Ralph Lauren and the Preppy Dream

This is going to be a bit of a meander.  Lots of memories, and also some perfume.

I read recently in the New York Times that (like so many other businesses) Brooks Brothers has filed for bankruptcy.  They’ve been around forever.  The article was a nostalgic deep dive into Brooks Brothers history, penned by none other than Lisa Birnbach of the original Preppy Handbook (remember that?) and she talked about her fondest Brooks Brothers memories.  By the way, you should check your bookshelves, because those old Preppy Handbook paperbacks bought for laughs (or research purposes) in 1980 are now selling online for upwards of $40.

Reading all that history triggered a wave of memories and feelings.  I was very much of that Preppy Handbook age.  I was also an odd, bookish kid from an eccentric, bookish family and I never quite found my clique in high school.  My last two years there were kind of a blur – keeping my head down and my grades up, trying to ace the SAT so I could be a Merit Scholar, and spending a lot of my time in my room listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue while studying the Preppy Handbook.

I read that book from cover to cover so many times.  I studied it the way you study sacred texts from lost civilizations.  I thought it was the greatest thing ever.  At the same time, in my mind, it was like reading fiction – like I was reading the Brideshead Revisited Style Manual or something, because at that point in my life I’d never seen a true preppy in the wild, in their natural habitat.  I’d never played tennis or set foot in Brooks Brothers or been to a country club, much less Martha’s Vineyard, and nothing about my life suggested that I ever would.

The girls at my high school, the more popular girls, leaned hard into preppie-dom.  They had their Pappagallo Bermuda bags with the button-off covers and their striped Izod belts and cute matching headbands and their small gold stud earrings.  But it was still fashion — it wasn’t real to them either, just a style they copied, and no doubt they’d all have been wearing Nirvana tee shirts and plaid flannels a decade later.

I loved the way the preppy girls dressed, and I could have whined at my parents to buy me some of that gear, but I didn’t even try; it seemed unattainable to me.  Those girls with their glossy blonde hair looked perfect for the part, and I just … didn’t.  They would graduate and go on to Georgetown or the University of Virginia or maybe even some Ivy League school in New England, fulfilling their chosen destiny.  Me?  I had no idea what to do with myself.

I got to thinking about the original Ralph Lauren perfume.  Like the cute headbands, that fragrance was everywhere in my high school — those big, elegant, square red bottles no doubt on the dresser of every Izod-bedecked girl I followed down the hall, an oblong Lauren travel flacon tucked in every Bermuda bag.  And I remember how much I liked that scent, and yet I never owned it.  The odd thing was, looking back, I couldn’t remember at all what it smelled like.  I could conjure up other scents from that time – my best friend’s Cristalle, her mom’s Fidji – but I drew a mental blank on Lauren.

So, naturally, I did what perfume nuts do.  I found some vintage (like everything else, it’s been reformulated several times, so look for bottles labeled Warner or Cosmair, those are the oldest) and bought an old splash bottle on eBay with maybe an eighth of its liquid remaining.  I was kind of shocked Lauren is still in production; reviews on Fragrantica suggest the current version is a wan, sour ghost of its former self.

Life’s full of surprises. Years later I married a preppy guy, the genuine article, a man who’d gone to boarding school and who played squash and wore madras unironically and whose family golfed and dined at the country club and summered (yes, that’s a verb) on Nantucket.  I’m not sure my earlier studies of the Preppy Handbook helped out that much, but I rose to the occasion.  Of course it’s a bit funny when I think about what attracted him in the first place – that I was the opposite of those sunny, friendly girls who surrounded him, with their Seven Sisters degrees and tennis tans and family money. I wore only black. I was shy and clever and sharp-tongued.  He joked that I was the first woman ever to tell him no.  (Challenge accepted.)  I suppose he found me every bit as exotic as I found him.

Eventually my vintage eBay bottle of Lauren showed up.  The bottle’s prettier than I remembered; it looks even more “classic” with forty years of age on it.  And the smell?

