Born: Ralph Lifschitz, Bronx, New York, 14 October 1939. Education: Studied business science, City College of New York, late 1950s. Military Service: Served in the U.S. Army, 1962-64. Family: Married Ricky Low-Beer, circa 1964; children: Andrew, David, Dylan. Career: Part-time sales assistant, Alexanders Stores, New York, 1956-57; assistant menswear buyer, Allied Stores, New York, 1958-61; salesperson, Bloomingdale's and Brooks Brothers, New York, 1962; traveling salesperson in New England for A. Rivetz, neckwear manufacturer, Boston, circa 1964-66; designer, Polo Neckwear Division, Beau Brummel, New York, 1967; founder/designer and chairman, Polo Fashions, New York, from 1968; Ralph Lauren Womenswear, from 1971; Polo Leather Goods, from 1979; Polo/Ralph Lauren Luggage, from 1982; Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., from 1986; introduced diffusion line, Chaps, 1972; introduced Ralph, Double RL, and Polo Sport lines, 1993; established Polo/Ralph Lauren stores in Beverly Hills, 1971, Lawrence, MA, 1983, Paris, 1986, flagship store in New York, 1986, Costa Mesa, CA, 1987, East Hampton, NY, 1989; Polo Sport, New York, 1993; launched fragrances Polo and Lauren, 1978, Chaps and Tuxedo, 1979, Safari, 1990, Polo Crest, 1991; new line of contemporary casualwear launched by Polo Jeans Co., 1996; offered collection of 400 colors of house paint, 1996; Polo Ralph Lauren became a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE: RL), 1997; introduced Polo Sport RLX line, 1998; opened RL restaurant, Chicago, 1999; introduced RALPH line, 1999; acquired Canadian-based Club Monaco, 1999; launched Pink Pony Campaign to help reduce disparities in cancer care, 2000; established Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Prevention and Care at North General Hospital in Harlem, 2000; Ralph Lauren Media opened Polo.com, 2000. Exhibitions: Retrospective, Denver Art Museum, 1983. Collections: Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1970, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1981, 1984; Neiman Marcus distinguished service award, 1971; American Printed Fabrics Council "Tommy" award, 1977; Council of Fashion Designers of America award, 1981; Coty Hall of Fame award, 1981; Retailer of the Year award, 1986, 1992; Museum of American Folk Art Pioneering Excellence award, 1988; Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement award, 1992; Woolmark award, 1992; CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year, 1996; Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Brandeis University, 1996; Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research Humanitarian award presented by Diana, Princess of Wales, 1996; CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year, 1997; CFDA award for humanitarian leadership, 1998; inducted into the Fashion Walk of Fame, 2000. Address: 650 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022, USA. Website: www.Polo.com.
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Style, as opposed to fashion, is the major imperative underlying Ralph Lauren's work. Initially a designer of the high-quality ties that started the Polo label, Lauren soon directed his talents to menswear. Inspired by such notable dressers as the Duke of Windsor, Cary Grant, and Fred Astaire, he began to produce classic lines derivative of the elegant man about town or the country squire of a bygone age. A love of the fashions of the F. Scott Fitzgerald era led him to introduce wide neckties and bold shirt patterns. In 1974 Lauren achieved world acclaim as the designer of the men's fashions in the film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby.
When he turned to womenswear, Lauren applied the same qualities of timeless elegance to his designs. By using uniformly high-quality tweeds, tailoring down men's trousers and jackets, and producing shirts in finer cottons, Lauren created clothes for the active woman of the 1970s, as epitomized in the Annie Hall look. These classic, tailored garments have changed little since they were first introduced but continue to epitomize long-lasting quality and style.
Another side of Lauren is seen in his Roughwear clothing. Directly inspired by the tradition of America's past, Roughwear takes the form of long tweed or plain skirts combined with colorful, hand-knitted, Fair Isle or sampler sweaters, tartan scarves, trilby hats, and lumber-jack's wind cheaters and brushed cotton shirts. The origins are easy to trace, but the result is an updated, truly American style. Romantic touches of Edwardian and Victorian times occur in lace-trimmed jabots and large collars delicately held together with aging cameo brooches. Shades of the classic English riding costume appear in his tailored tweed jackets. Lauren's contribution to fashion can perhaps best be summed up on the names that he gave to his cosmetics introduced in 1981: Day, Night, and Active.
