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NPR Arts & Life

Is Fashion Designer Ralph Lauren Out Of Touch With America?

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Ralph Lauren's spring collection is not working for fashion critic Robin Givhan. The title of her review this week in The Washington Post is "It's 2018, Ralph Lauren. Why Do You Think This Look Is Still Cool?" She believes Lauren's signature prep school, country club looks are a little oblivious to the America of today, and she's with us now to talk about it. Hi.

ROBIN GIVHAN: Hi.

MCEVERS: So you get to go to the unveiling of these lines, right? Describe what it was like to see this new collection come down the runway earlier this week in New York.

GIVHAN: Well, when the lights came up, you know, we saw this really luxurious sort of Jamaican resort as a backdrop. And the first model was wearing a blue and white strapless dress, and she was barefoot. And it looked like the kind of wonderful, easy attire that you'd want to wear when you're at the beach. And then it sort of shifted gears and we moved into a group that was inspired by sailing.

And there were a lot of pieces that were sort of the colors of maritime flags. An evening gown - the train had the image of a steamboat on the back like something that you might see from a vintage travel poster. And there were also a lot of gentlemen who were wearing navy blazers, blue pinstriped suits, ascots. I mean, it was a cheerful collection for sure, but it was an extraordinarily polished, controlled, hyper-groomed, almost robotic kind of collection.

And I think what was unsettling is that at this moment in time all of those things that once seemed so glossy and perfect and aspirational and very Hollywood have been called into question. We've started to look at them with a jaundiced eye. We're suspicious of them because they've proven to be not only just imperfect, but in some cases quite rotten to the core.

MCEVERS: Isn't this who Ralph Lauren is, though? I mean, this has always been his thing, right? This sort of a preppy Americana is his trademark in a way.

GIVHAN: I think that is very true. And that's what makes his clothes classic. But it's all about the context in which you're seeing them. You know, I think back to when rappers and hip-hop performers really started to embrace Ralph Lauren. And they put those clothes into a different context. And those clothes spoke to a burgeoning new era. When he put his Purple Label super tailored Savile Row-style tailoring suits on the black model Tyson Beckford, we see it in a different way. And I think what is most striking about this collection is that, you know, these garments are not particularly unusual for Ralph Lauren, but the context doesn't seem to be shifting.

MCEVERS: You've got blue blazers. You have ties and scarves with, like, a lot of sailing motif going on. There's even a pair of shorts that are made out of, like, raincoat material. What would you like to see instead in this moment from Ralph Lauren?

GIVHAN: So less stylized models, you know, for one thing. You know, take those clothes and take them outside of what looks to be, you know, an exclusive resort and, you know, put them in a public picnic ground. Put them in a place that feels more readily available to everyone else. You know, make them a little less tightly tailored. Just relax, you know, your grip on how they're perceived.

MCEVERS: Don't make it seem like clothes for the...

GIVHAN: For robots, really.

MCEVERS: ...For the few.

GIVHAN: Yeah.

MCEVERS: I guess the question is, like, for some people listening, so what? It's just clothes. What's the big deal?

GIVHAN: Well, I think the very fact that, you know, we're talking about a company that's worth multiple billions of dollars, a company that dresses so many people and a company that really has defined itself as a representation of Americana in a very sweeping way...

MCEVERS: Right - dresses the Olympic team.

GIVHAN: Dresses the Olympic team. I think that alone says that this is more than about just what we're putting on our back. It's about, you know, what kind of image we want to present in the public square, to each other, in our offices. I mean, it encompasses all of that. And in some ways, the way that Ralph Lauren has dressed some of the most prominent people in the most prominent times has, in effect, been a way that he's defined what America looks like abroad.

MCEVERS: Robin Givhan, thank you so much.

GIVHAN: My pleasure.

MCEVERS: Robin Givhan is a fashion critic for The Washington Post.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEIRUT'S "AS NEEDED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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