Ya gotta hand it to Ralph Lauren. He's just built the first mansion on the Upper East Side since 1918. That's when Otto Kahn put up his capacious squat at Fifth Avenue and 91st Street. It could be said that with the sophisticated Madison Avenue and 72nd Street pad, Lauren has reached the zenith towards which he's aimed himself since the '60s when he started hawking wide ties and Bloomingdale's featured them prominently enough to establish the brand name.
It might also be said that with the structure he's erected, Lauren is something of an arriviste, but if that were uttered, it would require adding that many of the mansions introduced on those soigné avenues were constructed as well by new money confidently joining the old -- like the Rhinelander mansion that's been Lauren's home-base haberdashery for men and women these last few decades.
Strictly speaking, the manses of yore were designed as dwellings, which Lauren's is not. (The in-house architect is John Heist.) So the Lauren version is where he's now housing his women's collections and home furnishings. They're moved from the Rhinelander abode across the street, which is given over exclusively to men's clothes. Viewed from the exterior, however, the edifice echoes the stones of Florence with its take on rusticated stone and its three arches topped with classic balustrade facing Madison Avenue. It sure looks like someplace Mrs. August Belmont might have been happy to visit with the rest of the four hundred.
She hasn't lived to seize the opportunity, but many others did this past weekend, just a few days after "Ralph Lauren" threw open its elegant wrought-iron-and glass doors. The curious ambled through the four floors and up and down the broad marble staircase where the walls are hung with portraits of Greta Garbo, Kate Moss, James Dean, Lisa Fonssagrives (if it isn't Fonssagrives, it's another of Irving Penn's fave models) and others of that photogenic ilk.
Among the inquisitive was this reporter who -- full disclosure -- owns 100 shares of the designer's stock. Yup, I was there to see what this new no-discount outlet might do for my meager holdings one way or the other, but I was also in attendance as a sort of fashionisto manqué.
Whereas most of those ogling the various rooms were gotten up in real or ersatz Polo duds they hoped would pass (and many of the women sported instantly recognizable Botoxed sheen), I had thrown on a nubby mottled black-white-&-gray blazer purchased for $35 several years back at a now-defunct Broadway store; a ribbed gray turtleneck Gap sweater grabbed for eight bucks at a Housing Works Thrift Shop; and gray flannel slacks from Brooks Brothers bought last year in a $148-for-one-$149-for-two deal. So you could say I was wearing the $1 pants -- or pant, in the contemporary vernacular.
Okay, I admit I was trying to look as if I belonged, too, and was gratified when two salespeople -- one in the women's store, one in the men's -- complimented me on the jacket. Were they being sincere? I'm vain enough to think so. And I responded accordingly, just as I appreciated so many salespersons -- all of whom in the women's store wore black -- asking about my health.
But what of that interior, which I learned was designed -- top to bottom, they say -- by in-house staffer Alfredo Paredes? The rooms are swanky as all get-out and, as anyone would surmise, are focused in accordance with what's displayed there -- say, gowns or casual wear. They're also strewn with the objets d'art Lauren is known to favor.
(It must be fun to be one of Lauren's tchotchkes shoppers.)
The merchandise shown reflects the eclectic Polo lad. (Laird?) Everything is stunning, especially the outfits worn by mannequins that languish on benches or lean aloofly against railings or stand defiantly on risers. One floaty floral gown that looked breath-taking on a hanger seemed less effective on a woman emerging from a dressing-room to solicit her male companion's opinion.
The only item that made me stop and wonder was a wool day dress (I think it was wool) with a leather placket that accommodated three buttons and a leather patch at the right shoulder that declared "I'm a gal who needs you to know I shoot a mean quail." Huh! Is Lauren convinced that a woman thus hunt-happy would advertise her pastime this way?
Still, the stroll through the swanky atmosphere had its unmitigated charms for me. Other ostensible shoppers seemed equally pleased -- or at least relaxed enough to carry on comfortable conversations. My favorite over-heard comment was, "I don't want to be on Page Six. Again," which wasn't spoken by departing Page Six coordinator Richard Johnson, but by another smiling fellow, who maybe has been on Page Six many times, or has never been bold-faced there.
Nevertheless, at Ralph Lauren's new showplace, all faces looked bold.