In the 1990s, Lauren continued to tune into contemporary life. The Double RL label featured new, high-quality clothes that looked old as a response to the craze for the vintage and second-hand. For increasingly fitness-conscious women, he produced informal clothes with a strong fashion input. To appeal to the youthful interests of younger customers, Polo Jeans launched a line of contemporary casualwear in 1996. Two years later, Lauren's trademark aesthetic sensibility and superior craftsmanship was applied to the Polo Sport RLX line of high-performance athletic apparel.
As the new millennium approached, the Ralph Lauren Company began moving from Ivy League to pop culture by acquiring Canadian-based Club Monaco, marketing contemporary apparel, home furnishings, accessories, and cosmetics for the hip, urban crowd. In 2000, Ralph Lauren Media launched the Polo.com website, offering "comprehensive online access to the Ralph Lauren American lifestyle with clothing, accessories, fragrances, vintage items, travel, style tips, multimedia information and entertainment, world-class customer service and more." With son David Lauren as creative director, Polo.com aimed to "spread the upper-crust Ralph Lauren image to a new generation of shoppers," wrote Phyllis Furman in a February 2000 article in the Daily News.
Still, Lauren's womenswear for fall 2001 came full circle, offering the classic styling of equestrian looks from the country estate such as hacking jackets, taupe and ebony pants with suede knee patches, sleek crocodile belts with thoroughbred buckles, and riding boots with oilcloth spats. For the menswear spring 2001 collection, the timeless Polo line was updated with slim polo shirts and lime green, Nantucket red, and hot orange fuchsia-front trousers. The more dressed up Purple Line offered suits with sculpted waists and soft natural shoulders, paired with striped ties, creating the classic Lauren look.
Lauren's skill and experience has enabled him to design for women and men, their children, and their homes. As a native New Yorker, Lauren has promoted a truly American casual style in his prairie look while developing classic, uncluttered lines that have brought him international fame. Along with colleagues Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, and six other designers, Lauren earned a white bronze and granite marker along the Fashion Walk of Fame in New York City. This worldwide notoriety will also be the subject of a new biography of Lauren, the story, according to a March 2000 article in Publishers Weekly, of "a poor Russian Jewish immigrant boy who began in Seventh Avenue fashion house stock rooms and became a billionaire."
For Ralph Lauren, fashion is something that lasts for more than one season. It is this timelessness, abetted by inspirations deep in the soil of America's past, that distinguishes his work and won him a Lifetime Achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1992.
updated by Jodi Essey-Stapleton
(b. 14 October 1939 in New York City), designer who pioneered "lifestyle" fashion beginning in the late 1960s as well as the first designer to package, license, and control his own brand of clothes (Polo) in his own chain of stores.
Lauren, born Ralph Lifshitz, is the youngest of four children of Frank, a housepainter and muralist, and Frieda Lifshitz, a housewife. His Russian immigrant family lived in the Mosholu Parkway section of the Bronx, a lower-middle-class area of New York City. He attended Public School (P.S.) 80 and later designed the school's logo. In his spare time he played baseball and said that he wanted to be a professional athlete. When not playing sports Lauren watched Hollywood movies, idolizing Cary Grant and Fred Astaire because of their elegant style and grace. "I was always interested in the look of Cary Grant and Fred Astaire," Lauren once commented. "They were my inspiration." So, too, was the dapper elegance of the Duke of Windsor. While his friends listened to Elvis Presley, Lauren preferred Frank Sinatra. Lauren later translated the easy elegance and uncomplicated effortlessness of his idols into his own confected empire of lifestyle merchandizing.
Unlike many fashion designers, Lauren did not sketch clothes as a child or go to fashion school. He was, however, a dandy. "From the time I was twelve years old I looked cool," he once said. "Whatever I had on, other kids would say, 'Hey, where'd you get that?'" He attended the Boy's Talmudical Academy in 1953 and then DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, from which he graduated in 1957. During this period he also worked part-time as a stock boy at the customer return counter of Alexander's, a department store in Manhattan. Apparently, he spent most of his paycheck on clothes. While his motorcycle buddies wore leather jackets at school dances, Lauren wore buttoned-down shirts with tennis sweaters. In 1955 he and his two brothers legally changed their family name to Lauren.
