As he celebrates the 30th anniversary of his groundbreaking home collection, the legendary designer discusses the inspiration for his stylish empire.
He may helm one of the best-known and most successful luxury brands on the planet, but Ralph Lauren designs for himself. Always has. It’s what got him started in the late 1960s, when he couldn’t find the wider neckties he wanted to wear. No one was making them, so he did. Ties and shirts eventually led to seasonal head-to-toe collections, outfitting both men and women for everything from a formal evening out in the city to a yachting excursion off the New England coast to a weekend on a Western ranch. “When I started out, people would see things I was wearing and say, ‘Can you make that for me?’” Lauren recalls. “I guess that was when I knew I had something different.”
But Lauren didn’t stop at clothes. Back in 1983, in the days before major fashion houses had furnishings lines, the designer launched the Ralph Lauren Home Collection, expanding his vision of a thoroughly stylish life. “I came at everything with a sense of how I would want to live,” Lauren says. “My wife, Ricky, and I were shopping for things for our apartment, and all the sheets were very feminine and covered in roses. I wondered, Why can’t I get something masculine? So I took the Oxford cloth we were using to make shirts, turned it into bedding, and sewed buttons down the side of the pillowcases.”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Lauren’s pioneering home collection, a line whose impact and influence have been monumental. Customers can now buy Ralph Lauren bedding, furniture, lighting, rugs, china and glassware, wall coverings, and paint in a wide variety of looks with evocative names such as Thoroughbred, Modern Penthouse, Jamaica, and, new this fall, Apartment No. One. The latter was inspired by the Duke of Windsor and named for the residence at London’s Kensington Palace where Prince William and Kate Middleton will make their home. The range of offerings reflects Lauren’s unwillingness to be pinned down by a single style. “I’m never just one person,” he notes. Nonetheless, everything carries the unmistakable imprint of the designer and his brand.
In the world of Ralph Lauren, the private and business spheres are so tightly aligned as to be virtually indistinguishable. He’s living out the fantasy he’s marketing, with all the trappings: a minimalist Manhattan apartment, a rustic-modern Long Island beach house, a ranch in Colorado, a tropical retreat in Jamaica, and a stone manse in Bedford, New York. Each home is its own distinct vision of the good life, and each tells a different but complementary story—stories that directly shape his collections. “I think it’s the eye, the taste, and the spirit of the dream,” he says when asked what links it all together.
Lauren is the first to admit he’s not an interior designer. But he can, as he puts it, “visualize how you’d live in a particular environment.” In the same way he pictures what people might wear at a seaside villa in Round Hill, Jamaica, he also imagines the rattan chair where they’d relax with a good book, the blue-and-cream china they’d use for lunch on the terrace, the handblown tumbler from which they’d sip their afternoon rum cocktail. “I felt like just creating the clothes wasn’t enough,” says Lauren, adding, “It’s all an extension of something I wanted in my life—or my dream life.”
Some of Lauren’s earliest fashion successes were his interpretations of traditional British sportswear (riding clothes, hunting tweeds, Scottish tartans), and that style remains one of his hallmarks. It’s also an aesthetic that strongly influences the interiors of his dramatic Norman-style residence in Bedford. “I wanted something that was a little more English than my other homes, but I still wanted it to feel young,” says Lauren, who purchased the property in the late ’80s. Much of the furniture and art came from buying excursions to England and France, and while the decor is undoubtedly the most formal of his residences, it’s also both playful and eclectic in a way that is uniquely Ralph Lauren. Tartans and timeworn Persian carpets mix with quirky objects and brawny overstuffed upholstery that everywhere entreats guests to, please, take a seat. True to Lauren’s penchant for using his own life as design inspiration, several of the dwelling’s furnishings helped shape signature pieces in the home collection. For example, the 19th-century Dutch brass fixture that illuminates the entrance hall gave rise to the Lillianne chandelier, and a pair of Louis XV–style wing chairs in the living room led to the Spencer chair.