What, exactly, is a lifestyle, and where can you get one?
Fifteen years ago, the answer to that question might have been quite different. But that year, 1983, is the year that Ralph Lauren, designer of elegant clothing for men and women, turned his discerning eye to the field of home furnishings.
Bath and bed linens, furniture, tableware, beds and chests, sofas and chairs, lamps and accessories soon joined the suits, evening gowns and long tailored coats Lauren was known for.
Suddenly it was possible not only to dress yourself in a designer's particular look, it was also possible to dress your house - at retail - in a designer's vision. It was style for your entire life.
The four collections launched in 1983 - Jamaica, Log Cabin, Thoroughbred and New England - were "the way Ralph envisioned diverse places," said Nancy Vignola, senior design director who's been with Ralph Lauren for 23 years.
"We didn't know we'd become a new direction."
Although it's a common term now, marketing a "lifestyle" had never been done before. Other designers had ventured into domestic lines, such as bath linens or bedding - Bill Blass and Gloria Vanderbilt, to name two - but no one had approached home design in such a comprehensive way.
From the beginning, Lauren didn't want to do "pieces - some sheets and towels," Vignola said.
"Those weren't collections. He thought very much like a film director - the set, the lighting, the music, even the food - it was natural for him to think about doing everything from the table top to the bedding to the rugs on the floor."
The original lines were unusual in a number of ways, Vignola said. "All-cotton sheets were uncommon, and there was no sensibility about color." Lauren offered 26 colors of sheets and towels.
Also from the beginning, there was skepticism in the industry about whether consumers would embrace the Lauren look. "They said women only buy pastels and florals. They said women aren't going to buy dark colors," Vignola said.
Wrong. Women loved the rich look. Looking at the display beds in the showroom, Vignola said, "If they didn't say, I want to jump in that bed, they said, I want to meet the guy who lives here."
Over the years, the Ralph Lauren collections have come to define a certain American sensibility: the dusty florals and old lace of the 1984 collection, the vibrant colors and natural textures of the Sante Fe collection in 1985, the austere minimalism of Grey Flannel in 1992, the denim and flag motifs of 1995 - right down to the menswear fabrics and "woodie" station-wagon style furniture of 1998.
"It's harking back to, typically, a past that was a little bit more simplistic, a little bit more down-to-earth," said Cara Prokuski, a sales associate at the Beacon Hill Showroom in the Washington Design Center, a to-the-trade purveyor that carries virtually all of the new Ralph Lauren lines. "It's kind of ironic - if it were a simpler time, you wouldn't be paying what you're paying."
People sometimes ask if they can't get the same look for less money - one signature Lauren piece, the distressed-leather-upholstered "writer's chair" is listed at $4,965.
"You're not going to find the same look in the same quality" at a lower price, Prokuski said. "It's definitely a way of life, and people definitely come in and want the look."
Baltimore interior designer Carroll Frey said Lauren has capitalized on offering "things that are really hard to get anywhere else. It's really smart."
There's always a question, when a designer has his or her name on so many different things, whether they're simply diluting their appeal. "But he's been able to control it."
Frey said there's just the tiniest bit of resentment in the design world that couturiers are able to move so successfully into interior design.
"They say, why aren't furniture designers being made into stars? But clothing takes these people everywhere because they reach such a wide audience. They make a package, they sell the lifestyle."
Among the latest entrants into the field is Bob Mackie, best known for his sequin-dripping gowns for actresses such as Cher and Carol Burnett, who has a new furniture collection featuring such rococo touches as cabriolet legs and silver leaf. Tommy Hilfiger, known for his sporty wear, also has a new home collection, with bed linens in his signature red, white and blue.
Prokuski said that while some people do come in and buy the whole Lauren look, a lot of people start out with one or two pieces and build a collection slowly. And some people want to be able to customize the furniture a bit.
"A lot of his fabrics aren't necessarily formal," she said. "They're linens and velvets and florals and plaids that are relaxed because of the wash [a softening technique] used on them."
But Lauren offers the option, on upholstered goods, of using what's called the customer's own material - that is, anything they want.
"You can go to Schumacher or Brunschwig & Fils and get something very elegant," Prokuski said.
Pub Date: 11/08/98