It all came flooding back.  The top notes might be a hair off, but as it blooms it’s just … lovely.  Kind of astonishingly lovely. I was hoping it’d smell recognizable and that I wouldn’t hate it; those things were true.  But I wasn’t prepared for how first-rate a fragrance it turned out to be, and still is. I get a grassy-green top note, then we’re into the fruits and florals, but with a richness and tenderness that breaks my heart a little. I can see how it came from the era of, say, Poison and Opium (both of which I love and own vintage versions of, by the way) but it’s a much more quietly elegant scent for all its richness.  Notes of citrus, black currant, ylang-ylang, jasmine, mimosa, carnation, broom, marigold, thyme, cedar, sandalwood, and oakmoss.

Had I lost my mind?  Apparently not; google revealed that the estimable Bois de Jasmin gave it a rare five stars in her excellent review.  Turns out the nose is the legendary Bernard Chant, who did the original Halston, Cabochard, Azuree, and Cinnabar – in 1978, the same year as Lauren.  My vintage Cinnabar and Lauren’s spicy, woody base definitely have a bit of kinship, now that I think about it.

Did you wear Lauren back in the day?  Or now?  Oh, yeah, and of course I got right back on eBay and bought a close-to-full vintage bottle, because I need more Lauren in my life.  Better late than never.

  • Maggiecat says:

    I encountered Lauren while working in an upscale department store just after I got out of graduate school (there were no Real Jobs at that time and the retail/ fashion/beauty world intrigued me then and still does even as I happily look back on 35 years as a college professor). Lauren smelled different and beautiful and “rich” somehow. A friend gave me a couple of GWP tiny bottles and I shared with my mother and sister who also fell in love with the scent. I’d love to smell the original again!

  • Moi says:

    I was in high school in the late 70s, early 80s, and this was my perfume of choice, even though I was more punk than prep. Loved it. Will forever mourn it. Time in a bottle for sure. This and Faberge’s Babe is what I would bring back if I had three wishes.

  • Gail G.S. says:

    I love your posts, March. And yes, I analyzed the Preppy Handbook too as if studying a foreign land, & bought myself a madras dress, a kilt skirt & an Izod shirt, & tried to tame my hair with plaid ribbons. I recall how popular Lauren was, but I was an amber fan & wore Opium or Obsession.

  • SpringPansy says:

    Oh gosh, I love to meander. I wore Lauren. And Ciara. And Love’s Fresh Lemon and Babe and Inoui and Je Reviens and Fendi and Obsession–eclectic taste ;). Wish I could meander across a garage sale with all my old favorites just as they were.

    • SpringPansy says:

      And I grew up on an apple and cherry orchard in a small town in Washington state. Preppy? What’s that?!

    • March says:

      We were just talking about Fresh Lemon a couple days ago! I’d like of like some of that and the original baby soft, which I think they still make, unbelieveably.

    • Musette says:

      ooh! Love’s Fresh Lemon. And Je Reviens (I was a Rebecca fan – loved that name!)

      xoxoxo

  • Patty says:

    Lauren in stunning. I just sniffed that a couple of days ago, and swooned all over again – the old stuff. Don’t know that I’ve paid much attention to the current version. It captues a time and a feeling perfectly.

  • Eldarwen22 says:

    Was born in 1982, so no memories of Lauren. Have memories of Romance and Turquoise though.

  • Brigitte says:

    I wore it back in the day but I was far from preppy….a skinny, young ballerina who attended High School of Performing Arts and couldn’t care less about my SAT scores. The irony is my son is a National Merit Scholar. I would love to smell Lauren again. I’m sure it would catapult me back to the late 70s/ early 80s.

    • March says:

      Good for your son! I’m so delighted I tracked down some vintage. I was hoping to recognize it; I didn’t expect to be so in love with it.

  • Musette says:

    I loved and owned a bottle of the original Lauren – it’s gorgeous! I was in my 20s and had just started to learn about ‘branding’ – the buyers at MF&Co talked about Ralph and his creation of a BRAND – starting with himself (he’s a Bronx-born son of Jewish immigrants – his real surname is Lifschitz) – the stories of him creating this fantasy life – the Polo visage ( my favorite is of him buying out a potato farmer’s pending crop and having the field replanted with flowers, to suit the aesthetic from his upstairs windows). I was fascinated by that!
    The perfume was fabulous, too!
    xoxoxo

    • March says:

      I KNOW!!! That’s one of my favorite parts of the Lauren branding thing, his invention of himself. Lauren’s an “American” brand and if that isn’t the quintessential story of American reinvention and mobility I don’t know what is. I can absolutely imagine Lauren on you as well — it’s lovely but not frivolous.

