Chris Collins was discovered about 20 years ago: a college basketball player a year away from finishing a degree in biology and psychology, thinking of medical school. By chance, the Paterson, NJ native met a modeling agent who saw a fit for Collins as Ralph Lauren was seeking to depict a diversity of races and cultures in his ads.
Now, after two decades of working full-time as a model at Ralph Lauren, Collins’ face is almost iconic. He has appeared in about 60 Ralph Lauren ad campaigns. Today, Collins still occasionally models for Ralph Lauren, but he is devoting himself to establishing himself as a luxury lifestyle guru. He dispenses advice on his web site and consults for luxury brands including Aston Martin, Kilian (fragrances), and Lareymondie, Inc. (custom French footwear). He says he hopes to announce in the fall his own line of men’s shoes and a fragrance.
Recently Fortune caught up with Chris Collins, and he shared what he learned from his years as a male model for Ralph Lauren.
1. Style should be a full expression of who you are.
“My favorite things are a pair of vintage cowboy boots I purchased in Montana, jeans, and my Harley Davidson pearl-white 2004 Road King. And a vintage denim shirt I’ve had for 15 years, with turquoise buttons that add a hint of Native American-inspired style. I love to express my heritage with my clothing. I realized as a kid my features and my complexion were different; I had high cheekbones and my hair was fairly fine. I asked my mother, and she told me we have ancestors who were Blackfoot Indian. As long as I’ve had that shirt, I’ll probably have it for another 15 years.”
2. Know your size — your true size.
“I can tell if your life is in order by how you dress and keep yourself groomed. So put some thought and effort behind your style. First, know your body. Know your size, and please wear clothes that fit. I think man who doesn’t wear properly fitting clothes doesn’t appreciate his body or himself. He also gives off the impression that he doesn’t care enough to take the time to learn about what works best for him. When you’re getting dressed, think about time and place, when and where to wear an outfit. You also want to consider color coordination: You don’t want to look like you walked into your closet and it exploded on you.”
3. Every man needs a leather jacket.
“Invest in staple pieces: a classic navy blazer can be dressed up with a pair of pants, or down with jeans. Always keep a classic polo shirt in your wardrobe, a pair of penny loafers, an oxford shirt, and every man should have a classic leather jacket.”
4. Accessories get men noticed.
“Pay attention to small accessories: sunglasses, leather tassel loafers, and a classic watch. Ties and pocket squares, or a tie pin, are great little accents, as is a beautiful engine-turned belt in black or brown (match your shoes). I wear bracelets and wrist straps. But your most powerful accessory is invisible: your fragrance. Anyone who knows me knows when I’ve walked into or out of a room.”
5. Ralph Lauren’s retail success comes from creating an “experience.”
“In 1999, I needed a suit to wear to a prestigious award show. Ralph’s brother Jerry invited me up to ‘the Polo mansion,’ the flagship Upper East Side store. A gentleman opened the door, where another man, who was expecting me, offered me water in a crystal tumbler on an antique sterling silver platter. Then we picked out the most beautiful suit. For a kid who didn’t grow up with much, it was emotional.
“It was also Branding 101. That attention to detail. The impeccable store design: The weight and size of the doors, the classical music, the art, the stately antiques, and mahogany cabinetry. I learned that day that any successful brand has to create a unique experience their customer feels a part of, and the language and message have to be strong and consistent. The bags they take their clothes home in leave an imprint. If you’re successful, your customer will return again and again for that feeling. Almost as important as the product you’re offering is the way you make people feel when they possess it.
6. Inspiration is “everywhere, every day.”
“I learned from him that if you do what you love, inspiration is everywhere, every day. When I first started going to the RL offices to meet the teams I’d be shooting with, I remember walking around thinking that office decorations, and the employees, all looked like something out of an advertisement. If Ralph ever bumped into you, he always wanted to be inspired. It wasn’t a prerequisite, but it was always encouraged to dress the part every day. A man I never thought would need inspiration, since he had designers and stylists around him, was always open to new ideas that kept him inspired. The day Ralph saw you and complimented you on the way you dressed — that was a very gratifying experience.”
7. It’s a new era for men. Personal style matters.
“There is definitely more awareness and opportunity for men in fashion and grooming. Men care more about their appearance, their health, their fitness, their style. It’s only recently that most skincare and fragrance companies have made products geared specifically for men because they see the huge upside, and not just in the U.S. There is a huge global demand for style, grooming, and fragrance products for men — with a variety of skin and body types. Years ago they tried to coin the term ‘Metrosexual,’ but that didn’t stick. In my opinion, men are much more in tune with taking care of themselves. It’s the new Age of the Gentleman.
“But most men need some education. They just don’t know how or where to start. So a brand that’s willing to invest in educating the male customer on how the brand will aid or benefit them will have a much higher success rate in reaching them.”