Santa Fe, Polo Country, RRL, and Teepees – Ralph Lauren and the Southwest

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What is it about the southwest U.S. that makes it so appealing to a Jewish kid from the East Coast?  Now, I don’t have much in common with the mighty Ralph Lauren, but I can say that he and I do share this particular question.  For the past decade or so, since my parents decided to purchase a vacation house not near the beach, nor the mountains, but in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this question has been on mind.  At first I dreaded coming out here, yet as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to love the Southwest for the much needed change of pace that it provides.  For Ralph, the southwest was an untapped well of inspiration, a region with colors, designs, and textiles that were unlike anything he could find in his homebase of New York.  And so in 1978, with the west on his mind, Ralph Lauren launched a new side of his brand, a move that elevated him from being merely a designer for the natty East Coast mentality, to a designer for the American history books.

RRL Ranch

By ’78, Lauren had already debuted his legendary polo shirt, designed costumes for The Great Gatsby and Annie Hall, been inducted into the COTY Menswear Hall of Fame, and was well on his way to turning his eponymous brand into a bonafide empire.  With his brand already passing it’s tenth anniversary, Ralph likely began to sense that the traddy look he was leaning on so heavily might fall out of fashion eventually and so he began to shift his sights from the East to the West.  Despite being a New Yorker through and through, Ralph had been harboring a life-long obsession with the American southwest.  A child of the forties and fifties, Lauren was raised in the era of the Western, movies that portray the southwest as this beautiful, mythical place on the other-side of the country, a place he had never seen with his own eyes, but felt a lifelong connection to.

Doug Bihlmaier at the RRL Ranch

Doug Bihlmaier at the RRL Ranch

Armed with an intense passion for a place that he knew more about in spirit than in actuality, in 1978 Ralph came out with the Polo Ralph Lauren Western collection.  The designs were not a reflection of the west of the past or present, but the west as Ralph saw it, a romanticized perspective of a place that he only ever really knew as romanticized.  Ralph was like a settler heading west with a head full of expectations, and fortunately for Ralph (and for us) when he finally did make that trek out to the southwest two years later with folksinger Michael Murphey, the trip didn’t disappoint.  Ralph was a wide-eyed easterner taking it all in for the first time, it was a land like he had never seen before and he was pulling inspiration from every which way.  The change of scenery reinvigorated him, and lead to two of the most important creations in the history of the company.

RRL Ranch

RRL Ranch

First, in 1981 came the Santa Fe collection, Ralph’s first real love letter to the southwest, a series of designs that were littered with Native American blankets, western shirts, bandanas, denim, massive silver belt buckles, and turquoise accents.  As Ralph explored, he discovered new ideas in his surroundings, and in turn the collection stood as a reflection of all that he had seen in his travels.  The Santa Fe collection was a pretty significant deviation from his collections just a year or so before, making it clear just how wrapped up Ralph was in an a region that was once foreign, but was about to become a home.

RRL Ranch

RRL Ranch

Right around the same time that the Santa Fe collection came out, Ralph and his wife Ricky decided to buy the RRL Ranch in Ridgway, Colorado.  By purchasing the sprawling sixteen thousand acre ranch complete with a barn, a main house, a corral, and a teepee, Ralph solidified that from then on the southwest was just another part of his life and for that matter his collections.  Throughout the eighties and early-nineties Ralph Lauren produced the Polo Country label, as a continuation of the look that Ralph had brought forward with the Santa Fe collection.  The multi-brand structure became a crucial part of Ralph’s empire, and so with the mainline sticking to the Ralph Lauren look that everyone had come to love, Polo Country became the little brother that was free to act outside of everyone’s expectations.  This lead to some of the most interesting designs in the brand’s history, including jackets with oversized Indian heads painted on the back, indigo pea coats, aztec print sweaters, and denim fireman jackets.  While the line was successful from a design perspective, it was not marketed to the same extent as the rest of the Polo collections, and as a result it never really garnered that much attention.

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So, in 1993 Ralph decided it was time to give the southwest it’s proper due.  Taking the name from his Colorado ranch, Ralph killed off Polo Country and in it’s place started Double RL.  As a separate more fully fleshed out brand RRL continues on the spirit of Polo Country to a more complete extent, with expansive collections and accompanying stores that are effectively shrines to the Southwest.

The Santa Fe Collection

The Santa Fe Collection

Nearly two decades later, RRL continues to be one of the most captivating of all Ralph Lauren labels. The stores look like mini-versions of the RRL ranch, stocked with vintage Navajo blankets, yellowing print ads for trading companies, worn-out saddles, and any other random ephemera you could imagine Doug Bihlmaier and the rest of the Ralph Lauren Vintage crew might pick up along their travels.  As for the designs themselves, they are still very much a reflection of the southwest as Ralph sees it, having never lost that curiosity that sparked him to take inspiration from the region to begin with.  Now though, as the southwest has become a bigger part of Ralph’s life, the output from RRL has become larger and more creative, backed by a familiarity with the region that feels as natural as Ralph’s original homegrown collections.

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