As the creator and executive producer of the American Masters series on PBS, filmmaker Susan Lacy has profiled a diverse range of cultural and artistic icons in her career, from Joni Mitchell and Leonard Bernstein, to David Geffen and Rod Serling. Since leaving American Masters in 2013 to join HBO, she has added films about Steven Spielberg and Jane Fonda to her long list of documentary subjects as well.
But throughout her 30-plus year career in biographical filmmaking, one type of personality Lacy had never before tackled was someone who worked in the fashion industry — until now.
“Very Ralph,” Lacy’s newest film for HBO, is about the life and career of fashion designer Ralph Lauren. She admits that she had often thought Lauren would be an intriguing subject for a documentary, and ironically, after arriving at HBO was asked by the company’s CEO Richard Kepler if she would like to make a film about Lauren.
“I said yes,” recalled Lacy in a recent interview. “The timing was right. He was approaching the 50th anniversary of his company.”
But Lacy adds that in making the film, it was important to her that it be a true profile of Lauren himself, rather than a promotional piece for his company. For that reason, she purposely avoided having the film’s release coincide with Lauren’s 50th anniversary fashion show, which was held at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park last fall. Instead, “Very Ralph” culminates in a behind-the-scenes look at Lauren and his staff as they prepare for the star-studded event.
“Very Ralph” debuted on HBO on November 12, and this Sunday, December 8, at 4 p.m., it will be screened at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor as part of the Hamptons Doc Fest in collaboration with Sag Harbor Cinema. The film profiles a man who, even from an early age, was supremely confident in his own style and instincts, and it documents Lauren’s evolution in the field from his early focus on ties and menswear to the addition of a women’s line of fashions, and eventually, his rise as a visionary marketer and creator of a full lifestyle brand that embodies an idealized vision of America.
“Fashion is not the world I live in,” Lacy said, “particularly with someone like Ralph, who is not a designer who works the same way other designers work. He doesn’t sketch and draw and drape. For him, it’s a magical gut instinct about what people want to wear, which is what he wants to wear.”
“What was interesting for me was to discover how much of a pioneer he was, including in terms of bringing diversity to the runway,” Lacy added. “I don’t think it’s fair to think of Ralph as a pure marketer. He is a fashion designer, he just goes about it in a different way.”
As a subject, it’s hard to get more all-American than Ralph Lauren. Born Ralph Lifshitz (it was actually his brother, Jerry, who changed their last name to Lauren when they were still both in their teens) the Bronx native was the son of Eastern European immigrants from Belarus. In his youth, Lauren embraced a vision of the America that he saw on the movie screen every Saturday, emulating the dapper styles of stars like Cary Grant and Fred Astaire, or the rugged persona epitomized in westerns.
“It was an America that didn’t exist for most people and as an ideal, Ralph was attracted to that,” she said. “He loved the life and the whole gestalt of it was fascinating. He loved John Wayne, and wanted to ride horses. He loved that yachting look and said I want to live in a beach house, or in the city in a penthouse.”
From the pastoral barns and rolling fields of New England, to the streets of New York, the mountains of Colorado and the beachy villages of the Hamptons, in both his personal life and his work, Lauren has embraced the American ethos as his own and sold it to legions seeking to emulate the same style in their own lives.
In the late 1960s, Lauren was the first designer to be given his own in-store boutique at Bloomingdales, and when the company wanted him to take his name off his ties and use their brand name, he refused and walked away.
“He started with nothing, when he walked away from Bloomingdales he had no money in the bank, but he had the confidence,” said Lacy.
Lauren also had a supportive family, including his wife, Ricky. who was also from the Bronx and whom he married in 1964 when she was 19 and he was 24. Fifty-five years, three children and a veritable empire later, they are still together.
“There’s a closeness there. They’re about the same height, they are adorable together and the family is genuinely close,” said Lacy, who admits that when she first set out to make a film about Lauren, wasn’t sure what to expect. “I was a little nervous about meeting him. Let’s be honest, this is a man who has lived and built a brand on his image, and his image is very important to him.”
Conversely, Lauren was nervous as well. After all, it’s not easy to convince a man who has been accustomed to controlling all aspects of his business and image for half a century to hand over the reins of control for a film about his life, but ultimately, Lacy prevailed.
“Ralph has never done anything he didn’t control, this is a whole film about him and it has to be an objective, thoughtful piece of work,” she said. “I’m not out to hurt anyone, but I want to connect the dots between who they are, where they came from, what inspired them, and that’s what I’ve been doing my whole creative life.
“We liked each other from the beginning and he trusted me and my instincts and had seen my work,” Lacy added. “It still wasn’t easy to get him to open up and let me film him at work. He said ‘I have all this beautiful footage from when I was young and handsome.’
“The fact he’s still got it, is what I have to show,” said Lacy.
In addition to Lauren and his family members, Lacy also interviewed people who know the designer and his work well, including Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld, Hillary Clinton, Calvin Klein, Tina Brown and many others.
Ultimately, in Ralph Lauren, Lacy discovered a man who, like many in this country, came from an immigrant family and went from being the outsider to becoming the very embodiment of the American success story.
“This was our way of seeing life beyond the last stop on the train,” she said. “The thing that really impressed me is he’s very humble in a really endearing way. He went by his gut instinct, built his business with a team around him, many of whom he still has around him, and step by step built his life.
“I found him down to earth,” she added. “I liked him very much.”
“Very Ralph,” screens on Sunday, December 8, at 4 p.m. at Bay Street Theater as part of the 12th annual Hamptons Doc Fest in collaboration with the Sag Harbor Cinema. Tickets are $15 at hamptonsdocfest.org or Bay Street Box office, 631-725-9500. The screening will be followed by a conversation with Susan Lacy and filmmaker Barbara Kopple. Tutto il Giorno in Sag Harbor will host a reception and dinner at 6 p.m. Ralph Lauren will be in attendance for the reception. For information visit sagharborcinema.org.