Lauren stayed on at Alexander's after graduating from high school in 1957 and became a full-time salesperson. At night he took business courses for two years at the City College of New York, but he found the classes boring. After serving in the U.S. Army Reserves for six months, he worked as a salesperson at the fashionable menswear store Brooks Brothers (1962) as well as working as an assistant buyer for Allied Stores (1963), but he was determined to break into designing. Lauren applied as a designer to Brooks Brothers and to other manufacturers of menswear, only to be turned down. "I had no portfolio and no sketches," he once commented. "All I had was taste." Indeed, he loved the collegiate look of the New England old money heritage, which he later assimilated, packaged, and licensed. Lauren was inspired most by Brooks Brothers' merchandise and its merchandizing. He once said that his first suit was bought at Brooks Brothers: "I was as Brooksy as you can get." In an interview he described his admiration for the company and his mission to keep the fashion flame alive: "Brooks Brothers was the foundation, and I revived it." What impressed him was the image of the Brooks Brothers brand and the confidence of customers in the quality of the clothes. Affluent men would simply enter a Brooks Brothers' store and ask for so many shirts in so many colors. "They'd do it every year," Lauren commented. "I recognized a certain mentality and security about them." Lauren realized that men's sense of fashion was formed by default, not by trends. If he did not understand the mechanics of constructing fashion, it did not stop him, because he knew that men wanted reliability and taste above all else.
In 1964 he worked in sales for Abe Rivertz and Co., a Boston tie maker that sold its products to New York stores like Brooks Brothers. On 30 December 1964 he married Ricky Low Beer, a receptionist; they have three children. Hoping to branch out, Lauren asked his company's president if he could design its ties, a puzzling question during the early 1960s. The tie business was highly conservative, and its manufacturing firms took weeks to decide on changes of patterns or widths. If a tie width did change, it would be only in eighths of an inch. Moreover, tie fabric suppliers decided on fabric, pattern, and width, whereas the manufacturers determined minimal color changes. For four years Lauren was permitted to make "design" choices of color changes, while continuing in sales and discussing the detailing of men's shirts and jackets with professional tailors. He also spent time looking for a financial backer for his interest in making wide, elegant ties reminiscent of those worn during the 1940s.
In 1967 Lauren began working for Beau Brummell Ties, Inc. In his spare time he continued to design ties, now with unusual fabrics and with widths measuring four to five inches instead of the standard three inches. Wide ties had been introduced in London a few years earlier, with bright colors and bold Carnaby Street patterns (named after a fashion mecca in London); Lauren's designs were also wide but had conservative Ivy League patterns. Moreover, Bill Blass, who entered menswear in 1967, was introducing brightly colored shirts and boldly patterned jackets. Lauren presented models of his new ties to Beau Brummell, whose executives understood that conservative menswear was undergoing a revolution. The company decided to make a limited test run of Lauren's designs, and several were manufactured and sold well at small specialty stores and then at chic department stores like Bloomingdale's. Lauren's designs also sold at double the price of standard ties ($3.50), and the labels significantly proclaimed, "designed by Ralph Lauren."
In 1968 Lauren finally secured a loan from Norman Hilton, a clothing company executive. With that loan Lauren began Polo Fashions. It was first a division of Beau Brummell Ties and then, later that year, became a separate company. The Polo brand label, a mallet-wielding rider astride a galloping horse, suggested sporty, affluent taste. Lauren wanted to build his business quickly, and he hired Michael Cifarelli, a leading conservative pattern maker and designer. Later that year Polo brought out shirts with larger collars to accommodate the wider ties. Suit jackets with wider lapels appeared in 1969. Cifarelli originally cut patterns with regular square shoulders, but Lauren insisted that the shoulders should be "unconstructed" soft shoulders that were rounder and softer and with a longer lapel and high pockets, as well as a minimum of fabric stiffening. Designed for lawyers and stockbrokers of what Lauren called the "New Establishment," this construction provided comfort and a more natural look and feel. His evening suit designs also included what Lauren called a "Churchill" suit, which was a battle jacket style to be worn with a scarf instead of a tie. An "informal formal" dinner suit included red and black checkered pants, and a "walking" suit was a navy blue mid-length jacket with navy pants. Other Polo men's products for 1969 included belts, boots, scarves, and a portfolio briefcase to replace the traditional attaché case.
