OPRAH WINFREY WAS DISCUSSING her bath towels. We—the 700 or so guests seated around Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain for a dinner following Ralph Lauren’s 50th anniversary runway show—were listening to Oprah toast the 87-year-old Mr. Lauren, as only she could. When she first tasted success in Chicago, she told us, a set of Ralph Lauren bath sheets represented the height of luxury to her. In fact, she went on, when Barbara Walters came to interview her at her home, all Ms. Winfrey wanted to do was show off those plush homewares.
“Thank you for sharing your vision,” said Ms. Winfrey, standing beside Mr. Lauren. “You inspire us to be elevated to a higher sense of beauty.”
And how. Forget the towels, the proof was all around us. For a designer who once likened his creative process to that of a movie director, Mr. Lauren’s Friday night Central Park soirée on the second night of New York Fashion Week was a celluloid dream-scene come to life. Attendees included actors (Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Pierce Brosnan, Jessica Chastain), Grammy winners (Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen) and corporate titans (Barry Diller, Martha Stewart). The dress code was black tie, a full orchestra played, a massive brigade of white tuxedo-wearing waiters served the meal by candlelight. Guests were even treated to a ride through Central Park. Okay, so it was a little bus, not a horse-drawn carriage, but still, for a few hours, Mr. Lauren took us out of the real world, and into his.
With all of these distractions to gawk at, it was easy to forget we were there for a fashion show. But the clothes, Mr. Lauren at his Americana finest, merited attention, too. The first half of the show, modeled by a notably diverse cast of models, was full of confident, covetable pieces for men and women, drawn from the higher-end “Collection” label and “RRL,” the rustic line named for Mr. Lauren’s Colorado Ranch. On display were lush herringbone suits, cozy printed knitwear and hulking shearling coats that ought to come with a ranch of their own. The preppier back-half of the show, representing Mr. Lauren’s Polo label, lacked the same broad appeal, though it was masterfully put together. Featuring corduroy trousers covered with cartoon doodles and sweaters plastered with mammoth felt Ps, this collection felt dated. Coming from the man who has made it his business since 1967 to brand “American look,” these clothes, though consistent with the brand’s history, seemed out of touch with what America looks like today.
Mr. Lauren’s peers, many of whom were in attendance, have not been so consistent, for better or worse. The night before Mr. Lauren took over the park, Tommy Hilfiger, the preppy prince who spent decades nipping at Mr. Lauren’s tasseled loafers, took his own bow in Brooklyn at the conclusion of the runway show for sneaker-store-turned-streetwear brand Kith. Mr. Hilfiger collaborated with the seven-year-old brand on a logo-drenched, sweats-heavy collection that will appease the teens that make up Kith’s customer base. And later this week, Calvin Klein, a label launched just one year after Mr. Lauren’s (and sold by Calvin Klein himself 15 years ago) will put on its fifth runway collection under the iconoclastic direction of Belgian designer Raf Simons. But Mr. Lauren forges on, through the Americana frontier, the same path that he set his wagon on 51 years ago.
The months leading up to the show have seen a cavalcade of launches and initiatives from Ralph Lauren. That includes three new watch collections, including a made-to-order 50th anniversary watch that retails between $20,000 and $50,000. In July, the brand announced Polo Red Rush, a new fragrance with actor Ansel Elgort as its ambassador. In late August, it debuted Hi-Tech, a sporty mini-collection that channeled the spirit of the primary-colored, outdoorsy gear Polo sold in the early ’90s. And soon after that came a series of “upcycled” clothes, cobbled together in a Brooklyn factory from vintage Ralph Lauren pieces and sold (curiously) only across the pond at London’s Selfridge’s.
This flurry of activity is not unusual for a mammoth publicly traded fashion company with over $6 billion in yearly revenue and more than 10 sub-labels under its umbrella. It is also a clear attempt to push the company out of a recent slump: Sales of the brand’s wares have been on the decline and there has been some tumult in the C-suite (last year CEO Stefan Larsson resigned after just two years, to be replaced by Patrice Louvet). In this context, Friday night’s event was one of utter, unapologetic opulence.
But of course, it could not last. I left the event, passing Hillary Clinton in a Ralph Lauren gown on the way out, got in a cab and joined some friends at a party downtown. Immediately on arrival, a man dressed in shorts looked me up and down quizzically. “Why are you wearing that tuxedo?” And just like that, the movie was over: I had left Ralph’s America and was back in real America.
Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com