By Eric Wilson
Updated Sep 08, 2018 @ 1:30 pm
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Victor VIRGILE/Getty Images

American fashion — what is it? Where is it going?

These are questions a rapidly changing industry faces at the start of a New York Fashion Week that, due to overcrowding, overextension, and just plain being over it, is in real need of a brand reinvention, or at least a reminder of why the world should care about what American designers have to offer.

To describe the scene of Lauren’s magnificent, monumental 50th anniversary runway show spectacular in Friday night in Central Park as a great moment of boosterism for the city’s claim as one of the four great capitals of fashion only tells one part of the story. For it was also a great statement about the importance of Lauren himself, not only for having established a clearly megabrand-worthy definition of American style, which has remained potent, alluring, and valid for five decades, but also for having created the only lasting empire that could pull off such an elaborate and expensive event. But how many designers have stuck around long enough to celebrate a 50th anniversary?

God (and Ralph) only knows how much this birthday party must have cost, securing the use of a vast stretch of the park for the night, ferrying guests to and from the show venue on charmingly ancient white trolleys, building a grand hall of digital monitors at the entrance that, during cocktail hour, displayed years of fashion shows and advertising campaigns, as well as a hologram of his press clippings, transforming the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain into a luxuriously ornate venue for his runway marathon and gala dinner, served under canvas market umbrellas that blotted out the night’s light rain.

Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Lauren also brought out the big guns: Oprah Winfrey sat next to Pierce Brosnan. Hillary Clinton glided through the crowd in a cloud of blue silk. Anne Hathaway compared notes with Jessica Chastain, who sang along the words to Neil Diamond’s “Forever in Blue Jeans” during the show. It looked more like an Oscars party than a fashion show, with celebrities flowing more plentifully than champagne: Allison Williams, Kanye West, Tom Hiddleston, Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas, Tracee Ellis Ross, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Rose Byrne, Blake Lively, James Norton and Imogen Poots, Chance the Rapper, Robert De Niro, Anderson Cooper, Katherine Langford, Iman, and Camilla Belle. In all, the company dressed more than 100 guests, including stars, socialites, and some editors. Walking out of the show toward dinner in a daze, I bumped into Ansel Elgort, who was looking for Steven Spielberg.

Victor VIRGILE/Getty Images

“It was epic,” Elgort said.

That word is also a fitting description for Lauren’s career, which played out over 20 minutes before the eyes of the audience with a collection that was almost cinematic in scope, played on a runway covered with a patchwork of rich tapestry rugs. The cast included recognizable models both young and more seasoned, as well as members of the Ralph Lauren family. It began with one woman wearing a sweater with a “67” motif, referencing the year of Polo Ralph Lauren’s birth, worn over a silver fringe skirt, followed by groups of patchwork coats, maxi skirts, and evening dresses that combined swatches of frayed silks, boudoir velvets, and tartans that flicked at a heritage of English aristocracy as well as modern punks.

Victor VIRGILE/Getty Images

There were men in blue jeans worn with shirts and ties and hunting jackets, and women in sporty anoraks paired with skirts worn to a vintage patina, layers of Western wear and varsity motifs, and tuxedos worn with skinny jeans. Then, following a brief pause, the show tilted into the athletic, preppy sportswear of Polo lore, with rugby shirts and classic Ralph Lauren touches like the iconic American flag and teddy bear sweaters, with models walking in groups as families, some carrying infants or walking adorable toddlers well past their bed times. Finally, Lauren took his customary long walk down the runway, which had erupted into a standing ovation of cell phones capturing the tears in his eyes, as he hoisted a small child once he made his way to the photographers’ pit at the very end.

VIDEO: Every Monumental Detail From Ralph Lauren’s 50th Anniversary Show

The clothes were an extraordinary reminder of Lauren’s great accomplishment of creating a brand that cast the glow of luxury and desirability on American sportswear, with its nods to English heritage, sports, and music. It also showed his strength as a booster of the industry at large, in which Lauren has played important roles behind the scenes with his involvement with his service to the Council of Fashion Designers of America and many invaluable charity initiatives. It was telling that among the stars, there were also many of his fellow designers at the show: Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, Reed Krakoff, Vera Wang, Alexander Wang, Tory Burch, and many more.

Randy Brooke/Getty Images

“He was the first of the real American icons to reach out to me when I started,” said Jason Wu. “And also the last.”

“This is so great,” said Calvin Klein, a fellow Bronx native who started his career around the same time. “I’m just so happy for him.”

Asked how the show made him feel, Hilfiger said simply, “I want to go shopping now.”

But if you needed a testament to the real power of Ralph Lauren, you would need go no further, of course, than Oprah, who, just before a dinner of heirloom tomatoes and filets of beef, delivered the toast:

“The real reason we are all here is not for the show, it’s because of you,” Oprah said, describing his company, a global empire that began with an idea for a bigger necktie, as a success that was about more than fashion. “It’s not just about fashion, but it is about wellness, wellbeing, romance, and elegance.”

“When I first moved to Chicago and was making enough money to pay my rent, the car note, and gas and electric, and still have something left over, I thought I was a success,” Oprah said. “My idea of celebrating that success wasn’t to go out and get a fancy car or art or jewelry (I did that later). My idea of acknowledging the fact that I had made it was Ralph Lauren towels — not just Ralph Lauren towels, but Ralph Lauren bath sheets.”

She recalled having visited a friend’s family who had a home in Westchester, where there was a pool house decorated with a wall of towels, made my Ralph Lauren.

“I made a vow to myself, if I ever get some money, I’m going to get me some Ralph Lauren towels,” she said, and when she was later interviewed by Barbara Walters, proudly showed them off in her own linen closet. “Of course it was about much more than the towels. It was about what the towels represented — a sense of comfort, warmth, luxury, aspiration — that is what you did for me, and what you have done for the past 50 years.”

VIDEO: Here’s What All of the Stars Are Wearing to New York Fashion Week

Even Lauren, though he has always dreamed big, was humbled by the night.

“I’m not so glamorous at home, you know,” he said. “I walk around with a ripped robe and no towels, but I’m very lucky. I’m lucky to have a family, and a company with great people in it. I don’t dream this big, but it makes me look big tonight.”