Lauren then persuaded Bloomingdale's to include a Polo boutique in its men's department. Lauren's line was, in reality, a grouping of varied lines of ties, shirts, and jackets that were orchestrated to define an Ivy League look that surpassed Brooks Brothers. Lauren had created lifestyle marketing, in which garments for sportswear or evening-wear were sold together. His precedent-setting work won the 1970 Coty Menswear Award. Lauren has won seven COTY Awards in all, more than any other designer, and he was inducted into the COTY Hall of Fame in 1986. He launched a line of women's clothing in 1971, and sales skyrocketed after they were featured by the actress Diane Keaton in Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall (1977). Lauren opened his first independent retail outlet in 1971 on the trendy Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills, California. By 1997 his company had more than 100 stores, 1,300 boutiques in department stores, and annual sales in excess of $5 billion.
Lauren has shown customers how to look, dress, and live well by using himself and his wife as models. He pioneered "lifestyle" merchandising in clothes and later in household products. During the 1970s he was the first fashion designer to have his own chain of stores, and he was the first American designer to capitalize on the value of myth and folklore in fashion. By packaging, licensing, and controlling the image of Polo, he appropriated the American Ivy League image and sold it internationally.
A biography of Lauren is Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, Ralph Lauren: The Man Behind the Mystique (1988). Biographical information is also in Ann Stegemeyer, Fairchild's Who's Who in Fashion (1980); Georgina O'Hara, The Encyclopedia of Fashion from 1840 to the 1980s (1986); and Anne Canadeo, Ralph Lauren: Master of Fashion (1992). See also Barbaralee Diamonstein, Fashion: The Inside Story (1985). Articles about Lauren and fashion are "Ralph Lauren: Success American Style," Vogue (Aug. 1982); "Selling a Dream of Elegance and the Good Life," Time (1 Sept. 1986); "Ralph Lauren, Suiting Himself," Washington Post (24 May 1992); and "Ralph Lauren: The Emperor Has Clothes," Fortune (11 Nov. 1996).
Patrick S. Smith
Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation
Over his 30-year career, Ralph Lauren has created one of the premier fashion designer labels. His operations encompass not only clothing but also furniture, linens, rugs, paints, and dinnerware in his traditional, classic style.
Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Lifschitz on October 14, 1939, in New York City. Raised in a middle class area of the Bronx, he became known early on as a dreamer, and often expressed his desire to become a successful entrepreneur. While working in New York City clothing stores as a buyer and salesman in the late 1950s, he studied business science at the City College of New York. During the early 1960s, Lauren worked as a fashion designer. In 1964, he married Ricky Low-Beer with whom he had three children: Andrew, David and Dylan. He formed his own company in 1968.
Ralph Lauren is an intensely private man who shuns the public spotlight. Although his life revolves around work and family, one of his favorite hobbies is restoring and collecting classic automobiles. Married now for over 30 years, he and his wife, Ricky, enjoy weekends and vacations at their homes in Colorado, New York, and Jamaica.
At the age of 17, Lauren was working as a part-time sales assistant for Alexander's Stores in New York City. Beginning in 1958, he worked for three years as an assistant menswear buyer at Allied Stores. In the following years he held salesman positions for Bloomingdale's, Brooks Brothers, and the A. Rivetz neckwear company. From 1962 to 1964, he served in the United States Army. Having the advantage of a strong retailing background, Lauren joined the neckwear division of Beau Brummel as a designer in 1964. Although now known for a more conservative style, his early designs were wide, flamboyant ties.
