Until a couple of years ago, the stretch between 71st and 72nd Streets on Madison Avenue, not far from where I live, was a pleasant retail hodgepodge of small boutiques. There was Alain Mikli, the eyeglasses purveyor, but its lease expired. The stationery store vanished, but the clerks were snooty, and I was glad to see them go. Silvano Lattanzi, bespoke shoemaker, moved up the avenue.
On the corner of 72nd Street was the Rhinelander mansion, built for a socialite who dreamed of living in a Loire Valley chateau. Since 1986, it has housed the 20,000-square-foot Ralph Lauren flagship. In 1993 a Bauhaus-inspired Ralph Lauren store selling sportier wear opened across the street.
But something slightly eerie has taken place: in the last couple of years those two Ralph Lauren emporiums reached out their tentacles and consumed every single one of the little storefronts on the west side of Madison between 71st and 72nd Streets. Hidden from view for weeks or months, the new shops emerged one by one from their white seedpods — excuse me, wallboard and scaffolding — as fresh outposts prepared to indoctrinate future generations of Ralph Lauren shoppers.
The only non-Polo entity left on the entire block is St. James’ Episcopal Church, an institution of historic social standing on the Upper East Side, which apparently could not be pried from its roost at the southeast corner. I, a Catholic, don’t attend, but I do have a good friend who comes from the kind of family that inspires the Lauren-esque blend of luxury, money and Pietàs.
“You know, I was married there once,” he tells me every time we walk past the church. “I just can’t remember to which wife.”
In that remark lies the genius of Ralph Lauren. Mr. Lauren has created a storybook fantasy out of the attractive parts of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, leaving out all the ugly bits. When I think of that disappearing cryptoclass, I can’t help but think of John Cheever and the dislocation and anomie of “The Sorrows of Gin” or “The Swimmer.” But on Planet Polo, families dress up for horseback riding, golf and tennis, and pack their perfectly weather-beaten satchels for Nantucket and Bermuda. There are no divorces or drunks there, nor do families squabble over the last shreds of a dwindled fortune that once, long ago, vaulted their ancestors briefly into the upper classes.
For a while I tried to convince myself not to be alarmed at how the neighborhood had been transformed into a Disney-like mall of Ralph Lauren stores. But in the spring I read the Joan Didion memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” and came across a passage in which Ms. Didion, who also lives nearby, describes how many times during the day she thinks of things to tell her husband, John Gregory Dunne, who had recently died. “I notice some change in the neighborhood that would interest him,” she writes. “Ralph Lauren has expanded into more space between 71st and 72nd Streets.”
I stopped. Rubbed my eyes. Reread. There it was: Page 194. This titan of literature, one half of perhaps America’s greatest literary duo of the last quarter-century, had seen fit, in the Pulitzer Prize-nominated ode to her late husband, to muse on Ralph Lauren’s expansion on Madison Avenue.
WALKING along the block, as I do almost every day, puts me in mind of walking along a stage set, from the perfectly shined brass knobs on the doors, to the outfit worn every day by Freddy, the man who hoses down the sidewalk in front of the Rhinelander mansion every morning: perfectly pressed khakis, Wellington boots and a Polo button-down. He is the best-dressed sidewalk-washer in Manhattan.
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