HBO’s new documentary Very Ralph, premiering November 12, is a thorough examination of the life and career of Ralph Lauren. While his rise from tie salesman to fashion mogul — changing his surname along the way — are common knowledge amongst industry insiders, other aspects of Lauren’s life have been held much closer to the vest.
Director Susan Lacy (creator of American Masters) was tasked with telling the expansive narrative. Like members of the general public, she had but a small understanding of what made Lauren tick when she began rolling cameras. As a result, Very Ralph is as accessible a fashion documentary as any.
The film presents ample historical events relevant to the Polo empire. However, it’s the more interpersonal connections Lauren made along the way that really provide a narrative and thematic through-line — most notably the love story between Lauren and his wife, Ricky.
We recently caught up with Lacy to discuss the making of Very Ralph.
First and foremost, what about Ralph’s story warranted a deeper examination?
I’d always wanted to do a fashion person and I didn’t get around to doing it while making American Masters. Richard Plepler, the head of HBO, asked me if I wanted to do it and I went, “Oh my God, I’ve always wanted to make a film about Ralph,” because I think his story — as far as American fashion goes — is a purely American story and it’s much more of a cultural story than it is a fashion story in a certain way. He embodied a certain notion of the American Dream and built an empire on it.
He also changed the fashion business. How you sell it, how you branded, how you marketed it.
What were your thoughts on that symbiotic and unlikely relationship between hip-hop culture and Polo?
I was fascinated by it. I knew nothing about it before I started this film and I thought it was one of the most interesting parts of his story. I really tried to pick the right people to help tell that. And I hope I told it well. You know, Ralph began life as an immigrant. He was an outsider. He had a vision of where he wanted to go in his life and these guys did too.
Ralph was one of the first “street style” icons before this would later become a “thing.” He was getting written up in in the newspaper about his ensembles. How did the press find him?
I really don’t know. Buffy Birrittella, [Executive VP, Women’s Design & Advertising at Ralph Lauren Corporation] told me that because that’s how she found out about Ralph. She read about him. It was the men’s version of Women’s Wear Daily at the time. And this must have been in the late ’70s.
What was your biggest challenge making this film?
Making a film about a fashion designer who doesn’t do any of the traditional things that fashion designers do creates a visual challenge. He doesn’t sketch, he doesn’t draw, he doesn’t show, and he doesn’t drape. So I had to find the story in different ways and I got very smart people to help me do that. The challenge is how to explain the process of somebody who works on total gut instinct who is visually stimulated by different things every day and they swirl around in his head and out of that comes an idea of a gem [for] a collection.
He was instrumental in casting Tyson Beckford and Naomi Campbell. How groundbreaking was it to be using models of color at that time?
It was obviously huge. I mean, Naomi Campbell says it, “To put two images of two strong black women in an ad, nobody has ever done that before.” André Leon Talley says, “he broke the codes.” I don’t think he necessarily did it to break the codes. I think he did it because they’re beautiful people. They look great.
But the fact that he didn’t study, didn’t not do it, is another instinct. And I think that says a lot about what Ralph wanted, on an instinctual level, to say. Vanessa Friedman from The New York Times sums it up at the end of the film, “Everybody can wear my clothes, young, old, no matter what your size is. No matter what color you are.”
Very Ralph airs on HBO on November 12 at 9 p.m.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.