In 1968, Lauren founded Polo Fashions, introducing a men's clothing line that established his distinctive mix of classic English and traditional American styles. The Polo logo—a mounted polo player—suggested aristocratic outdoorsiness. He introduced his first women's collection three years later. The women's line developed into four lifestyle groups: collection, classics, country, and active. He came out with Polo Eyeware in 1974, and boyswear in 1978. That same year, he offered fragrances, Polo for men and Lauren for women. In the early 1980s, he introduced a girls clothing line, footwear, and home collection. Since then the Ralph Lauren label has been extended to accesories, hosiery, sleepwear, leather goods, and luggage.
Ralph Lauren opened his first retail store in 1971 on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California. By 1997, the company maintained 116 freestanding Polo Ralph Lauren stores and 62 outlet stores in the United States. This was in addition to 1,300 boutiques that were housed in department stores. The firm also operates stores in London, Paris, and Shanghai. By the late 1990s, Lauren was the best-selling designer in the world. His Polo Ralph Lauren Company had annual sales of over $5 billion a year.
Attention to detail is the cornerstone of Lauren's managerial success. He painstakingly checks product quality and maintains tight control over marketing the brand image. This is evident through the establishment of over 25 lucrative licensing contracts, as well as the creation of new brands such as Polo Sport, a more moderately priced collection targeted to a younger audience. Two major new ventures in 1995 resulted in the company's entry into the competitive mass market of blue jeans and a women's bridge line. Lauren's Home Collection is also an important revenue producer with about $535 million in worldwide sales during 1996. This is greater than similar operations of any other retailer. The collection was expanded in 1996 with paints, tools, and instruction videos to create four living environments: Thoroughbred, Country, Santa Fe, and Safari. The fragrance line has also been extended into over 100 skin color and treatment products. The once privately-held Lauren company had long been eyed by Wall Street for its continuing success and unrivaled sales volume until 1997 when it made its first Initial Public Offering. The stock had held its value and fared far better than other fashion companies in the past.
Lauren's work, in both the fashion and the film industry has generated critical acclaim. He created the distinctive costumes in Annie Hall and the The Great Gatsby, and has been regularly lauded by his fellow designers. Lauren has received the industry's COTY award seven times and was inducted into the COTY Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1992, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of American Fashion Designers. The same organization elected him Designer of the Year in 1996. The Woolmark Tribute Award for influence on American style was presented to Lauren for his 25-years of impact on American style. Furthermore, Lauren was the first designer to appear in his own advertisements, his own silvered good looks lending to the upscale image. His early focus on creating brand image rather than paying overriding attention to individual garments is common practice in the industry today.
Social and Economic Impact
Woody Hochswender, editor of Esquire magazine, describes Lauren as "a great interpreter of American traditions," and says that he "shapes these traditions in an ongoing way." The Polo logo is synonymous around the world with a luxurious lifestyle. To this end, some note the company sells a dream rather than innovative designs. In fact, Ralph Lauren himself has said "I style like I am telling a story."
Ralph Lauren describes the enduring appeal of his clothing by stating: "My clothing is anti-fashion. I design with the point of view that what I'm doing is for a person with a strong sense of style, I don't want anything I do to be this year's 'hot look. "I like things that will age — that will look better next year. I believe that fashion is a function of lifestyle. I believe in clothes that are as easy and nonchalant as a pair of jeans, that mix well, and that don't go out of style tomorrow."
Chronology: Ralph Lauren
1967: Founded Polo Fashions.
1971: Established Ralph Lauren Womenswear.
1971: Opened first Polo/Ralph Lauren store in Beverly Hills.
1981: Received Coty Hall of Fame Award.
1983: Introduced extensive home collection.
1986: Opened New York City flagship store in former Rhinelander mansion.
1992: Received Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement Award.
1997: Reached worldwide sales of $5 billion.
Lauren's success is also a result of his management style. Pamela Fiori commented, "What struck me is how respectful Lauren is of those who work for him. He doesn't condescend. He doesn't lose his cool. Even when he doesn't like something, he says it gently. And when he fails to understand, he will ask 'why?' or 'why now?' or 'what is that I'm not getting?" Lauren also admits that he enjoys his role as a leader: "I feel it is my responsibility to get the best out of people, to give them chances to do what they never imagined they could do in their careers. It gives me tremendous pleasure to watch them grow. It is also important for me to work with good, talented, nice people whom I truly like."
