- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 25, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Fashion designer Ralph Lauren talked about success, comebacks and humble beginnings with Oprah Winfrey at Lincoln Center in front of a sold-out crowd packed with celebrities like Michael J. Fox, Tracy Pollan, Naomi Watts, Jessica Alba, Uma Thurman and Martha Stewart.

The Monday night event was a joint benefit between the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention and the Manhattan performing-arts complex, raising a total of more than $7 million.

Winfrey, wearing a red custom-made Lauren gown, introduced her friend of many years as an "extraordinary man," adding, "In so many ways he designed the fabric of America the way we know it."

A photo montage then hit on all of Lauren’s classics: the wide ties he wouldn’t change when he was launching his business in the 1960s _ even when Bloomingdale’s asked him to _ along with the polo shirts, Western-inspired fringe jackets, banker suits, slinky satin gowns, "Great Gatsby"-styled sportswear, and all the cozy cashmere.

He doesn’t chase trends, said Lauren, founder of the Polo brand, but he’s not into old things, either. He prefers styles that "age well."

Actress Watts said she remembers as a teenager, she couldn’t wait to get her hands on one of those famous collared polo shirts with the pony emblem. She’s since graduated to the cable-knit crewneck sweaters _ and the black beaded gown she was wearing at the event.

"He’s been famous for so long. I grew up following him," the British-born Watts said. "Ralph Lauren is a great American icon, and he’s here along with another great American icon. It’s my pleasure to be here."

Many of the opening-segment photographs showed Lauren, his wife Ricky, and their three children living the genteel life that his styles have come to represent. They were pictured against idyllic backdrops of beautiful beaches, charming farms and the Rocky Mountains, alternately surrounded by horses, sports cars and famous faces.

"He has the life we all wish we had," said Winfrey. "He’s living it."

Lauren, 72, who was born Ralph Lifshitz, said he doesn’t apologize for enjoying and embracing his success, reminding the crowd that he came from humble beginnings in the Bronx with an aspiring artist father who sometimes took house-painting jobs to pay the bills. "You are what you are. I’m living proof if you work hard enough, you can accomplish something in this country."

Prabal Gurung, an up-and-coming designer with a lot of buzz, said he was inspired by Lauren. "What really resonated with me was that he did plan this was all going to happen. He did it all because he wanted to."

And Lauren’s not done yet. It’s drive _ with mixed feelings of fear and excitement (resulting in sweaty palms before each collection debuts on the runway) _ that keep him and his juggernaut of the company that bears his name going. The brand, Lauren said, has more growth to do in emerging markets such as China and Russia.

Things haven’t always been good, with Lauren saying twice in its four decades the company came back from the brink of failure. But a comeback can be even sweeter than initial accomplishment, he added. Frank Sinatra was one of his childhood heroes because he did just that. "He had a big drop in his career, lost his audience … but he made a comeback. He came back."

Winfrey asked Lauren if there was a defining moment when he knew he’d crossed into the big leagues.

"I don’t think I’ve ever said it," Lauren responded, "and I don’t think I ever will."

Lauren allowed that he feels pangs of guilt when he sees someone who is sick or injured. That’s why he’s so involved in cancer treatment causes, especially reaching out to patients who can’t afford care, he explained; it’s an effort to give to someone else the opportunity that he had.

In an interview with The Associated Press before he went on stage, he said, "I’ve been doing what I’m doing a long time and I’m here to give back what I can."

He also said he can’t remember the first time meeting Winfrey but he did grant an interview when she first launched her magazine. They formed a bond. "I once found myself talking to Oprah in my car for an hour. Whenever I see her it’s like I just saw her. That’s a real connection," he said.


Samantha Critchell tweets fashion at https://twitter.com/ap_fashion

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