are entering now, and that these cars are hard to find and they are special and so I would be more excited. But I did get it, I did buy it and that was the beginning of my Ferrari passion. I really got the fever for Ferrari. And it continues today.’
In the magnificent book that presents his car collection, Lauren recognises a unique quality in Ferrari: each has its own spirit and character. ‘I have had a lot of experience with the cars and they are all different. I drive them all, from the GTO to the Daytona Spider, to the 250 LM to the 250 GT Berlinetta, to the prototype P2/3 to the F40. As the years go by, I follow the development of the cars. Among the road cars I had an F355, and a 360, an F430 and now a 458 Italia and the GTO. I’m very excited about this and I’m waiting for the new car, the new supercar. I have enjoyed the cars and when I’m out in Colorado [where he has a ranch] I drive them on the open roads, which are just like those in Switzerland.’ Who better than a man in a position to drive every different type of Ferrari to tell us how the Prancing Horse cars have developed over time? ‘Well, the contemporary Ferraris are very silkysmooth, they’re very tight. The type of shifting has a great feel to it. The old cars have more character, because of the lack of perfection. They’re more complicated to drive, but more fulfilling in a way, because you really have to be a driver to drive those cars well and to shift gear properly and go around corners correctly. You have to know your sport and how to handle it and drive it properly to get pleasure out of it. The new cars: you can be an average driver and feel like you’re a great driver. They give you a feeling that you are a race car driver, but it’s all built into the car.’
How does such a demanding man, the head of a global fashion empire with a personal net worth estimated by Forbes magazine to be $4.6bn, find the time to drive his precious cars? ‘I have never considered myself a collector. I consider myself a lover of cars and I have never wanted to sell one after owning it, I’ve always kept them. I love the cars but I drive them. Driving a car for me is moving art. I didn’t invest in paintings; I invested in my hobbies, which are cars. And you can’t drive a painting.’
Indeed. To this end, Lauren regularly takes to the fabulous and demanding Laguna Seca track at the classic cars meeting, held every August and at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Where does he
prefer to see his jewels triumph? ‘I would rather win a race. [laughs] I think it goes hand-in-hand, if I were a great driver I would love to have the great car that’s beautiful, but I would want to win the race. The cars in my garage are for driving first and beauty second. When I come out in the morning and look at the car and say, “Oh wow, look how beautiful that is,” but then I get into the car and I have another thing, I have the drive. And after a while you forget what the car looks like. You’re driving the car and it becomes a part of who you are.’ So, can a designer like you also be a driver?
‘I don’t think so, I think it’s a different thing. You have different sensitivities, and different emotions. When you’re designing you get excited, you’re designing new concepts, but when you’re driving you are excited by the speed and power and it’s a different kind of energy, it’s like a sport. When you’re driving it’s sport and when you’re working and designing, it’s another part of your brain. Cars for me are an escape from what I do, but the aesthetics of the cars are connected to the aesthetics of how I design. The chair you’re sitting in now is carbon fibre (part of the Ralph Lauren Home collection, an armchair combining Art Deco style and modernity) and I was sitting in one of my cars and I said, “You know, I ought to make a chair out of carbon fibre.” And I got that from a car.’
Does this mean that, for him, the extraordinary lines of classic cars, rather than inspiring design, suggest a lifestyle, a look even in the style of Isadora Duncan? ‘I design for men or women. Part of their life, part of their style is the way they dress and where they go and the restaurants they go to, and the cars are very much a part of people’s personality, particularly sports cars versus road cars. The car is part of their life.’
When you visit a car show, like those in Geneva or Detroit, you find yourself faced with a universe made up of real models and of concept cars that look towards the future. Then you realise that there are also models from the past that have been reinterpreted, given a fresh new look, that are able to excite us again. You only have to think of the Mini, the Fiat 500 or the VW Beetle. How does a man so passionate about cars, so sensitive to taste, regard contemporary car design? ‘I think one of the problems with some American cars is that they all look alike. But the handful of companies like Porsche, Ferrari, McLaren, Lamborghini, create great cars that have real character. What I admire is their design and how they were built for the road. They were built for racing, so the scoops and all the things that go along with the car are part of the excitement. The speed is the most important thing, together with the handling and shifting, and with that package comes a shell that can be a masterpiece.’
As a businessman, Lauren understands perfectly the extent investments in a mass-market car compromise stylistic choices. He also knows how to be critical. ‘People use their cars today on the highway, for everyday use, but there are always a few drivers who have a second or third car that is beautiful; cars that they want to take out for a ride in the country. And they really look forward to that moment, to taking these cars out. They say, “Come on, let’s get out of the city in our Ferrari.” Let’s put the top down, that’s a real drive. However, I do think that cars for daily use need some imagination. And I believe that certainly in America a lack of imagination is one of the problems of those cars – lack of imagination and mass production.’
