With a determination to stay true to his own vision, Ralph Lauren’s journey has led him from selling ties to heading up one of the most recognizable brands in the world.
Few men have ever had more influence on fashion than Ralph Lauren. While the world has seen many designers rise and fall according to market whims, the classic vision of Lauren has stood the test of time. He longed to create a look that captured something of the American Dream, and along the way his stylistic philosophy was embraced by the global marketplace.
His name and signature Polo line make up one of the most recognizable brands in the world, taking its rightful place alongside Apple, Coca-Cola, Amazon, et al. With an estimated net worth of more than US$7 billion, according to Forbes, Ralph Lauren is the third-richest designer in the world, whose fortune is exceeded only by that of Giorgio Armani and Miuccia Prada. Not a bad achievement for a former tie salesman from the Bronx, N.Y., who relied on his innate fashion sensibility and boundless self-confidence in the process of building one of the largest global clothing empires. His success is even more striking in light of his own profound disdain for “fashion” and its inherently capricious nature.
“I don’t like fashion. I have nothing to do with it,” he says in a 2017 GQ magazine interview on the occasion of his namesake company’s 50th anniversary. “I just don’t care about it. I don’t care about what they call men’s fashion. I think it’s a poisonous voice. People feel like when they do a fashion show, they’re going to blow their socks off. They get lost in thinking that the papers, the editors, the magazines are going to give them editorial and they’re fighting for editorial. ‘Look what I did this year!’”
“IT WASN’T ABOUT FASHION; IT WAS ABOUT WHAT I WANTED. AND THEN, ALL OF A SUDDEN, I REALIZED I WAS BUILDING A WORLD, TELLING A STORY ABOUT THE THINGS THAT I LOVED”
“They’re forgetting about the consumer who wears clothes. They’re forgetting about what life’s about. They get themselves in a little world and then they can’t go any further. But if you look at my past 50 years, you’ll see that my work has never changed. The clothes have, but the principles haven’t. The spirit changes … but the voice over the years is the same.”
During the course of his sovereign sway over Western society’s clothing habits, Lauren is perhaps most commonly identified with his so-called preppy look, the chic sportswear that evokes a gentrified, Anglo-American culture of cool. Evoking the kind of patrician splendour that first caught public attention thanks to the Kennedy clan and their Ivy League aura, Lauren developed an elegant yet laid-back esthetic, as heralded by his classic “Polo” shirt.
It is his way of selling the American Dream to a consumer anxious to be seen as part of a bright, prosperous elite that one would find sailing on weekends or playing tennis after work. Lauren has tapped into our fashion consciousness in the same way that Armani (men’s suits in the wake of American Gigolo), Givenchy (Audrey Hepburn) and Lagerfeld (women’s fashion as a whole) set trends in motion.
But unlike these other icons of design, Lauren thinks more in terms of a trimmed-down (pun unintended) clothing line that dispenses with frills and speaks to a no-nonsense stylistic impulse. His fashion mantra has never been about legislating to only one target group with only “one thing” in mind when it comes to design, but rather a way of reflecting his admiration for men who carry themselves with an iconoclastic, somewhat rugged swagger.
“I made clothes for the preppy, for the RRL guy, for the luxury sportswear guy,” he tells GQ. “Is it a dressing-up box for the American Dream? I think it’s more about me and what I’ve tried to do,” explains Lauren.
“I always admired Frank Sinatra. He had ups and downs, but he didn’t give up his style. He had what might have been a tough life or character. I don’t know his personality, but I believe in the ability to believe in what you’re doing and know what’s good for you. I’m not him, but I rooted for him when he was down and out. And I watched him come back. The guts and the stamina and some kind of integrity. Same with Marlon Brando. We would all have loved to be Marlon Brando, right? So, in my work I’ve been trying to mirror various sensibilities. I didn’t have a master plan and I honestly did not plan this. It’s been instinct and gut and love and passion and honesty.”
