The evening of Monday, October 24, began with a lineup of town cars snaking along West 65th street to a waiting frenzy of flashbulbs, media and A-list stars at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. It was the kind of moment that might make you say, “Only in New York”—not least because it felt so true. But, it was more than that. This evening, special in every sense of the word, was the kind of moment that could only happen at a venue like Lincoln Center—the performing arts capital of the world—on a night when philanthropy was the mission and glamour was the mode.
What began on the red carpet ended in an overwhelming triumph of generosity. A crowd of nearly 800 raised a record $7 million at a once-in-a-lifetime event billed as An Evening with Ralph Lauren: a cocktail reception, conversation with Oprah Winfrey and three-course dinner.
It was not only a chance to toast the designer’s accomplishments, whose legacy (as host Oprah pointed out) transcends fashion and “defines our American experience,” but was also a perfect opportunity to support a vital cause, which in turn brought out the stars.
Seen in the crowd were Hollywood stars Jessica Alba, Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington, all wearing looks from Mr. Lauren’s Fall 2011 Collection; media heavyweights Barbara Walters, Graydon Carter, Anna Wintour and Matt Lauer; and the fashion industry’s own Diane von Furstenberg, Sophie Theallet, Tory Burch and Prabal Garung. One would be hard-pressed to recall a scene so luminous as the cocktail reception at Alice Tully Hall that preceded the interview—the shimmering crowd, the flowing Moët & Chandon champagne and the room’s sleek design in stark juxtaposition to the patchwork of iconic images from Mr. Lauren’s past collections projected onstage during the tribute that followed.
After cocktails in the front hall, the crowd moved into one of Lincoln Center’s famed concert halls, where Oprah introduced a moving tribute conceptualized by Tony award–winning producer Darren Bagert. The pastiche of family photos and iconic ad imagery spanned more than 40 years of work and life, from the first Polo necktie to the latest runway collection and Mr. Lauren’s children—pictured running across Montauk, New York, beaches and Colorado fields when they were young. As the music faded, a single spotlight shone on two chairs at which sat Mr. Lauren and Oprah: he in black tie and cowboy boots, she radiant in a custom-made red satin gown. Their conversation spanned Mr. Lauren’s career and was peppered with humorous anecdotes (that famous first necktie’s groundbreaking 4" width) and intimate details, culminating in a stunning reproduction of the Spring 2012 runway show. One by one the models strode across the stage in glittering Gatsby-inspired gowns to the beat of a soaring musical score, at last lining up for Mr. Lauren’s final bow before a standing ovation. It was remarkable and took the audience entirely by surprise.
One element that stood out throughout was the sincerity of Mr. Lauren’s contradictions; the man who famously never went to fashion school became a fashion legend. The brand synonymous with American style paves the way for an entire industry’s global growth. And of course, it is possible to be at once self-made and wholly authentic, international and staunchly American—whatever American means to you. “Become who you want to become,” said Mr. Lauren, and adding just a few moments later, “You are who you are. I’m living proof that if you work hard, you can become something.”
In this case, that something is a bastion of support for the medical community of Harlem, New York, with his namesake center dedicated to giving the best treatment to those who most need it, a cause in which we can all believe. Said Martha Stewart, American style legend in her own right: “Anything that has to do with progress in the medical field is very important, and Ralph is forging ahead in a very good and prominent way.”
Following their conversation, the crowd followed Oprah and Mr. Lauren across the plaza at Lincoln Center and into the David H. Koch Theater, where dinner awaited. Dr. Harold Freeman, founder and chairman emeritus of the Ralph Lauren Center, spoke about the center’s progress and future plans, a forecast that will no doubt benefit enormously from the evening’s donors and Mr. Lauren’s tireless campaign to raise awareness and support. As the last glass of champagne was poured, guests drifted back onto the plaza and onward toward home, no doubt inspired by all they had seen on this one glamorous “Only in New York” evening.
Cary Randolph Fuller is the women’s fashion editor at Ralph Lauren. She has written for Selectism and Guest of a Guest.