Ralph Lauren model is all about polo, on and off the field

Los Angeles Times

Flipping through a copy of GQ or Vanity Fair, you’ve more than likely noticed the guy in those Ralph Lauren fragrance ads — you know the one: the impossibly good-looking guy in the polo shirt, with the perfectly toned body, chiseled cheekbones and dark, luxurious mane tossed in perfect disarray.

In a fit of schadenfreude you may have secretly hoped that behind that facade, the perfect picture of masculine pulchritude, lurked some dark, unspeakable flaw, some kryptonite that would bring him down into the realm of mere mortals — horrid table manners, chronic halitosis or the nub of a prehensile tail.

A recent meet-and-greet with the aforementioned model — who, in addition to serving as the face of Ralph Lauren’s World of Polo fragrances, happens to be a world-class professional polo champion with a Ralph Lauren clothing line to boot — seemed the perfect fact-finding mission.

The Argentine-born 33-year-old is Ignacio “Nacho” Figueras. He started doing Ralph Lauren ads a decade ago, after he was introduced to the designer by photographer Bruce Weber (whom he’d met in the Hamptons). By 2005, he had become the face of the Ralph Lauren Black Label clothing line and the Polo Black fragrance line. By 2007, Polo Ralph Lauren was the corporate sponsor of the Black Watch polo team he captains and co-owns with Neil Hirsch.

That same year, the company rolled out a small line of Black Watch apparel polo shirts and shirt dresses inspired and influenced by the team’s uniforms. By 2009, Figueras had become the spokesmodel for two additional Polo Ralph Lauren fragrances (Polo Modern Reserve and Polo Blue), splashing his visage across countless newspaper, magazine and Web pages.

But Figueras’ rising profile over the last year has hardly been limited to the printed page. He made his TV acting debut in the Season 3 premiere of “Gossip Girl” in September. Last month, he turned up on “Entertainment Tonight,” gave polo pointers to Hoda and Kathie Lee on “Today,” rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange and played in a charity polo match (which he helped organize) on New York’s Governors Island.

On a hot Thursday morning in July, Figueras, in town to attend the previous evening’s ESPY Awards, held court on the terrace of the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood, kicking back in a pair of ever-so-slightly faded jeans, a white T-shirt and blue, notch-lapel blazer. The dressiest part of his outfit was a stirrup-shaped Polo Ralph Lauren watch (a personal gift from the designer himself). He hardly seemed like the same guy a June 2009 Vanity Fair readers’ poll voted the second most handsome man in the world (below Robert Pattinson and just above Brad Pitt).

And he wasn’t about to confess to any shortcomings.

First things first: Does the dashing, horse-loving jetsetter have any flaws? “I could tell you, but I’d then have to kill you,” Figueras answers, his Argentinean accent as thick as his dark hair. Then he chuckles slightly and adds: “No, everyone has flaws — maybe probably hundreds.”

He actually seems a little embarrassed about the whole Vanity Fair poll — but determined to use it to his advantage. “So someone voted me something or whatever,” he says with a shrug. “I can use that [attention] to continue my mission, to do my thing, you know? I’m married and I have three kids, so I cannot use it for anything else, so I don’t care.”

His mission? A professional polo player from the age of 17 and a horse breeder with a stable of 250 horses in Argentina, Figueras is on a crusade to raise the profile of his beloved game in the states. Someday, he hopes the sport will be as popular in the U.S. as tennis or golf.

“Golf is good example,” he says. “It used to be very elitest. You had to be a member at a club, and you had to have the equipment. Then Tiger Woods came and changed that. Now anyone can play golf. Polo is going through that process.”

He admits that the logistics and equipment involved in polo make mass participation difficult (it’s not just one horse, either — Figueras says he rides nine horses per match), but he points to the popularity of golf as a spectator sport.

“ ESPN can make anything look cool,” he says. “We could get one hour of polo on ESPN if we had the right brands supporting us. If we get the public to show up, then we’ll get attention from potential corporate sponsors. It’s that easy.”

To that end, Figueras helped organize a 2008 charity polo match in New York City. Though he’d wanted Central Park, the match ended up taking place on Governors Island just off the tip of Manhattan, with the New York City skyline as a backdrop. It has returned twice, to an ever-growing crowd of spectators.

“Last year, 2009, was the first year we had Prince Harry onboard and Veuve Clicquot [Champagne] as a sponsor, and we had about 6,000 spectators,” Figueras says of the charity event, which is now called the Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic. “This year it was about 15,000, so I think I’m on the right track.”

Which brings us to the other reason Figueras is in town: He’s here to put the finishing touches on plans to bring his brand of high-profile charity polo match to the City of Angels. “I want to bring polo back to Los Angeles,” he says. “I want a kid to look in the pages of the L.A. Times in the morning and instead of saying: ‘Let’s go to a Dodgers game,’ say: ‘Dad, let’s go to a polo match.’ I want to make it that accessible.”

“It’s going to be at the Will Rogers State Park. The polo field where Will Rogers, Clark Gable and Walt Disney all played polo in the ‘30s is still there,” he says, “and it’s going to be on Oct. 10: 10-10-10.”

How will Nacho know he’s succeeded? “When ESPN gives an ESPY award for polo, and polo plays are included in those top 10 plays of the day on the evening news, that’s how I’ll know,” he says.

Figueras knows he’s got a long ride ahead of him before polo goes totally pop culture, but he has other mallets in the fire to keep him busy. The Black Watch line inspired by his team’s uniforms has lots of room to grow. “I’d like to see it have its own stores some day, it can be everything inspired by the sport,” he says. “I think it can be a billion-dollar brand someday. I tell that to some people and they laugh at me. I told that to Ralph [Lauren], and he didn’t laugh.”

Oh, and then there’s a movie idea. He’s looking, he says, for a writer to pen the movie he thinks will cement polo in the American consciousness for good. “I see it like ‘Days of Thunder’ but with polo instead of NASCAR. … I could explain to the world all the things surrounding the drama of the game. … You would see the guy kissing the girl ,then you would see the men back at the stables grooming the horses, getting them ready.”

And would the second most handsome man in the world saddle up personally for such a big-screen venture?

“If it helps,” says Ignacio “Nacho” Figueras, “I would be in it.”