International Herald Tribune:
Ralph Lauren returns to his Russian roots
By Suzy Menkes
Monday, May 14, 2007
MOSCOW: This powerful, busy city is far from the small farm in Belarus where Ralph Lauren's green-eyed mother grew up; and from the town of Pinsk, where his father, as a stripling, dodged the soldiers trying to grab him for the White Russian army, as he ran home with a jug of milk.
Yet as the quintessentially American designer is surrounded by the Kremlin domes on this crystal Monday morning, Lauren knows that he is, at 67 and in his 40th year in fashion, coming home.
"It was very exciting to come to Russia - I grew up hearing about it," says Lauren, who spent the weekend sightseeing in St. Petersburg, but is now enjoying the "energy" and "buzz" of Moscow.
"I would like to know more about my history; at some point you ask: where did I come from?" he says. "There is a connection to my heritage - but where I grew from is foreign to me."
The designer, known for his portrayal of an opulent, Old World lifestyle, has come to Russia's capital city to open a store in the new Moscow of oligarchs and hyper luxury. On Tuesday he was to be feted by the U.S. ambassador. And Russian high society is planning to celebrate Wednesday the ribbon-cutting of his 745-square-meter, or 8,000-square-foot, flagship store in Tretyakovsky Passage - the historic 1870s buildings that have been refurbished by the Mercury luxury group to become Moscow's epicenter of high fashion.
There the Muscovites will find the world of Ralph Lauren - an Old World of molded ceilings, wrought iron chandeliers, a gentlemanly glass and mahogany elevator and floors dedicated to menswear (including made to measure) and to both glamour and sporty ease for women. Significantly, the main floor offers a new universe of extreme luxury accessories, from sunglasses framed in translucent tortoiseshell to alligator bags, named for Lauren's wife Ricky, and with a gilded identity plaque inside worthy of a czar.
For all its baronial, baroque elegance, with Lauren's indelible meld of 1930s illustrations, ancestral portraits and silver screen Hollywood photographs, all his family - including sons Andrew and David and daughter Dylan - have felt that this Russian venture is exceptional among the 295 stores from Manhattan to Moscow and Buenos Aires to Paris.
David Lauren said that he "didn't know what to expect," and was stunned to see the "ornate and beautiful" golden dome as the plane touched down, rather than grim, gray Stalinist buildings. "But this time it is not just about a store opening - it is very much of an emotional trip," he added. "In this 40th year, my father is going back full circle. But he's not Russian - he is clearly American."
Lauren's supreme success story of vision and tenacity incarnates the American dream of an immigrant son made good. He knew the "Russia, mixed with Jewishness" of his parents only through the meld of Russian, Polish and Yiddish they spoke when they didn't want their children to understand them. And through their artefacts: the European furnishings that impregnated his taste and the sepia photographs of his 16-year-old parents' wedding. ("I remember especially my father's suit," Lauren says.)
Then there was his mother's Persian lamb hat that inspired a Russian-themed show - Cossack tunics, greatcoats and Bolshevik tweeds - back in 1993. That was the year that President Bill Clinton met Boris Yelstin, after the end of the Cold War and the softening of a harsh regime that had driven his Lifshitz family to emigrate to America, where they settled in New York's Bronx.
The turbulent ancestral history can be glimpsed on the Internet, where the scattered Lifshitz descendants from the former Jewish Pale of Settlement communicate on the Benchpost Web site. Like Lauren, many took new names in the New World.
The designer says that part of the excitement of the Russian trip is "to be involved" rather than seeing "something that's foreign." He had previously been approached to come to Russia, but "now seemed the right time." With subtle touches such as the focus on shimmering silver evening gowns or on sumptuous purple velvet curtains and Prince of Wales check for the men's changing rooms, the store gives a subtle nod to a city that is rediscovering its inherent taste for glamour and quality. And there is even a second destination for his fans: a ski lodge of a store in Mercury's out-of-town Barvikha Luxury Village, a forested former hunting ground of the czars.
Yet the Russian visit is bittersweet to Lauren, because he was discouraged from going down to Pinsk to dig up his past. But then he remembers taking his kids to see the family home in the Bronx, looking out on the schoolyard where his mother would appear with a cup of milk as he played ball - and found that sweet memories are sometimes better left alone.
"I would like to have seen what my parents lived through and saw with their own eyes," says Lauren. "You are a product of what you grow up with. My parents were very European. On some levels I connect more with Europe than America. I definitely have a message: clothes have history and romance. It is not about glitz, but about quality, beautiful things and understatement."
But what about the new Russia, the one that is super glitzy with its frenzied acquisitions and consumers greedy for goods unattainable in the Soviet era?
"It's not all about heritage - it's about now," he says. "They are fashion-conscious and there is a hip new Russia that is about consumption. But the thing I find very interesting is the refinement of Russian taste. There is a history behind Russia. It has a culture."
He senses an affinity with young Russians, especially since he found that more than 50 percent of models he picked for his last show were from the former Soviet Republic.
"It must be my Russian blood - they look familiar," says Lauren, remembering his mother and her delicate features.
The Lauren family - including Ralph's brother Jerry, who expressed his overwhelming excitement at being in Moscow - are savoring Russia, past and present.
"All of a sudden it became very real and very emotional," says David Lauren, describing how he walked through the flea market looking at old Russian memorabilia.
"I think I'm caught somewhere between the humorous interpretation of Woody Allen in 'Love and Death' and a very cultured people," he says, referring to the 1975 movie with Dostoyevsky as inspiration and Prokofiev on the soundtrack. "As I landed I played the Beatles 'Back in the U.S.S.R.' on my iPod. I wanted to celebrate going to this country." [link]
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