Sources of Information
Contact at: Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation
650 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10022
Business Phone: (212)318-7000
Bondi, Victor, ed. American Decades 1970-1979. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
Byers, Paula K., and Suzanne M. Bourgoin, eds. Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998
Fiori, Pamela. "Life Is But A Dream." Town & Country Monthly, December 1996.
Martin, Richard, ed. Contemporary Fashion. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
Pendergast, Sara, ed. Contemporary Designers. Detroit: St. James Press, 1997.
Born Ralph Lipschitz in 1939, the name of American designer Ralph Lauren became synonymous with status, class, and taste.
More than a fashion designer, Ralph Lauren was the master marketer of elegant living. In addition to clothing, he ventured into home decorating products such as furniture, bedding, drapes, towels, rugs, china, silverware, and even potpourri.
Born in the Bronx, New York City in 1939, Lauren grew up in a working-class neighborhood. Although he did not receive formal design training, he was royally steeped in fashion retailing, having worked for New York department stores in his youth. While selling ties at Brooks Brothers, he studied business at night school. It may well have been during his sales stint at Brooks Brothers, the conservative stylish menswear store, that Lauren met the "muse of tradition" which would earn him a formidable position in fashion history.
The Old Money Look
Oddly, Lauren's initial entry into fashion was designing napkin-wide Beau Brummel neckwear in 1967. At the time narrow dark ties were the norm, but he successfully shattered that tradition with colorful, opulent trendy ties. The next year he launched a menswear line, Polo, offering styles that were refined, a mix of English classic and traditional American, and conveyed the image of landed gentry to a society that had little use for class, but enormous use for money.
In 1971 Lauren introduced his women's line, which developed into four lifestyle groups: collection, classics, country, and active. Eyewear was launched in 1974, boyswear and the fragrances Polo for men and Lauren for women in 1978. Girls' clothing was introduced in 1981; footwear followed in 1982; an extensive home collection in 1983; then came scarves, hosiery, sleepwear, leather goods, luggage, jewelry, and finally his Safari fragrance in 1990.
His costuming for the films The Great Gatsby (1973) and Annie Hall (1978) influenced the way millions dressed. Modestly describing his work, Lauren stated: "I believe in clothes that last, that are not dated in a season. The people who wear my clothes don't think of them as fashion." Lauren's vision was to represent timeless American style with a dash of British elegance and the comfort of natural fibers.
From Fashion to Lifestyle
Woody Hochswender, editor of Esquire magazine, said, "Ralph is a great interpreter of American traditions and he shapes these traditions in an ongoing way." Some critics said that Lauren sold a high-priced lifestyle dream more than innovative designs. There is no question that his to-the-manor-born clothing, accessories, and home furnishings endow the owner with a sense of good taste. His advertising drove the message by focusing on the concept, rather than a single item; and his marketing and merchandising translated the vision at retail. It was a winning combination that had a tremendous impact on the way the world dressed and lived in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Haysun Hahn of Promostyl, an international fashion forecasting agency, said that "It's costuming, it's not real. He's influenced by romantic Americana and he taps into our fantasy and makes us believe it applies to everyday life." But apparently, consumers want to believe in Lauren. His formidable fashion formula was the most successful in fashion retailing, garnering a multitude of honors from his peers. He had seven COTY Awards and was inducted into the COTY Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1992 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of American Fashion Designers, and a tribute for 25 years of impact on American style from the Woolmark Awards. The Council of Fashion Designers later elected him Designer of the Year in 1996. Alan Millstein of the Fashion Network Report said, "Lauren is the only 7th Avenue high roller who has a successful chain of retail stores. He's the billion-dollar baby."
A Merchandising Genius
In 1971 Lauren opened his first retail store on Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, California, building toward a total of 116 Polo-Ralph Lauren freestanding stores in the United States, plus one in London, Paris, and Shanghai, as well as 1,300 boutiques in department stores. Company-owned outlet stores selling overruns and outdated merchandise at discounted prices followed in the early 1980s, and by the mid-1990s included 62 stores. In 1986 he made fashion retailing history with an expansive megastore housed in the huge, elegant, former Rhinelander Mansion in New York. A tour de force of his concept of dreams and designs, the store is a stunning showcase for Lauren's lifestyle marketing philosophy. John Fairchild, chairman of Women's Wear Daily, called it "The best boutique in America, probably the world." Consumers worldwide responded to the magic— spending over $5 billion a year by 1997 to have the Lauren Look—making him the best-selling designer in the world.