Born in New York on Oct. 19, 1939, he grew up as Ralph Lifshitz, the son of Belarusian Jewish immigrants who fled Eastern Europe to escape the approaching terror. Realizing that “Lauren” would be a far more marketable alter ego, he changed his name at age 19, just as he was setting out into the business world. In a recent interview with Jane Pauley on CBS’s Sunday Morning, he explains that “in the world I was growing up, the word ‘s***’ was a tough word. It was in my name. So, that name change was not about being Jewish or not Jewish or being something else.”
Trying to work his way up the ladder in the garment industry in the early ’60s, Lauren scored his first marketing/design triumph when he launched his brand of Polo ties. He decided to start his own business in spite of being told by his boss that, “Ralph, no one’s gonna wear them. The world is not ready for Ralph Lauren.” Recalls Lauren: “He said it (disrespectfully), ‘Forget it, kid. You’re not gonna do anything.’”
But Lauren was convinced that his distinctive Polo tie brand would find a niche. And it did. The tie collection was a massive success, and that gave him the financial means to launch a menswear line: “I made shirts to go with the ties. And then I made suits. And they were different, and they were high quality.”
Over the course of the next several decades, Ralph Lauren evolved into a self-styled clothing brand that quickly became part of the fashion landscape. Though his business would suffer the occasional market dip, he relied on his intuitive sense of the market to grow his American empire and expand into Europe and beyond. One of the keys to his success was his steadfast refusal to allow any big retailer to cannibalize his brand.
“I never did focus groups,” he tells Town & Country magazine. “I went and did the things I loved to do. It was instinctual, and very passionate. When I started out, my goal was to express myself. I designed these ties and then went around in my bomber jacket and jeans. Bloomingdale’s said they liked them, but they wanted me to make them narrower and put a Bloomingdale’s label in them, and I said I couldn’t do that. Six months later they came back to me and said, ‘OK, we’ll give you your own rack, and (your clothes) can carry your own label,’” says Lauren.
“And after that I started doing shirts and went on from there. It wasn’t about fashion; it was about what I wanted. And then, all of a sudden, I realized I was building a world, telling a story about the things that I loved.”
That kind of understated country club chic has held firm ever since. With its signature emblem of the polo pony and rider with raised mallet, first emblazoned on shirts in 1971, the Ralph Lauren Polo brand has become one of the most dominant looks in the history of fashion. In addition, Lauren has launched other concepts that reference other elements of American culture: the cowboy look of the Old West, Native American style, art deco Hollywood Golden Age and some ’50s jet-setting glamour. It’s all part of Lauren’s ability to inspire consumers with a distinctive mythology that imparts class and cultivation.
“I DIDN’T HAVE A MASTER PLAN AND I HONESTLY DID NOT PLAN THIS. IT’S BEEN INSTINCT AND GUT AND LOVE AND PASSION AND HONESTY”
Says Lauren: “I’ve said this for years — there are too many clothes, too many designers … What’s the point? My thing was always about individuality, and about creating a world — because you don’t just wear clothes, you live a life, you have style, you project who you are,” adding, “When you put on something that you really like, you feel like you are that person or the person you want to be.”
In other words, Lauren’s fashion philosophy, although he would deny he has one, at least in the pure sense, is that one dresses the way one wants to project oneself as being. And rather than let the market dictate to him, he has consistently let his taste cultivate a loyal consumer following.
He adds: “I just had a feeling for what I wanted. It’s the same as the clothes. It feels the same. Now, you’ve got to keep it going, you’ve got to keep the food good, you’ve got to keep the clientele happy, you’ve got to do the things that maintain a business and keep it going. You’ve got to service it; you’ve got to live with it; you’ve got to build a brand; you’ve got to get people in; you’ve got to get the right people that understand it. So, everything is a culture — building the culture and understanding the culture. But it’s through understanding and [the] joy of what you want to say, not because of the market.”
