It's hard to believe that Ralph Lauren, a guy who's lasting legacy will be as clothier to Sigma Chi's everywhere, has one of the world's most enviable car collections. Bugattis, Alfa Romeos, Jags, Porsches, Ferraris: He's got them all, the majority of which he stores at his private estate in Katonah, New York. Every now and again, though, he likes to parade them in front of a slobbering, slack-jawed public, as he did in 2005 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and as he's doing again this year at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
Aerodynamics weren't entirely understood back then, which freed car designers.
The exhibit, The Art of The Automobile: Masterpieces of the Ralph Lauren Collection, gathers 17 gleaming exemplars of classic European car porn. There's the 1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK, a long, flamboyant roadster that's all hood and wicked curves and could've been custom-built for Cruella De Vil; the 1996 McLaren F1 LM, one of the most important race cars in history (this baby roars from 0 to 131 kph in 5.9 seconds); and our favorite, the 1950 Jaguar XK120 in racing green, with a buttery leather interior and a body like a crouching feline (above). We'd give a pound of flesh just to sit in that thing.
Curator Rodolphe Rapetti selected the models both for their beauty and functional innovation -- qualities that, it's worth noting, did not always walk hand in hand. As Rapetti writes, "When vehicles were designed without computers and the ensuing sophisticated projection systems, an intuitive or imaginary aerodynamism developed to which we undoubtedly owe some of the most beautiful coachwork ever produced." In other words: Aerodynamics weren't entirely understood in the pre-digital age, so car designers more or less made things up as they went along, and what they lacked in technological savvy they more than made up for in style. It's not a stretch to say that the influence of old cars like Lauren's extends beyond the rarified world of elite racing to visual culture at large: all those stylized Batmobiles and Cruella de Vil Caddies of silver screen fame had to come from somewhere.
The influence is not lost on Lauren, who says cars inform his own design process:
"I am constantly seeking ideas to impact my creative vision. Cars have always been a rich source of that process. I look at a car and love its highly stylized air vents, a row of steel rivets, a hubcap or a gas cap, a perfectly crafted steering wheel, soft buttery leather upholstery, a richly polished burl-wood dashboard or the beauty of a leather strap over the hood. I take those details and integrate them into everything I design from a watch to a chair to a woman's evening dress."
If only he put a little more Jag in his men's wear. Sigh.
[Images courtesy of Musée des Arts Décoratifs]