How to stop traffic on Madison Avenue? Another designer might have sent out a model in a bold Navajo outfit or one wearing a slinky, sparkling purple dress flashing flesh at the waist. But perhaps only Ralph Lauren could have closed the historic New York street altogether, building on to the sidewalk an ephemeral new space with tiered rows for the audience to see the classic designer's latest collection.
Classic? Classic! In the 49 years he has been at the helm, the Ralph Lauren empire has never done anything so radical as to present an entire collection — from checked lumberjack shirts to evening gowns with cowboy hats — where every last Navajo necklace, distressed-leather belt and boot had been prepared in secrecy and then offered instantly online and in the designer's flagship stores across the world.
“A lot of people wonder if 'buy now' is cheap, commercial and good for business – but I want to make it strong and good for everyone,” Ralph told me, wearing a washed-out blue cotton shirt, skinny jeans and Navajo belt as he stood in the opulent Rhinelander Mansion which has been his New York flagship since 1986.
The chatter about instant availability — what Ralph called in an open letter to his customers “off the runway and into your lives” — had therefore reached its crescendo on the penultimate day of the New York fashion season. The designer himself put it in a context of “the people's choice”, saying: “You are changing the way you live and the way you want to shop, and we are changing with you — and for you”.
The reality may not be quite so altruistic. Ralph Lauren has been streamlining the company, laying off more than 1,000 people this last summer alone, and appointing as CEO Stefan Larsson, his first ever CEO hired from outside the family. Maybe riffs on patrician grandeur and America's West are no longer enough to attract customers in a multi-cultural, digital world.
But the show — made stronger by the sense that outsiders were being embraced at sidewalk level – was a bold step taken to excite interest and even desire. Celebrities like Julianne Moore and her daughter Liv or blue-blooded model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley — themselves wearing slim black dresses — might have been drawn to colourful, sparkling evening gowns in hot pink, violet or sky blue.
There was plenty of day-to-day design, such as a slim grey trouser suit or a severe black jacket with trousers that had just a flash of graphic pattern at one ankle. This decoration seemed like an elaboration on the Beacon print, the legacy of the Pueblo tribes in America's Southwest. But the effect was mostly subtle, achieved with touches of jet-black beading or leather macramé.
The Native American blanket patterns may have gone too far down the ethnic trail for some international customers, but western-style designs and suede fringing, long used by Ralph Lauren, have become classic elements of a certain American look: at once bold and nostalgic. The jewellery — especially geometrically shaped necklaces and bold earrings — stood out among the many appealing accessories.
With beacons of luxury like Hermès and the Richemont group reporting sinking sales, can Ralph Lauren's big step into retailing's unknown territory work for his brand? Like the horses rearing and galloping in a dramatic digital window display, the designer has unleashed vibrant energy. Where it will lead is yet to be seen.