Of course, some things never change; a child’s passion for cars will always endure. ‘When I come out with one of my cars, I get kids all around and everybody turns around to see what car it is, sometimes it’s too embarrassing! When I was a young boy I used to look at the American cars, I would sit with my friends and we’d look at the Oldsmobile and Cadillac and count the cars, but you can’t even tell which car is which, you can’t even tell the difference. The thrill of a sports car remains, though. I don’t think that’s gone away.’ Over time, a mutual appreciation and understanding has developed between Luca di Montezemolo and Lauren. Ferrari and Ralph Lauren have similar philosophies as companies; a respect for the past balanced with a constant look to the future. The two are unique, irreplaceable luxury brands and it’s not by chance that Montezemolo’s dress sense and lifestyle correspond to those of Ralph Lauren, just as Lauren’s passion for Ferrari is not so very different from the love that Montezemolo conveys every day. Indeed, when presenting the FF to the international media at the Geneva Motor Show, the Chairman of Ferrari cited Lauren as an inspiration for the all-wheel drive model.
‘I remember exactly what I did,’ Lauren recalls, ‘I was at Pebble Beach and I met Luca for the first time, and we were introduced, and I said right away, “Why don’t you make an all-wheel drive car, I think it’s going to be very important, and I think it would be very exciting for Ferrari to do that, because there are a lot of young people who love Ferraris, but Ferrari could be more; it could be all-wheel drive car , because people need such a car for certain periods and times…” It took a while, but they did it.’
Lauren also helped prompt the Chairman to invest in a large-scale renovation at Maranello, possibly because, on the occasion of a visit in the ’90s, Montezemolo was left with the impression that the American may have been a little disappointed. ‘I was never disappointed to see Ferrari, I was excited; it was intriguing, and to see how everything was done and how different people were working on a car by hand, I was very impressed… and I saw the wind tunnel. So to be there with Luca who explained everything and introduced me to the workers was very exciting. So, I was never disappointed.’
The two companies have other things in common of course, most notably their considerable global reach. The Americans, so well represented in the style of the New York designer, are the world’s major purchasers of Ferrari. It works both ways. ‘Italian men and women love Ralph Lauren because they like the classic-ness of the clothes. Italy is a very important place for me because Italians like my clothes and they understand the concept.’
New markets, like China, are important for both companies, too. Lauren nods in agreement. ‘I think that Ferrari and Ralph Lauren have heritage, they have a style that is timeless and yet new at the same time, and also an integrity to the product. I think Chinese people are interested in heritage; they’re interested in how the cars came about and how they are today, so I think they like the heritage end and to know about the company. The Ferraris themselves are a symbol of style and taste and sport.’
Of the many cars he owns that were created at Maranello, which ones are his favourites? ‘Well, I have a new 458 Italia that I think is fantastic. It’s a modern car, it’s yellow, and I love that car. And for the older cars, there are a lot that I love, but I love driving the GTOs. Those cars are very easy to shift.
And the California Spyder… I love all those cars…the Daytona… they’re all fantastic.’ Now for the biggest question of all: which one has the most style? ‘I think one of the most beautiful Ferraris is the Pontoon Fender Testa Rossa, the most amazing looking car. But I love them all. I love the Spider, 275 GTB4 convertible… that one’s very beautiful because the lines are curvy…’
Suddenly Lauren’s people are making signs. He’s expected at another meeting. But the appointment book has to wait a while yet. ‘I think that the excitement of Ferrari is its flair for excitement… they’re exciting, they’re not just classic. They’re exciting. You don’t have to be red… you can be yellow, you can be black… you can be any colour to be exciting for a Ferrari. Their designs are always creative, so they’re always coming up with something new. There’s excitement in a new car, in a new Ferrari; it’s not only in the body, but in the interior. They’re always changing, always improving. I see the changes in the technology, I see the changes in the design, which makes the Company always exciting. They’re not always available and that’s a very important factor in the excitement.’
Maybe six months or a year… ‘Right. You don’t like it, but you wait.’(laughs) While he accompanies us, with a courtesy that mirrors the style he offers, we invite him to return to Maranello, the site of technology and dreams that the Ferrari of today has become, thanks to the stimulus coming from people like him. He asks us to say hello to Luca, he smiles. ‘We’ll meet soon,’ he says, standing in the doorway.
Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine issue 13, May 2011