The designer's sprawling double ranch RL ranch in Colorado

Driving from midtown Manhattan to Montauk to see the man himself, I was thinking that it is hard to tell where Ralph Lauren ends and the real world begins. I was a pretty good example of the conundrum. Out of an innocent wish for comfort and hot-summer urbanity I was wearing a Polo shirt, a polo seersucker jacket and horn-rimmed Polo eyeglasses. Without even trying, on this little visit, I was unintentionally patronizing the creator. But if I had the look, so did everyone else. I could see Hamptons Casual: summer sportswear, the Ralph Lauren world splendid this summer morning on Long Island, Observable even from a moving car.

Later he would tell me, "Sometimes, something needs to be redesigned to bring out the interest in it. I was inspired by all the Old World things , but I gave them a little juice, and all of a sudden it brought back the essence of what was exciting about them."

He greeted me on the deck of his low, sprawling, shingled house of rustic elegance, sited on a bluff over Montauk's blowy ocean. "Have a look around," he said, but I was looking at him, with the scrutiny a man about the same age sizes another up. He was sturdy, deeply tanned, with all of that well-known white hair and the compact physique of a cyclist and tennis player. He was wearing khaki shirt and khaki shorts held up by an old leather belt. I was wondering why the founder of a company with annual sales of $2.4 billion, now celebrating its 5th anniversary, would wear such a sensationally scuffed belt, but later he told me of his love for the way leather becomes more interesting as it grows old. He also wore a new digital bombproof Suunto watch, Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses and running shoes. You would not have taken him for the billionaire he perhaps is, but rather for a trustworthy helicopter pilot.

One excellent definition of happiness - it is Freud's - is the fulfilment of childhood dreams in adulthood. The trouble with childhood dreams is that they tend to be unattainable fantasies. Over lunch on his deck (salad, chicken, vegetable terrine), I mentioned this to Lauren, and he nodded in agreement and said how as a boy he had wanted an MG sports car. After the war, his brother brought one back from England, and "I used to shine his shoes so that I could drive it the next day," he remembered.

He now owns a fleet of classic and contemporary cars. I asked him which ones he especially liked. "the new Aston Martin", he said without hesitation, and let drop the fact that he had just bought a new McLaren, a sleek and almost impossible-to-find British car that is better known as a triumphant entrant on a noted British Formula One racing team. But he values his old Ford trucks and classic Jeeps as highly as his sports cars.

"I'm fulfilled," he said. "I am more than fulfilled. I went beyond my dreams."

He uses the house in Montauk off and on in the summer; he also owns a shorefront villa in Jamacia, a mansion in Bedford, about 45 minutes north of his Manhattan town house, and a ranch in Colorado. Each one has a full staff, so he can stay at any time, though he tends to apportion his pleasures-July at the ranch, some winter months in Jamacia, shuttling among the New York houses and Maine. "I'm thinking, What about a lighthouse?"

In the Profiles of Lauren a great deal is made about his humble origins, his notion of fashion as role-playing, his self-invention as a result of his self-improvement. But these are peculiarly American qualities of this intensely American Man. It goes almost without saying that he lives through creations, which are dreams fulfilled.

"I designed safari clothes before I went on safari, English clothes before I went to England , the Russian look before I went to Russia." He has often been disappointed in his travel-England was not quite English enough, French youths have adopted American Rap fashions, and the Colorado he first saw had lost many of the traditional trappings of the Old West.

"We started out with an idea of what the West was like," he said. "But what we thought was there wasn't there. No Large houses, no hunting lodges - not even a fence, like a split-rail fence."

But he found the place he was looking for , a half hour from Telluride. He has since added to his acreage and now owns "15, 000 or 16,000 acres" - he is not sure. "It was a little bit like pioneering," Lauren says. "Someone told us about a barn that was 100 years old on this property. We saw the barn. We fell in love with the place.

"Colorado was for us an escape. It wasn't about being in fashion. It wasn't about saying, 'Wouldn't it be nice to have this cute ranch!' It was about a life that would be different, that would be freer - that would have nature and trees and animals and big sky."

He built the ranch from scratch, and it reflects his active life and sense of style, his wish fulfilment. When I asked him about his routine, he became very specific. "I get up in the morning and run. I come back, take a swim, work out. I built a very good gym for myself. Then we go horseback riding or take a drive. I have sports cars there and some old ford trucks, some Jeeps, a red Ferrari. I like the diversity of speed and also riding an old pick-up truck in the mountains."

The place is more than a ranch with horses and cattle; it is, like all of Lauren's houses, a design opportunity and a source of inspiration. He admits he has only the most modest education. "I never went to fashion school, I never studied design, I dropped out of college."

Plainspoken, he is an un-boastful, earnest and intensely watchful person. And he is helpfully concise about his trajectory, from reimagining his first necktie in 1967 to designing just about everything these days - 'a one-man bauhaus,' as he has been called, though the word Bauhaus might not have entered his vocabulary until rather late.

Although he is an enthusiast and has a powerful visual sense and is relentlessly creative, he can be somewhat inarticulate. Ask him what he likes about the West, and he mentions an assortment of physical objects - the cetury old barn, "animals, trees," and also "saddlery, old leathers, oldness." You know what he means, but you cannot quite see it.

His verbal imprecision seems to have given him an instinctive connoisseurship for the texture of the world, the pulses of the air, a feeling of atmosphere, for the mood of physical objects. He understands that the things we wear and the things we use and the places we inhabit cast a spell on us, as well as making an impression on others. when I hinted at this he did not disagree. He said I write through my clothes."

On the way back to Manhattan, talking with Carrington Wiliams, Lauren's personal chauffer for the past 25 years, I said, "He knows how to live." Williams said, "He do."

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