Lauren exemplified the image he projected, and was often featured with his family in magazines chronicling lives of the rich and famous. He was the first designer to market a lifestyle, and also the first to appear in his own advertising.
His womenswear fashion previews held each spring and fall in New York were the predictable hits of the designer collection week as he managed to tastefully interpret trends with an undisputable flair for understanding that his customers wanted to look fashionable without looking like fashion victims. For inspiration, he sometimes based collections on themes such as African safaris, Indian princesses, rugged westwear, bohemians in Paris, or Russian revolutionaries. His mix of tweeds, velvets, chiffon, and silks exuded a nonchalant elegance.
An Empire Poised for Growth
One of the secrets of Lauren's success lay in his obsession with detail, always checking product quality and maintaining tight control over the brand image he crafted so carefully. This enabled him to leverage the Polo/Ralph Lauren brand with over 25 lucrative licensing contracts, as well as introduce sub-brands such as Polo Sport (in 1994) targeted to a younger, more active adult. Experts predicted that what began as a fragrance line would grow to include well over 100 skin color and treatment products, new cross-merchandising opportunities, as well as new retail distribution. In fact, in 1996 a new Polo Sport store featuring active wear opened in Manhattan across from Polo's flagship store.
In addition to its top-of-the-line men's and women's clothing still manufactured by Polo/Ralph Lauren, licensed products are an important source of revenue. Two major new ventures began in 1995 taking the brand into the highly competitive blue jean and mass market women's clothing categories. Both took the Lauren name to a new customer at lower price points, and were instant hits. Growth was not relegated to fashion and fragrance, however. In 1996, Lauren's Home Collection contributed about $535 million in sales worldwide—more than any other designer's. Paints were launched the same year, along with instruction videos and all the tools needed to create the living environment of ones choice—Thoroughbred, Country, Santa Fe, Safari, and Sport. By 1997 investment bankers were vying for the opportunity to help Lauren take the company public; however, the success and staying power of Lauren's empire has not been lost on Wall Street
For more information on Ralph Lauren and the world of fashion see Ralph Lauren: Master of Fashion by Anne Canadeo (1992), Ralph Lauren: The Man Behind the Mystique by Jeffrey Trachtenbers (1988), the Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion (1988), McDowell's Directory of 20th Century Fashion (1987), and NY Fashion: The Evolution of American Style by Caroline Rennolds Milbank (1989). Countless magazine articles have been written, including: Fortune (November 11, 1996); Newsweek (January 8, 1996); Brandweek (June 10, 1996); Town & Country (October 1996, March 1996, January 1996); Harper's Bazaar (August 1996). □
An argument can be made that Ralph Lauren is the most successful and influential designer of his time, though he is known less for the creativity of his designs than for being an astute marketer and image maker. His fascination with style began in early childhood. He was born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx, New York, in 1939, the fourth and last child of Frank and Frieda Lifshitz, both Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. He was educated in both public schools and strict yeshivas and raised with high expectations.
Early Interest in Fashion
Even as a boy Lauren loved to dress well and was always a sartorial step ahead of his peers. He liked to try on his dapper father's jaunty hats, and he wore his older brothers' hand-me-downs with a notable sense of style. Even if his clothes were not expensive, he distinguished them with an unusual drape or combination. He knew how to tie a Shetland sweater around his shoulders just so and rolled the cuffs of his jeans in a particular and unique way. When he fantasized about being a teacher, he imagined himself wearing a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches. Ralph and his brother Jerry often went shopping together where they discovered thrift-shop clothing. The memories of those hunting expeditions still inform Lauren's collections: it was in thrift shops that he discovered the joys of rugged military clothes, the integrity of British tweed suits, the thrilling transformation that could take place when a socially backward Jewish kid donned a cowboy shirt and a pair of jeans and imagined himself at home on the range.