This year offered a memorable chance to look back on the Lauren legacy, with the 50th anniversary celebration of the brand taking place at one of New York’s most well-known landmarks — Bethesda Terrace in Central Park — in September. Attended by celebs and fashionistas, including Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West and Calvin Klein, the moonlit show featured the typical balance of grit, grace and Americana that has formed the foundations of the brand’s style. Accompanied by an original RL50 collection and showcasing some of the supermodels who have worked as the face of the brand — from Carolyn Murphy to Gigi Hadid — the show also saw children take to the catwalk decked out in Lauren’s pieces, a testament to the brand’s bright future, as well as its enduring success.
“I wanted to create and share a runway experience that was deeply personal and a summation of the style I’ve always believed in: personal, authentic and forever, in a place so quintessentially New York and so special to me — Central Park,” Lauren writes in a statement about the universally acclaimed celebratory show.
The 50th anniversary show is not Lauren’s only milestone this year. Turning 80 in October, Lauren is known for never giving in to the kind of prima donna-ish posturing that most fashion greats display: no baby-powdered wigs and fans, no orgies in decadent palazzos or island retreats — or the temptation to indulge in ostentatious runway shows or affairs with supermodels.
His one true vice remains his passion for classic cars. Concealed within an inconspicuous building in Westchester, N.Y., Lauren’s collection is rumoured to be one of the most expensive ever assembled on Earth, containing some of the rarest examples of automotive engineering ever crafted by human hands, worth at least $300 million. Revered antiques such as the 1929 Bentley 4.5-Litre “Blower,” which participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1930, 1932 and 1933, and a 1955 Jaguar XKD Long-Nose, one of only 10 ever made, huddle next to modern motoring landmarks such as the Bugatti Veyron and the Ferrari LaFerrari — the brand’s first-ever hybrid sports car.
The real gem of the collection, however, remains the Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic. Built in 1938, with a 3.3-L supercharged engine, this car is one of only two in existence today — and only four were ever built by the Italian auto manufacturer. That car won Best in Show at the 1990 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and the 2012 Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este — two of the world’s most renowned car shows — and has been given a potential price tag, should Lauren ever sell, in excess of $50 million.
Such is Lauren’s standing in the world of automobile collecting, the Louvre even went so far as to exhibit 17 of his cars in a stand-alone exhibit in 2011, and elements of the collection turn up in Ralph Lauren adverts from time to time.
That particular motoring indulgence aside, the man has stuck to the principles that are embedded in his clothes and continues to live a good life as a husband and father. Married since 1964, Ralph and Ricky (née Low-Beer) have raised three children — Andrew, David and Dylan — who have often figured in Polo marketing campaigns. They maintain various residences, including a Fifth Avenue penthouse in Manhattan, N.Y., a sprawling seaside house in Montauk, N.Y., another estate in Bedford and their coveted ranch in Colorado, a 20,000-acre expanse that has been Ralph and Ricky’s home away from home for more than three decades. “This is where Ricky and I fell in love with the west. This is a really romantic, beautiful location,” says Lauren.
Their son David, 47, now serves as chief innovation officer and vice-chairman of Ralph Lauren Corporation under the direction of CEO Patrice Louvet, although Lauren himself remains an active force in the company’s overall direction and continues to serve as chairman and chief creative officer. He delights in the comfort that comes from having defined his legacy on his own terms.
“The pleasure is owning your brand. I started it, I built it and I brought it public,” declares Lauren. “It’s a brand that’s going strong, and I feel it’s mine. I mean, I own a good share of it, so I don’t want to be one thing or another. I am who I am, and it’s a personal thing,” he says.
“I think if you look at brands and companies — those that are consistent, that have a point of view — they’re the ones that have longevity. If you jump all around, it’s a pot-luck game. I like things that go on, that are classic and built to last, but that doesn’t mean you should stop developing. I try to make things that are creative and stimulating, but not lose my identity.”