Why does Ralph Lauren do “prep” so well?
“Preppy” is a loaded word. It carries all kinds of associations with class, wealth and exclusion. In fashion, a preppy look conjures up feelings of stuffiness and sartorial rigidity — think Matt Damon social climbing in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” — but there’s also some flexibility baked into its DNA. Preppy clothes are active, first and foremost. Polo shirts, brightly colored golf attire, boat shoes and crisp suits for the boardroom. They have to move and function at all times. There’s a preppy outfit for every occasion, carrying you from work to play, encompassing all aspects of a life of purposeful leisure. They can be lived in and comfortable.
Prep is traditional conservative American clothing, but it gets dragged kicking and screaming into every new generation. Every time prep comes back, I’m seduced by the tidy clothes, the accursed manners and the sense of authority that comes with all of it. Like a kid watching an episode of “Law & Order,” you can’t help but get swept up by the “rightness” of it all. This is how it’s supposed to be. There are customs and traditions that matter. Some things are just correct. That idea can be used for dreadful purposes in many contexts. In fashion, it can be an invigorating connection to our aesthetic forebears.
The simplicity of a pair of clean khakis or the monstrous absurdity of a madras blazer’s multicolored patchwork construction are American heritage items. Prep has conferred class distinction (or class ambition) for decades. It’s the cheat code for what was once our country’s defining monoculture.
No one does prep better than Ralph Lauren.
The preppy silhouette is not very Californian, but when Ralph Lauren had to pick a location to show its Spring/Summer 2023 collection, it did so in Pasadena. The title of the collection, “California Dreaming,” is clarifying. The clothes are a reflection of what one hopes California can be: flowing linens, dusty cowboy boots and picnics on the beach, all in a cheerful multicultural paradise. The light brown blazer over a chunky sweater and bright white linen shorts nods to the East Coast, but here, you can pull off that look 365 days a year if you really want to. A Black model in a double-breasted suit jacket, a cowboy hat and boots throws numerous social signifiers into a blender in a way that speaks to California’s reputation as the cultural final frontier.
Of course, that’s exactly what the collection’s title says it is: a dream. California is a modern megalopolis of a state with all the same problems and promises as any other. But Ralph Lauren doesn’t sell harsh reality. It sells the most perfect fantasy: a complete Ralphworld of luxury living that has seduced customers for decades.
Ralph Lauren has remained the gold standard of American fashion precisely because it allows us to lose ourselves in the majesty of it all. The Polo Bar in Manhattan is cuisine as grand theater. There are few dining experiences as all-encompassing and transportative. Ralph Lauren’s Home line allows the well-heeled among us to live that fantasy — tartan, wood paneling, sterling silver dishware, equestrian imagery — every day. For a price, you too can live in Ralphworld every day.
In a way, that’s exactly how California has perpetuated its grip on the public consciousness. As a native New Yorker, Lauren would have seen California’s well-manicured image of libertine paradise often. Hollywood manufactured the aura of California and peddled it to the masses in glamorous films and television series. Like Ralphworld, California is a state of mind that can be observed and appreciated but rarely achieved. California is the infinite, a place where vision can become reality and there’s always a blank page that needs filling.
Preppy culture, though, is not infinite. It is not a dream so much as a dreary set of rules for life. There’s a handbook for it, after all. Sorry, but you can’t wear white after Labor Day, and you should never wear a madras jacket with matching pants. Maybe that’s why the style keeps coming back. The do’s and don’ts of prep mean there’s an entire galaxy of fits corresponding to seasons, weather and vibe. It never gets old because you’re constantly rotating pieces in and out.
It’s the look that never truly leaves, and it is more popular than ever. Brands like Noah and Rowing Blazers sold rugby shirts and tweed to the cool kids in the late 2010s. Noah mastermind Brendon Babenzien merged prep with skate culture and sustainability chic and created a mini-empire that has led him to the creative director job at a newly resurgent J. Crew. Rowing Blazers untucked T-shirts and put pastels on ethnically diverse models, making a new vein of prep out of direct marketing on Instagram.
By breaking rules about who wears prep and how they wear it, modern brands made something old feel new again. It’s the same way Scott Sternberg revived prep in the 2000s with Band of Outsiders. But Tommy Hilfiger was breaking preppy norms all the way back in the ’90s. In a sense, the term “neo-prep” is a fallacy. Abercrombie & Fitch sold preppy clothes with a side of teenage sexuality in the 2000s. Neo-prep is just prep.
Of all the companies striving to follow in Lauren’s boat-shoe footprints, Aimé Leon Dore has been the most successful. ALD founder Teddy Santis has done what Lauren set out to do decades ago. He’s created a world, complete with coffee shops, trademark aspirational lookbooks and a shop for secondhand objects to make your home feel like the vision you see in those campaigns. But that world is very much New York City — specifically Queens. George Costanza and Method Man are the avatars of this prep revolution. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see ALD yearning for the California Dream, because prep is part of the heritage of the East Coast in a way it simply isn’t here. It’s the Ivy League, the bankers, the strivers and the hustlers. To the Californian, prep is the dream. Here, we’re considered somehow “less than” the old money cultural elites of the East Coast, with their polished-up history and nagging sense of obnoxiously good taste. Prep has boundaries, because it’s old. When you live in the infinite, who doesn’t want a few rules every now and then?
In come-as-you-are California, where usually the only rule is “No shoes, no shirt, no service,” the act of dressing can be tiresome and perfunctory. It’s a means to an end. The handbook nature of prep gives people something to fiddle with, a foundation to build upon. And the obsession with history and tradition can be fascinating to a society that doesn’t always see value in old things.
This is not to say that everything felt old-fashioned at the Ralph Lauren SS23 show, even if there was a model on the runway wearing a bow tie with a cardigan and it seemed like everyone was in wingtips. In particular, the Polo Ralph Lauren collection featured pieces that felt hyper-modern and, ironically, very L.A. Hoodies and rugby shirts with voluminous bright orange pants and chunky sneakers were thrown together as a clear nod to prep’s awkward but enduring connection to skate culture; they wouldn’t feel out of place in a Noah collection.
So when I sat at the show in Pasadena and was bombarded with velvet slippers, crisp navy blazers, khaki trousers and ties — my God, remember ties? — I felt at home. Sure, you might have Doctor Who flashbacks to the croquet sweater or get itchy thinking about a sweater tied around your neck, but that’s the allure of it. Perfection isn’t always comfortable. Dreams are not the thing modern trends are made of. They are all-consuming visions of how things might be if … .
Ralph Lauren’s dream is our dream too: that life can be beautiful, that some things don’t change.