I don’t think of myself as a collector of cars. In my mind, they are like parts of me. Cars are fun, like toys, and when you start to experience different kinds, especially when you can’t afford them, you look at them and dream about them. Each car offers a different experience. It doesn’t matter if it’s a brand new Bugatti or a 1961 Morgan. I have that variation in my collection. I never thought of myself as a person who was going to buy cars to put them out there; I thought of myself driving them. I thought of myself living and experiencing them as they were part of me, not possessions or artistic beauty for someone else to look at, but for me to drive and drive my kids around in, and ultimately become the character of the car.
Some of the cars in your collection go back to an era when the craftsmanship of car manufacturing was more similar to a work of art than mechanical engineering. Is there a relationship between this distinction of craftsmanship and the work you do in your world of fashion?
Very definitely. The cars are to me works of art. Many of the older ones from my collection were actually handmade. The details, the metal work was done by artisans. I’ve always loved machines that are the product of someone taking his passion for building and using it to create beautiful shapes or sounds that give pleasure. Ettore Bugatti was an artist like that. His cars were built by a team of real craftsmen. I love that craftsmanship. It gives one a sense of personal connection to the maker. Today there is so much more technical sophistication involved in the creation of cars, but the ones that I love and collect and drive are still special and maintain an artistic integrity. Handwork is what my design process is all about. Many of the products we create, like our handbags and timepieces, are handmade by real artisans around the world. These things are very desirable because they have an enduring timelessness that makes the owner feel like a collector. To own something that is handmade, handcrafted is very desirable today.
You’ve underlined on numerous occasions that your cars are a source of inspiration when creating your clothes, objects or accessories. Could you explain that in more detail?
My day-to-day life, my work, the things I enjoy and the people I meet continue to be my library of inspiration. I am constantly seeking ideas to impact my creative vision. Cars have always been a rich source of that process. I look at a car and love its highly stylized air vents, a row of steel rivets, a hubcap or a gas cap, a perfectly crafted steering wheel, soft buttery leather upholstery, a richly polished burl-wood dashboard or the beauty of a leather strap over the hood. I take those details and integrate them into everything I design from a watch to a chair to a woman’s evening dress. A few years ago I was inspired by the carbon fiber of my McLaren. I was struck by the thought that these fifty-four layers of carbon tissue once found only in high-performance jets and racecars would make an incredibly sleek yet durable chair. We introduced the RL-CF1 carbon fiber chair in 2003, the first of its kind. When we launched our Ralph Lauren Timepiece Collection last year, many of the shapes and styles were inspired by icons from our design archive. The newest one is directly inspired by my Bugatti Atlantic. I call it “The Dash” because its face is a direct representation of the car’s burl-wood dashboard. It has the sleek sculptural design spirit of the car itself. I look forward to wearing it behind the wheel of its namesake.
The restoration process of old vehicles is a delicate procedure which requires a great deal of preliminary studies into the history of the car and how modern techniques are adapted to the model in order to respect the most specific detail of the original state and characteristics of the car. Could you describe the main guidelines involved in the restoration process of your vehicles? Have you confronted any specific dilemmas during the restoration process of your cars? Which restoration brought you the most satisfaction? Which would you refer to as the most difficult one and the most delicate one?
The most important thing about restoration is to go to the experts—the people that really know. There are different experts for Ferrari, for Mercedes, for Mercedes Gullwings, for Bugattis. You look for authenticity. All my cars have been restored because I never wanted to get stuck on the road. Restoration, to me, is all about quality and restoring a car to as it was with all the original details. I am not a restorer, so early on I was lucky enough to find Paul Russell, a car historian and restorer from Boston who has worked with me for over twenty years. Restoration is a sensitive job.
For me, there’s no cheating in the process. Once we restored a 2.9 Alfa Romeo with so much care and so much detail. The original color, a bright red, was found after uncovering five layers of paint. When the car was shown some people thought the color was so bright it couldn’t be right. Though I would have preferred a darker red because it looked older, I respected the restorer’s decision and commitment to the car’s authenticity and history.
Would you like to create a car?
Designing a car and designing a fashion collection both require a certain craft and vision, but they are totally different. Though I know what I love in a car, I would never consider myself a car designer. Choosing the color for a car is not designing a car. I have tremendous respect for those that do it. They live their career like I live mine. When I was growing up I would look at a Bentley or an old Mercedes and say, “Wow, that car is so beautiful. Look at the leather interior, the burl-wood dashboard.” Then, comes along a Porsche that is totally spare and minimal. And you might ask, “Which one is more beautiful?” I would make a case for either. I don’t think I would ever have conceived of the Porsche or the Bentley. But I might have conceived of how to make them the most beautiful Porsche or Bentley.