By Carter B. Horsley
On October 15, 2010, the new Ralph
Lauren store on the southwest corner of Madison Avenue and 72nd
Street swung open its arched doors to the public, affording the
opportunity to ascend and descend its very grand staircase and
try to discern the shoppers from the mannequins and the very elegant
The most immediate question that came to many
minds was whether Paris had any comparably grand "fashion
houses" and one of the very handsome salesmen on the first
floor proferred the opinion that the answer was "no."
The ground-floor facades are punctuated by
very large, shop windows and very handsome, recessed, arched glass
doors. The trio of arches on 72nd Street are repeated, minus the
four-step entrance, on the avenue frontage where it is flanked
by very large rectangular shop windows. The 72nd Street facade
has a very handsome protruding, balustrated balcony while the
average frontage is recessed above the arches with a balustrated
terrace. Both frontages have lighting sconces and sidewalk landscaping.
The facades are limestone and the lower three
floors are rusticated.
For many visitors the interiors were disconcertingly vast - just
one enormous, seemingly unending treasure hunt as each room seemed
to lead to more. The disconnect was not so unreal as the
interiors of the adjacent building on 72nd Street had been gutted
to provide more interior space than might have been assumed from
the building's exterior.
While there are many limestone mansions on the Upper East Side,
one doubts that there are others with as large a gravel terrace.
One associates gravel with the driveways of
grand estates but not urban palaces and both this and the Rhinelander
Mansion (see The City Review
article) across the street are substantial and imposing enough
to be called New York palaces. According to an October 7, 2010
"Streetscapes" column by Christopher Gray in The
New York Times on the Rhinelander Mansion the architect for
the new Ralph Lauren store is Weddle Gilmore Architects, which
has designed several stores for the designer including one on
Avenue Montaigne in Paris that has a very similar staircase.
Although it is definitely a
very attractive addition to Madison Avenue whose above the ground-floor
architecture is often less than grand, the staircase in the new
store is quite special.
There are, of course, many
duplex apartments with lovely marble staircases with ornate wrought-iron
banisters and some townhouse staircases that are as high, but
this one has wide stairs and an expansive and elegant use of large
mirrors and is lined with many wonderful black-and-white photographs
but has an unusual serenity because its marble stairs are not
polished. Unlike some fantasy movies in which the hero's smile
literally sparkles, the ambience here borders on the understated.
It is not the minimalist decor of the Halston store on the avenue
at 60th Street or the Armani store at 65th Street. This place
overflows with abundance but is definitely upbeat and not stuffy
"In the pouring rain on Thursday, Martha
Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld and his wife, Jessica, Charlie Rose, Candice
Bergen and nearly every editor in town including Vanity Fair's
Graydon Carter ventured to Ralph Lauren's newest women's store
to watch the Bronx born fashion designer receive a Key to the
City of New York," noted Priya Rao in her October 15, 2010
article in The Wall Street Journal.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg presented Mr. Lauren
with the key and a heart-shaped "I Love NY" keychain
and the article noted that Mr. Bloomberg said that "It's
the accessories that really make the outfit," adding that "Upstairs,
Ralph asked me 'What does this key open?' The answer is, absolutely
In his article for vogue.com, Hamish Bowles
said that the mayor said "We can no longer say 'They don't
build them like this anymore.'" Mr. Boyles also wrote
that "Ralph's magnificently grandiloquent (and giddily feminine)
riposte to the 1898 Rhinelander Mansion opposite...has indeed
been built from the ground up, all 22,000 square feet of it, complete
with sweeping ambassadorial staircase and enfilades of elaborately
paneled rooms lit with coruscating crystal chandeliers."
This Lauren store is devoted to women's wear and home furnishings.
On opening day, it was fitting that a male
customer wandered through the book and pillow department wearing
a cowboy hat as he passed a fabulous large wooden horse with articulated
Ralph Lauren has long championed both the healthy
outdoor cowboy look and the preppy, "horsy" look and
his take on elegance is exemplified by a prominently placed vitrine
on the first floor showcasing a top-hat and a black leather saddle
not far away from several jewelry counters.
