Ralph Lauren – both the man and the brand – is the true rags-to-riches American Dream fable. Literally starting out with rags that were then made into ties, we profile the quintessential American brand now that Mr. Lauren has stepped down after 48 years in our latest #HSTBT.
The story of the Jewish kid from the Bronx who repackaged and sold the American Dream back to America is no stranger to these pages. Yet with the news of Ralph Lauren’s departure as CEO of his multi-billion dollar eponymous fashion house Tuesday, we thought the time appropriate to take a look back on his career and inspiring rags-to-riches story with a brief history of the man himself.
Aspiration has never been far from the brand with the embroidered pony. For 48 years, Lauren was the continual creative force behind the fashion house he started, literally, “out of a drawer” in a cramped space in the Empire State Building. His distinct idea of preppy, aspirational Americana is so strong an aesthetic that the ‘New England look’ has defined and solidified itself as a key pillar of American fashion.
Born an “insecure kid” to Ashkenazi Jews from the Soviet Union (Belarus), Ralph Lauren’s (née Lifshitz) first forays into fashion and business began at DeWitt Clinton High School. In the evenings he’d work at Alexander’s – a now defunct chain of stores around NYC – but during the day would upsell handmade ties to fellow students with a $7-10 markup. Following high school and two years in the U.S. Army reserves, Lauren took evening classes at Brooklyn’s Baruch College (where he also repeated his enterprising tie-selling business to fellow students) before becoming a neckwear salesmen at Brooks Brothers.
Soon after, Lauren began looking into designing and making his own neckwear, with Brook Brothers Ivy League aesthetic becoming a key influence in his designs. It was here, while stepping out of the store and running into 1930s film star Douglas Fairbanks Jr. sporting his double-breasted suit with spread-collar shirt – completely contrasting with the “cookie-cutter clothes” (button-down shirts, thin ties) of mid-60s Manhattan – that the Lauren look became solidified in the designer’s head. Brooks Brothers refused Lauren the time to work on his own designs, however, forcing him to approach several other manufacturers before eventually landing at upscale New York neckwear boutique, Beau Brummell. Here, he created and sold pieces direct from their Empire State Building showroom – with Lauren essentially working out of a drawer in 1967.
At this point married and with three children, 1967 also marks the year in which the Ralph Lauren brand was born. Despite polo being synonymous with his fashion house and name, the man had never so much as stepped foot on a polo field. “My symbol was always a polo player because I liked sports,” he once told Oprah in an interview, “and polo has a stylishness to it.”
With Beau Brummell behind him, he quickly began to expand, presenting his designs to various department stores across Manhattan. However, when he approached Bloomingdale’s, he initially declined their offer as it would have meant reducing his characteristic wider “European” tie width, and replacing his name with that of Bloomingdale’s in-house: Sutton East. He refused, taking his business to other stores. Six months later, Bloomingdale’s placed an order for an entire rack and case of his ties.
By 1972, two years after launching his own full fashion line (and receiving the Coty Award for it) and a year after his first collection for women, Lauren introduced the world to the short-sleeved collared sport shirt featuring his embroidered polo pony on the chest – quickly being dubbed the Polo Shirt for short. The next three decades saw the brand expand internationally and diversify its range, launching colognes, denim lines and luxury labels.
However, in terms of streetwear iconography, the rise of hip-hop between the ’80s and ’90s coincided with the release of two of the label’s most recognizable motifs. In 1989, the first sweater emblazoned with the American flag hit the shelves. At roughly the same time, Lauren received a Steiff teddy bear as a birthday gift wearing a teddy-bear-size Polo getup. Soon after, he placed an order with Steiff and his stores began stocking the bear. Lauren then began sticking the motif across his knitwear and sweater designs in 1991.
Today, with its business still headquartered in New York, Ralph Lauren employs over 10,000 people, with 388 stores internationally and $2.02 billion annual revenue. However, for such a cornerstone of American fashion, the man uses the term reluctantly: “I’ve never wanted to be in fashion. Because if you’re in fashion, you’re going to be out of fashion.”
For more Ralph Lauren, read why we think Polo Ralph Lauren is one of the greatest streetwear brands in the world.