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LUXE, CALME ET VOLUPTÉ

LUXE, CALME ET VOLUPTÉ

 by wei koh photography jamie ferguson


 It’s always a risk sharing a vintage car with another individual for three days. Choose correctly and the experience is bucolic charm. Choose incorrectly and you are plunged into an existential hell that would leave Camus, Sartre and Ionesco weeping in unison on the floor. So I approached piloting the 1967 280SL built on Mercedes’ legendary W11 platform in a vintage rally from Munich to Lake Como in the summer with vague trepidation. Because I’d never spent any real time with my chosen co-pilot, Alexander Kraft. Even if you haven’t met him or don’t know the name, you’re sure, if you read this magazine, to recognize his silent-movie-star visage and Cifonelli swath-cutting style from his Instagram feed, alexander.kraft, replete with its ‘ceo’ and ‘gentleman’ hashtags. Indeed, he is even the brand ambassador and official poster boy for one of my favorite tailors, the aforementioned Cifonelli, helmed by two genius cousins ensconced in the badlands of the City of Lights. On top of that, Kraft is the owner of Sotheby’s International Realty in France and Monaco, selling such things as the €45m Château Miraval to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The problem with Kraft was that he was too damnably successful, too irritatingly perfect, with never a hair out of place as he struck an insouciant pose next to one of his seemingly innumerable armada of vintage automotive finery and in front of one of his apparently spontaneously reproducing family of mansions. Even his dog, Bertie, was the model of gentlemanly elegance. My conclusion was that he had to be insufferably uptight. So I thought I might as well find out.
As Kraft guided our Teutonic steed deftly up an idyllic mountain pass, I began to regale him with the tale of how Interlaken and Lucerne became one of the biggest destinations for mainland Chinese tourists, who, every summer, like cash-wielding migratory geese, began to descend there en masse to purchase every Patek Philippe in sight. The story goes that a famous Chinese athlete had gone to Interlaken for high-altitude training just before the Beijing Olympics. Amazingly, while there he saw the manifestation of the Buddha. When he returned home he told this story on national T.V., and soon every citizen of the People’s Republic of China — let’s use the rapstar like acronym P-ROC for short — went to Interlaken and nearby Lucerne because they too wanted to see the Buddha. When they didn’t, they consoled themselves by buying every Speedy Bag, H motif Hermès belt buckle and Patek Philippe, which they would have done anyway because Chinese tourism is acquisitional in nature and not experiential, as it is in the west. (Chinese tourists do not linger in the sunlight with glasses of Domaines Ott. They do not get the phrase luxe, calme et volupté as it pertains to either the painting by Henri Matisse or the poem by Charles Baudelaire. What they like is to buy swag with MC Hammer-like insatiability.)
Gazing up at a transcendent, cascading mountain fall, I said: “Look, we could do the same to improve tourism to this remote region. We could make up a story about some P-ROC fallen on hard times who found himself by this waterfall. Suddenly inspiration struck and he decided to wash his posterior in the stream of pure Swiss mountain water, and shortly afterwards gold poop fell out of his ass. I mean that euphemistically, of course; what actually happened was that he went home and his business turned around and his wife wanted to bone him insatiably and then bore him a masculine child… ” I stopped because a strange noise was coming from Alexander, who I thought might be choking in apoplectic horror, only to realise that he was laughing so hard, gloriously and unabashedly that I feared he might lose control of the car. As Bogie explained to Claude Rains, this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Because despite having reached an age when I was determined never to increase my diminishing circle of friends, I have to say that on that day, at that moment, I found myself a spiritual brother.
The thing about Alexander I find so endearing is that, underneath it all, he doesn’t take himself seriously. He’s one of the most laid-back, honest, self-deprecating, principled and sincere guys I know. But that’s probably not something he’s going to show you. Because he understands the power of his image in the war he’s waging, his personal battle against vulgarity. In a world in which, as my friend Nick Foulkes likes to put it, “wealth and taste have diverged in polar opposition”, Alexander — in his double-breasted waistcoat and vintage Ferrari, with his indomitable Jack Russell terrier by his side, and, when not modeling, producing music or putting together half-a-billion-euro real-estate deals — has embarked on the ultimate quixotic one-man mission against banality. And it’s Instagram that gives him his non-symmetrical, commando-warfare-like advantage. Soon my interest was piqued to understand who provided him with his fundamental understanding of style. He answered with two words that have also come to mean an entire aesthetic and ethical philosophy to me. He answered with the name of the mentor I’ve been incredibly blessed to have. He said, “Ralph Lauren”. And immediately I understood that we truly were brothers.
