Ed Driscoll

The Grapes Of Ralph

In the 1980s, I loved the images in Ralph Lauren’s advertising — you too could be Gatsby, just by buying Lauren’s clothes. (And it didn’t hurt of course, that designing the anachronistic costumes for the surprisingly inert Robert Redford movie version of the Great Gatsby in the mid-1970s helped to put Lauren on the map.) But as Virginia Postrel notes in an exceptional piece on Forbes, “glamour is a delicate illusion. Anything discordant can break the spell. Lately, Ralph Lauren the brand seems determined to puncture its audience’s reverie:”

First, the blog Photoshop Disasters caught the company using a freakishly retouched image in a Tokyo ad. The model had been digitally slimmed down so much that her head was bigger than her pelvis. The item was picked up by the much larger blog BoingBoing, whose readers reacted with mockery and condemnation. “I had no idea Pez had a ‘Fashion Week’ dispenser line,” quipped one. Another called the ad “pornography for anorexia.”

Instead of ignoring the ridicule, the company foolishly threatened the sites with legal action, alleging that reproducing the ad violated its copyright. (Illustrating criticism is, in fact, a classic example of “fair use” of copyrighted imagery.) What had been an amusing critique instantly became an Internet cause célèbre. Site after site reproduced the ad, portraying Ralph Lauren as a bully with bad taste. The company eventually apologized for the “poor imaging and retouching,” but not for the threats.

Compounding the public-relations disaster, model Filippa Hamilton then appeared on The Today Show, claiming that the company had dismissed her in April for being too big. (She is 5’10” and weighs 120 pounds.) The company denies the allegation and says she couldn’t meet her contract obligations. Whatever the truth, much of the public now believes that Ralph Lauren fired a thin, beautiful model for not looking like a Photoshopped freak. And now a second example of digital hip removal has turned up. A brand once known for wholesome images of the good life is becoming a symbol of concentration-camp chic.

So much for glamour.

As for timelessness, Ralph Lauren’s most recent runway collection was unfortunately historical. Prompted by the economic downturn, he presented Depression-inspired looks: Dust Bowl cotton house dresses, tattered jeans, ripped overalls, newsboy caps. Ripped jeans are trendy, but this brand isn’t about trends; instead of patina, the collection glamorized rags. “The Grapes of Ralph,” Women’s Wear Daily called the collection. A Boston Globe columnist condemned it as a “fashion faux pas” that romanticized “Depression-era starvation and despair.”

In a way, it’s a vicious cycle: last year around this time, the editors of the magazines that Lauren advertised in, and the newspapers he likely read, were, as Postrel noted, trapped in their “Depression Porn” fantasies of their own, as they awaited the man they pictured (literally so, in Time magazine’s case) as the next FDR to do what the old FDR did 75 years ago. So perhaps it’s easy to understand why Lauren would want to ride that trend.

In contrast, Brooks Brothers looked back upon a more optimistic time — if ultimately fraught with perils of its own — for their own recent blast of nostalgia.

(Don’t get me started on the Mad Men suit, though. Love the show, love Brooks Brothers, hate the angled hacking pockets on the Mad Men suit. And we called guys who wore skinny lapels like that in 1979 Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson fans. Though at least the Mad Men suit offers a certain amount of plausible deniability, as opposed to the Miami Vice look of the mid-1980s. Watch this 1985 interview of the great Sammy Davis Jr. just a few years before his death, and it’s instantly dated by his head-to-toe Sonny Crocket togs.

See, I told you not to let me get started…)