To see Ricky Lauren is to understand what has been Ralph Lauren's most personal inspiration for his phenomenally successful, billion-dollar fashion empire.
As Ralph Lauren's wife of 25 years enters the room in a pale blue cotton shirt, khaki jodhpurs, English riding boots and her blond-streaked hair flowing to her shoulders--setting off her slightly tanned, flawless skin--she is clearly the epitome of the Ralph Lauren woman featured in all those carefully styled Polo advertisements.
But unlike the wives of many famous men, Ricky Lauren has tended to stay out of the limelight all these years, opting to raise their three children; manage their homes in New York, Jamaica and Colorado, and occasionally accompany her equally press-shy husband to a charity or fashion industry event.
Of late, however, Lauren has come out of her beautifully appointed closet to launch a personal project: a book called "Safari," featuring her own photographs and text from a 1983 trip to Africa she made with four friends. The leather-and canvas-bound book with gilt-edged pages, with a press run of 1,000 numbered copies, was published by Lauren herself, with the help of a Japanese bookmaker. It sells for $150 with proceeds going to the World Wildlife Fund. It's available at the Polo shop on Rodeo Drive.
It is a creditable effort with easy, flowing text and interesting shots of the wildlife they encountered, the exotic terrain and the Masai women in all their beaded regalia.
"I like to write and I like to take photos," explains Lauren, seated demurely on a couch in the offices of the mansion-like Polo store on Madison Avenue. "There are so many things I get to see because I'm lucky, I wanted to share it with others. I know I'm not a professional photographer or a writer, but I thought (I'd publish the book) in a way that had a charm to it. It would be fun to do something on my own."
Born Ricky Low-Beer, she grew up in New York City and was an English major at Hunter College when she met her future husband at the eye doctor's office where she was working part time. She also taught fifth grade for a time in the Bronx. She studied photography after their marriage and says she writes regularly in a journal.
"Ralph likes what I like," she says in her careful, self-effacing way, letting it be known she has his blessing on her book project. "Ralph is always supporting the things I do. It was nice of him to suggest it. It was very nice."
Lauren makes it clear that she is as much a perfectionist as her notoriously hands-on designer husband: "I laid it all out--how it should flow--picked the lettering, the paper, the size each photo should be. Having been trained by Ralph, I didn't let anything slip through my fingers. He's into everything. I made all the decisions."
She describes her personal safari (the timing of the book's publishing, she says, was not tied to the launching of Ralph Lauren's new Safari fragrance and home collection) as an experience both subtle and monumental: "I felt very trusting and comfortable--no fear. There were times I wished I could walk away with the animals. I felt very much like I was communicating with nature. It was what I imagined it must have been like in Eden."
When asked how she feels about being the persona behind the Polo Ralph Lauren woman, a sneeze from someone in the room suggests an answer.
" Gesundheit! " Lauren says. "That means healthy, and that's how I feel about it. You have to take the opportunity. There's the 'What came first--the chicken or the egg?' question. I'd been around awhile before the other was here. But sometimes I don't know if I'm the chicken or the egg."
Asked if she ever feels overwhelmed by her husband's fame and fortune, she quickly dispels that notion with a show of strength that isn't always evident.
"I thought I made a big name for myself," she counters, making a point of her role as a type of silent partner in her husband's success. "I feel pretty good about all that."
The reason Ricky Lauren is suddenly emerging with projects that bear her name, she says, is timing.
"There was a lot to do to get to this point," she says. "I am a wife and a mother. It's building a foundation in those areas and then you can devote yourself to other things. It falls into place. You know when it's time. I think what makes life difficult is when you're all over the place at once. Too much stimulation can be destructive. You have to know yourself and stay centered."
Making their high-powered polo game of a marriage work has been about priorities, as well, says Lauren.
"You have to do what you think is important and sometimes two people think the same things are important. You ride the waves--both the crest and the trough. Just to exist is the thing. Marriage is not about the good parts or the bad parts. It's just participation."