(Originally printed in the New York Times)
When a picture of Igor Stravinsky was placed in one of the furiously set-decorated homes of Ralph Lauren, it turned out that Mr. Lauren could not identify him, according to Michael Gross’s deep-dish, catty new biography, a beach book even if it happens to be January. “It doesn’t matter who it was,” Mr. Lauren apparently said. “The look, I love.”
When Mr. Lauren takes a meeting, he likes the china to match what he is wearing. When he poses for a photograph, he finds ways to avoid appearing “not tall” next to models. And at the Double RL Ranch in Colorado, where the deer and the antelope and the Laurens play, the urban cowboy has been known to fight with his wife about who gets to ride which horse.
“Genuine Authentic,” Mr. Gross’s sharp-clawed if blandly titled book, finds such material wherever it can while also examining the corporate history of Polo Ralph Lauren. By no coincidence, the Lauren empire is striking back with its ridiculous vanity production, a coffee-table book celebrating the arts of a) Mr. Lauren and b) fawning. This is the place to discover that Mr. Lauren is elegant, wise, visionary, elegant some more and very much a man’s man. Even his baby picture is admired for signs of early genius.
Interestingly, anecdotes that present Mr. Lauren as Citizen Kane on horseback are at home in both places. Is it flattering to describe how he arrives at the place where his staff has arranged a cookout, then decides that everything must be moved 20 feet? (Yes. This means he cares about perfection.) Is it kind to suppose that he imagines his customer as someone with “a Bentley and two poodles”? (No. That means he’s out of touch.)
Mr. Gross started out on the friendly side of this comparison. As he explains in an opening author’s note that establishes the book’s rules of engagement, he was originally asked to do the authorized version. But one little girlfriend, who had been spotted with Mr. Lauren by Spy magazine a decade earlier, turned out to be the sticking point; Mr. Lauren did not want her mentioned. Off went an unfettered, hard-working Mr. Gross to dig into the paradoxes, absurdities and triumphs of his subject’s story.
“Genuine Authentic” begins controversially by courting anti-Semitism. Mr. Lauren (né Lifshitz) may once have referred jokingly to an Anglo Saxon-looking portrait at one of his stores as “Grandpa Lifshitz,” but Mr. Gross unveils real Jewish relatives with a vengeance. (One of the references listed in his bibliography is a book called “Shtetl Finder.”)
And despite his pointing out long lines of nobility and irony in the designer’s past (think for a moment about the possibility of his being related to Karl Marx), he comes close to treating Mr. Lauren’s Orthodox upbringing as disparaging proof of Wizard of Oz syndrome. The book’s admiring tone toward the rabbinical aristocracy does not change that nasty edge.
But the professional Anglophilia that helped to shape Mr. Lauren’s career (“He knew you wore a crest ring, not a diamond,” someone notes) becomes all the more haunting in view of his past.
A Bronx background sans hounds and horses is at the heart of how “creating instant heirlooms for the legacy-deprived” became his stock in trade. About the WASP behavior they first glimpsed in movies, a Jewish boyhood friend says: “People would die, and there would be no tears, whereas in our houses, there was bathetic shrieking at a splinter. We guiltily saw emotional restraint, modesty and understatement as a model.”
As the kind of boy liable to say, “I love your reindeer sweater,” in the words of his brother, Jerry, Mr. Lauren also showed an early propensity for simply adoring the intricacies of clothing. So “Genuine Authentic” presents an honestly admiring catalog of his early triumphs. (“I remember thinking to myself, his office is under his hat,” says someone quick to spot his talent.) But the book also outlines increasingly high-handed, impractical business tactics and ill-advised licensing deals that plagued Polo. Mr. Gross says that shipments had a way of arriving late, and women’s clothing often didn’t fit customers. Also, Mr. Gross says, Mr. Lauren didn’t care.
The book maintains that Polo has been sustained by the middle-class universality of knit shirts and household linens, not the evening clothes of its grandiose advertisements. Not for nothing are Mr. Lauren’s literary heroes Jay Gatsby and, from “The Fountainhead,” Howard Roark. It also pits image against reality in describing the thriving role of Polo outlet stores, even if Mr. Lauren keeps his distance from anything so outré.
The latter part of his book presents Mr. Lauren as requiring increasing coddling and wrapping himself in a fog of increasingly lavish illusions, or as he likes to call it, “living the dream.” When it came to the Laurens’s outpost in Bedford, N.Y. (“House o’ Props,” a staff member calls it), living the dream typically meant huge, earth-moving renovation. “The work was so extensive,” the book reports, “that when the broker who sold Ralph the place returned to see the final product, he couldn’t find” the house.