Kraft says: “Ralph Lauren undoubtedly changed the course of my life. Without Ralph Lauren I probably would not be who I am today. You see, when I was quite young, I already had a strong interest in style and fine craftsmanship, instilled in me during my childhood by my grandfather, who was a great connoisseur and gentleman, and academically I was an early starter and thus usually the youngest among my peers. However, as a consequence, I always stood a bit apart from the crowd, was rather reserved and often didn’t have the confidence to express how I truly felt, to show who I truly was. Then one day, I was interviewing at a very elite school. But the interviewer stopped me and said, ‘Look, you have all the grades needed to come here. But I am not going to let you in. Because when I talk to you, I don’t sense that you are sure of yourself, and this is the most fundamental factor in life.’ “I left, and of course I was distraught. Just a bit later, I came across my very first Ralph Lauren flagship store. I walked in, and this entire world, everything in the room, spoke to me. Not as mere products, but as if it were the poetic language of the person creating them, as if I could suddenly get a glimpse into the way this person lived, his values, how he regarded life, the affection he felt for his family and its way of life. And I was extremely moved by this grace, this person’s timeless style and his gentlemanly elegance, combined with humility but also optimism and assertiveness, as I moved from room to room. Then suddenly I found myself in the central room with the men’s collection, and had an actual epiphany: I looked at the mannequins dressed in these amazing clothes in this incredibly refined yet masculine environment, and I thought to myself, ‘This is what it means to be a real man — refined yet masculine, humble yet confident’.
“So I started adding his clothes to my wardrobe, and became more and more at ease experimenting with them, wearing them in different ways, and on the way feeling differently, more sure of myself, acquiring a certain nonchalance, which soon became completely natural for me. The next time I had the opportunity to interview again at the school, the same man sat opposite me. But this time I didn’t feel diffident when I spoke to him: I looked him squarely in the eyes and told him about myself in a calm and easy way, unaffected by pretense but with more than a bit of courage. He eventually said to me, ‘Young man, you have changed. How did you do it?’ I thought about it for a moment and I said that ‘a trusted friend, a true mentor, helped me express who I am’. It is like wine. The soil has a voice that wants to emerge but it needs a skilled winemaker to liberate what the French call terroir: the winemaker makes audible what was once inchoate. He gives land a voice. The person who enabled me to express my true voice is Ralph Lauren. And for that I am eternally grateful and forever indebted to him.”
Enter the word ‘suit’ or ‘style’ or ‘gentleman’ into Instagram’s search engine and invariably you will be drawn to Kraft’s feed, followed by his 100,000-plus devotees. The power of Instagram is its reach — and the fact that you can, if you so choose, in the words of Marcel Proust, “make visible the revelation of that universe that each of us sees and that is not seen by others”. Kraft explains: “Over the years I increasingly noticed the power of shaping and taking control of your appearance and the effect it has on others. We use our eyes before any of the other senses, and so when a human being first regards you, he immediately jumps to certain conclusions. It’s interesting that, whether a person is or is not interested in style or clothes, he is unconsciously drawn to someone who has a strong expression of individual taste, in the same way that all human beings are conditioned to respond to the golden ratio even if they are totally unaware of it. I saw how it worked to my advantage, on a personal level but also later as the C.E.O. and finally owner of a storied luxury company. However, at the same time I took a page from Ralph Lauren and made it unconsciously a very natural expression of my life from a very young age. I remember seeing, as a teen, early Ralph Lauren images of him in Bedford or Montauk, or with his family at his ranch in Colorado, and I remember being so compelled by them, as if seeing iconic scenes from some of the classic films that I love so much. I can only hope that I express some measure of the same charm and honesty. Am I really the man you see in the images on Instagram? Well, frankly very few people, my true friends, will really get to know. But a bit of mystery in an era of information overabundance is not a bad thing.”
When asked what he most admired about Ralph Lauren, the man who gave him his foundational, profound understanding of style, Kraft’s response is poignant. He says: “I was always a fan of The Rake and of Ralph Lauren. But when he appeared on his second cover, I learned about all his humanitarian efforts. I want to commend you on this story because it showed a dimension of his life that very few people knew about previously. I was particularly amazed to hear that upon learning that cancer survival rates in Harlem were lower than in the Third World, he took it upon himself to build a cancer hospital there, and even created a patient-steering program to demystify the process of treatment. Very often, people who have had success at the level of Ralph Lauren have had to cut ethical corners, or their charitable acts are engineered as publicity stunts. Ralph Lauren is the opposite. He is an amazing example to all of us that the highest level of success and the strong expression of ethics are not diametrically opposed. In him they are perfectly aligned. He is a great man. But he is also a very good man. An example to us all. One of my favorite things in the story is when he tells you, ‘Wei, when people are miserable it’s because they spend too much time thinking about themselves and not enough time thinking about others’. What a brilliant thing to say. Because it’s so true.”

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