"Although Upper Madison Avenue near Central
Park is now a shopping street," Christopher Gray observed
in his March 16, 2009 "Streetscapes" column in The
New York Times, "it emerged after the Civil War as an
address not far in prestige from Fifth Avenue. Elite families
built big houses on Madison Avenue, especially straddling the
spine of Lenox Hill. In 1893, Ruth Brown, a widow, hired
McKim, Mead & White to design a house at the southwest corner
of Madison and 72nd Street. The architectural firm produced
a commodious five-story house of Boston sobriety, with a classical
balustrade and a columned portico but mostly a simple, unassuming
facade of mottled brick, albeit on a lot 48 feet wide and 100
feet deep. Mrs. Brown's town house was finished in 1894, but for
unexplained reasons she never occupied it. She sold it in
early 1895 to Alva Vanderbilt, recently divorced from William
K. Vanderbilt II....Louis Comfort Tifffany already lived in a grand
house on the northwest corner of Madison and 72nd, and Gertrude
Rhinelander Waldo was just beginning work on her fanciful chateau
on the southeast corner. It was completed in 1897 annd is
now Ralph Lauren's flagship New York store. In the year
her arrival, Mrs. Vanderbilt staged one of the most important
social events of the decade: the wedding of her daughter, Consuelo,
to the Duke of Marlborough....Mrs. Vanderbilt had bullied her
daughter into a titled marriage - to a man she carried nothing
for....They were divorced in 1921. The Vanderbilt house was eventually
sold to William Bayard Cutting, a lawyer, reformer and member
of another socially prominent family. His wife, Olivia,
remained in it into the 1940s, becoming one of the last private
holdouts among the shops on Madison Avenue....The Cuttings sold
the house in 1941, and 10 years later it was replace with a two-story-high
taxpayer-style building, designed by Boak & Raad with severe
simplicity. Ralph Lauren acquired the old Rhinelander mansion
for his flagship store in 1986, and seven years later took
over the taxpayer on the site of the Cutting house....The Ralph
Lauren company says its new store, designed by the Hut Sachs Studio
of New York, will open in 2009 and was "influenced by such
Upper East Side iconic landmark buildings as the Rhinelander mansion
and the Duke and Frick mansions."
Not all the shoppers on opening day were as
elegant as the salespersons as some actually wore khakis. The
interspersal of salespersons and mannequins was about equal and
the mannequins seemed to be having the most fun since they didn't
have to scurry about and be very nice to strangers, even those
in khakis. Under the Lauren store across the street with its rather
narrow and small entrances, this emporium has large and inviting
entrances that hopefully will lure in many New Yorkers, visitors
and tourists curious to immerse themselves in Newportian splendor,
at least in terms of servant staff if not tall marble ballrooms.
It should be noted that Lauren's former two-story store on the
site was quite airy and refreshing with its large sunken room
with fireplace and bright modern lines.
Whereas the store on the east side of the avenue
had a few different ambiances, the new store seems to offer a
new adventure though every wall opening. The arched glass door
entrances recall the extremely refined and elegant and impressive
entrances to Bergdorf Goodman (see The
City Review article), traditionally the city's most elegant
store, but that store's interiors are more conventional and do
not have as many custom built-in drawers and showcases. Of course,
Bergdorf Goodman is not asleep and recently opened a delightful,
fancy and fine restaurant on its seventh floor overlooking upper
Fifth Avenue and Central Park, an attraction that Lauren's new
store cannot compete with.
The Ralph Lauren "look" has never
been known to be daring, but rather conservative. Here, his style
is confident. Not everything in the store is irresistible like
the cashmere teddy bears, but it is very hard to find wrong notes.
One is easily impressed with the superb drawers
and cabinets and the very discrete price-tags but its the nooks
and crannies of the "house" that fascinate. Why is the
picture of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald beneath that great
photo of James Dean and that not so great photo of Jacqueline
Kennedy Onassis. Can the immense circular concha medallions of
a $29,000 belt really be early 20th Century? The tall saleswoman
and the label says so.
then what about the giant straw pom-poms. Are they man-made? Are
they real? Was Mother Nature that perfect?
is the rug in the nice elevator so blah? Why isn't it marble,
and, then again, why is the marble in the staircase polished?
all so very much, thank you.