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Ralph Lauren Restarts the Fantasy

On the deck of his home in Montauk, N.Y., over the sound of crashing waves — a vigorous white noise, more roaring than soothing — Ralph Lauren said he was glad to be back.

Two days earlier, he had returned to New York for the first time since relocating to his Colorado ranch this spring. It was the longest the Bronx-born designer of cozy Americana fashion had spent away from his home state.

“Colorado was mountains, and a different life,” he said, one of horseback riding, hunting and hiking.

Mr. Lauren, who is foremost an architect of aesthetics and engineer of vibes, wanted a moment to transition before settling back into his main residence, an estate in Westchester County. So he stopped for a short stay at his airy Frank Lloyd Wrightian beach house, low-slung and understated in stone and cedar, framed by Montauk’s dunes and pines.

“I like the peace and quiet,” said Mr. Lauren, now walking the grassy slopes of his backyard. When his pool came into view, so did a basket of fresh-rolled white towels, placed poolside as if to implant the idea that here, on this land and at any moment, even on a near-sweater-weather Tuesday in October, you could decide to take a dip.

“I love the house because it’s not a big deal,” he said.

Mr. Lauren was submitting to an interview — he does them rarely — to coincide with the reopening of the Polo Bar, his clubby Midtown Manhattan restaurant favored by the rich, the famous and the adjacent. When it opened in 2015, after successful endeavors in Chicago (RL Restaurant) and Paris (Ralph’s), the wood-paneled, dimly lit spot became Mr. Lauren’s pet project.

Like many restaurants forced to close at the start of the pandemic, the Polo Bar pivoted to delivery and takeout in 2020, before reopening its private dining room earlier this year. But it did not fully reopen its main dining space until Oct. 12.

And reopen it did. Down a flight of wide wooden stairs, the basement-turned-dining room was ebullient that night, jammed with a static of chatter and clinking silverware. Diners greeted friends and acquaintances, occasionally pulling up a chair or sliding into a booth to join another group.

An abridged list of those diners: Hugh Jackman, Al Roker and Clive Davis; the designers Tory Burch, Thom Browne, and Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia of Oscar de la Renta; Stellene Volandes, the editor of Town & Country; an often shirtless Instagram-famous couple who, a staff member said, “have the best abs in the world.”

And on their tables, an assortment of crowd pleasers: the Polo Bar’s signature $30 hamburgers, shrimp cocktails, BLT salads, corned beef sandwiches and ice cream sundaes.

Occasionally a twinkling golden figure zigzagged the room — it was one of the restaurant’s maître d’s, wearing a fully sequined gown that Bella Hadid modeled during Ralph Lauren’s fall 2019 runway show. In the back of the kitchen, two chefs sliced pastry dough, assembling pigs in a blanket (an appetizer on the menu).

In the front of the house, Nelly Moudime, the head maître d’ cheerfully dispensed greetings and personal send-offs as if she weren’t one of the busiest people in the room — as if she didn’t need to drop everything, for example, to accommodate security for the unannounced arrival of Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel.

Ms. Moudime, 40, has worked at the Polo Bar since it opened and is among the 90 percent of staff retained throughout the pandemic. Before takeout and delivery service began, she spent her furlough at home in Harlem, working on a script.

“Don’t you feel the energy?” she asked. “I feel like we never left, and at the same time we realize everything that we went through, and how this is almost a miracle.”

Several people described the same essential feeling: that being at the restaurant again had made them briefly forget about the troubled world outside, for either a fleeting moment or the whole evening. Variations on the phrase “it’s like nothing happened” were happily tossed around. (When the line was repeated to Ms. Moudime, she recoiled: “No, a lot happened. We lost a dishwasher to Covid. We had staff members that were sick” during the pandemic.)

But that feeling, while concentrated on reopening night, predates the pandemic, Ms. Moudime argued: “The space transports you. It allows you to be whoever you want to be at that moment.”

At one point on that first night back, Ms. Moudime said goodbye to Monica Lewinsky, giving her a hug on her way out. Right around that time, a TV show about the Clinton affair, produced by Ms. Lewinsky, was broadcasting an episode depicting the “most terrifying day of my life,” as she tweeted that afternoon. And she spent that night at the Polo Bar.

The promise of comfort and escape is key to the Polo Bar’s appeal, particularly its heavy all-equestrian décor, reminiscent of the cigar-smoking, tweed-wearing, old-money grandfather you never had — an atmosphere that attracts real estate moguls and irony-seeking millennials alike.

When people walk into the restaurant, “they’re going to be intimidated, but they should feel welcome,” said Charles Fagan, Mr. Lauren’s chief of staff and the head of hospitality. “Your job is to bring it down for them.”

Mr. Fagan joined the company 35 years ago. At the time, Mr. Lauren had no restaurants, but he did have a new atmospheric store that made New Yorkers feel as if they’d stepped into a dignified English country home. Creating something new that feels as if it’s been around forever is a technique he has never tired of exploring.

“It was my first exposure to being around a lot of things that were old and expensive, like antiques,” Mr. Fagan said. “I just hadn’t had that. I’d seen it in pictures. As a 23-year-old, I was like, ‘That was smart business’ — to create and seduce and welcome people into a whole universe.”

The first night back at the Polo Bar was notably missing something, though. It — he — was more than 100 miles away, in Montauk.

“Am I going to go there?” said Mr. Lauren, who wore his signature denim on denim, aviator sunglasses and, over his overgrown hair, a baseball hat (from his RRL work wear line) that looked older than it was. “Oh, sure. I’m ready to do what has to be done. But I’m not all over the place.”

By that he meant that he has remained “careful” about Covid-19. He recognizes that the world is going out again, and he finds the Polo Bar reopening “very exciting,” but, he said, “I’m careful because I have a family. I have a company. And I want to enjoy it.”

At 82, Mr. Lauren, formally the chief creative officer and executive chairman of his company, said he feels stronger than ever and has no intention of stepping away or retiring. (Though when that does happen, there will still be a Lauren in the executive ranks: His son David, currently the chief branding and innovation officer.) The clock didn’t stop when he celebrated his 50 years in business with much fanfare in 2018.

“I’m working, I’m strong, I love what I’m doing,” he said. “Some days I don’t, but it’s not even a question. No one has said to me, ‘Ralph, how long are you going to stay?’”

During his time away from New York, Mr. Lauren worked on Zoom, and the brand released three collections. While there was some expectation that he might return to New York for the America-themed Met Gala, where his brand dressed Jennifer Lopez, Kacey Musgraves and Chance the Rapper or for Fashion Week in September — the first live fashion week since February 2020 — he said he didn’t think he was ready to come back with one of his glamorous, star-studded shows.

“People were very tired of runways,” he said of those prepandemic days. “They wanted something new. Now they’re excited to go back and see a real runway show. So it’s part of the game.”

That game is one Mr. Lauren has been playing begrudgingly for his entire career. He often says that he has “never liked fashion” but wants to “stand for something,” and that something is making things that last and get better with age. He identifies as a “normal person,” his enormous wealth notwithstanding — a fairly private guy who once wore a Kmart shirt while being interviewed on national television and whose impetus for opening his Paris restaurant was a craving for an American hamburger.

He, a man who built his empire on clothes, believes there’s more to life than clothes, that, in fact, “we have too much clothes — but you’re in business, you keep going.” That is what drove him into restaurants and what may eventually drive him into opening a hotel. He wants to do one, he said, but is still waiting for the right time and space.

“It’s all one story,” he said. “Whatever you’re wearing is part of your life, but going out is another part of your life. I’m not a genius, but I have an understanding of life, and part of your life is going to different places.”

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