      • Musette says:

        it was weird – some people acted like they’d caught him out! Personally, I thought (and still think) it was a magnificent example of brilliant business development. Calvin Klein is another – but that is for another day 😉
        xoxoxoxo

  • Queen-Cupcake says:

    I was 25 when Lauren launched, and working in a restaurant/nightclub/disco. Someone had given a bottle to my mother but she didn’t want it so she gave it to me. As a wanna-be bohemian, I scorned all things preppy but loved the fragrance. It became my signature scent, and I received a lot of compliments when I wore it. Brings back some great memories… I still wear it sometimes; I have a 2 ounce bottle of the Warner version that is wonderful–hoping to make it last a long time!

  • Dina C. says:

    March,
    Fantastic post! I loved Lauren and had more than one bottle of it thru high school and college. I loved that scent, and it shaped my scent taste to this day. Like you, I devoured The Preppy Handbook, and also the Anti-Preppy Handbook, both of which were given to me on my 17th birthday. I ended up going to one of those New England small private colleges mentioned in TPH, and the student body was the total embodiment of that lifestyle. As for me, I came from a middle-class military family, so I was a pretender/actor. I was constantly wowed by the otherworldly glimpse into a life that was so different than my experience.

    • March says:

      Thank you. I never tire of exploring the relationship of fashion and fragrance with that acting experience — what we choose to ornament ourselves with, and what it signifies to us and to others.

  • MMKinPA says:

    I don’t have any memories of Lauren other than the ads. But I do remember my preppy handbook and the couple of years where my mom and I traveled to Chicago to shop at Marshall Fields and I talked her into several preppy ensembles from Izod. I loved those clothes! I ended up at an Ivy League in the late 80s, with actual preppy people, but by then I was firmly in the “aggressive wearing of sloppy clothes” phase. I think 90% of my wardrobe was sweatshirts.

  • Kimb says:

    Loved the original Lauren perfume. Wore it until I discovered Lancôme Magie Noire, another marvellous wonder destroyed by reformulation.

    • March says:

      Reformulations are like a terrible game of “telephone” — they don’t start off so bad, but by the time you’ve gone through several they don’t bear much resemblance to the original.

  • matty1649 says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post

  • Cinnamon says:

    Great post! I tried to love Lauren back in the day but it simply didn’t work. The bottle really is beautiful. And as to preppiness, simply didn’t work for me. Don’t look good in khakis — also too small, curvy and dark haired. Thinking back to high school, uni and directly thereafter it was honeysuckle oil, patchouli oil briefly, Opium, and a short period of Ivoire. I had a college roommate one year who was very preppy. She actually wore Perfumers Workshop Tea Rose (and way too much of it) and Giorgio of Beverly Hills (it smelled great on her). I loved the original Halston bottle. If I ever wore it that was for a very short period. Ah, memories…

    • March says:

      Oh, I loved Giorgio! It was a lot, though. And I loved the Halston bottle (still do) though not the fragrance itself as much.

  • alityke says:

    Oh how I loved Lauren & miss it. The cassis note, all bitter and green. It was the perfect scent of an English summer garden.
    A total unicorn now in the U.K.

  • Portia says:

    Hey March,
    I have zero memories of Lauren. Not even the bottle triggers a memory. It sounds all kinds of wonderful.
    So funny, I can’t imagine you EVER not fitting in. Surely what you have is a classic line in movie star gorgeous and a quick wit. All that honey and ash never looked so magical or mysterious on screen, or in life.
    Portia xx

    • March says:

      Honestly based on my perception of your perfume tastes, I think you’d think Lauren was perfectly nice but not something you’d swoon over. And like a lot of folks I think I was the odd duckling as a teen and young adult. I’m much more comfortable and happy with myself in my later decades.

  • Smithy says:

    Wonderful essay. Ralph Lauren in those days was incredible.