Once out of school he became a furnishings buyer for Allied Stores, and then (having changed his surname to Lauren) a tie salesman at Brooks Brothers. After a brief stint as a supply clerk in the U.S. Army, Lauren spent the 1960s pounding the New York pavement selling gloves, men's fragrance, and ties. More importantly, however, he was refining his personal style, designing his own custom-made suits, haunting great men's stores like Paul Stuart, and gaining inspiration from custom-made suit makers like Roland Meledandri.
Lauren grew frustrated with his conservative bosses in the tie business, since they seemed unaware of the oncoming peacock revolution in men's fashion. Secretly, he designed a line of wide ties, inspired by ones made in England by the brand Mr. Fish. He sought out a backer to finance the line and others to produce it. In 1967 he launched Polo as a division of the tie-maker Beau Brummel. Soon Bloomingdale's, then America's most cutting-edge department store, discovered Ralph Lauren. Thus began an intense and mutually advantageous relationship that still thrived in the early 2000s.
In 1968 Lauren left Beau Brummel, taking the name Polo with him, and went into business with the suit maker Norman Hilton. Lauren began expanding, first into a full range of clothing and furnishings for men, and then, in 1971, into women's fashions. Even in those early days, he displayed characteristics that defined his career: an innate understanding of branding (he embroidered his polo player logo on the cuffs of his first women's shirts, creating one of the most singular brand identities in the history of marketing); a fearless refusal to be reined in by finances or expectations; and a recklessness (doing too much too soon with insufficient capital and staff) that soon led to the first of several financial crises. Later crises were caused by Lauren's fierce—but never entirely realized—desire to be as successful in women's fashions as he was, almost immediately, in men's wear. Still, he produced iconic clothing for both sexes after those first wide ties: his famous polo and oxford shirts, khakis, perfect Shetlands, prairie skirts, Navajo blanket coats, and men's wear–inspired women's suits. Over the years, despite nagging fit and delivery problems caused by his insistence on dressing only a certain body type and an almost paralyzing uncertainty over what to include in his lines, those styles won him a grudging respect. Clothing from his collections, which appeared in two acclaimed films from the 1970s—The Great Gatsby and Annie Hall—helped promote his name.
In the late 1970s, when Lauren formed a fragrance company with Warner Communications, money began pouring in, earning him serious commercial power and financing his next and perhaps greatest innovation. In partnership with the photographer Bruce Weber, who also worked for Calvin Klein, Polo began producing extraordinary print advertisements that served as mini-movies, advertising the myriad, linked product categories Lauren produced. More significantly, they hammered home Polo's most potent product, the idea that clothes not only make the man and woman, but make them whatever they want to be, whether that is a New England patrician or a Colorado cowgirl.
In the late 1980s Lauren and his creative services department unveiled the extensive renovation and preservation project that is the Rhinelander Mansion, long one of New York's architectural treasures, and now the backdrop to Lauren's ultimate Polo retail store. It has forever redefined fashion retailing. He had become, as a biographer called him, the personification of "the commodification of status, of the democratization of symbols of the haute monde, of the perfection of luxury merchandising and the rise of 'lifestyle' marketing, and of the globalization of branding and the simultaneous Americanization of international fashion" (Gross, 2003).
Though Lauren still did not always receive the approbation of fashion editors and his peers in the fashion design world, he went on to win every award that could be bestowed on designers, as well as worldwide fame and enormous wealth. Polo grew so large that in June 1997 it became a public corporation, listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
At age sixty-five Lauren, one of the greatest businessmen-designers in fashion history, remained driven and unsatisfied, still struggling to prove himself. His attempt to reposition Polo as a premium luxury brand was a troubled one. In 2004 Polo's stock price still languished below the highs it hit the day it was first offered to the public, and investors and financiers remained skeptical not just of Polo's position in the market, but also of
its future. As head of a company heavily dependent upon his design and marketing skills, his style intuition, and his personality, Ralph Lauren showed no signs, however, of climbing off his polo pony.
Gross, Michael. Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
McDowell, Colin. Ralph Lauren: The Man, the Vision, the Style. New York: Rizzoli International, 2003.
Trachtenberg, Jeffrey A. Ralph Lauren: The Man Behind the Mystique. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988.
LAUREN, RALPH (1939– ), U.S. fashion designer. Although he was born and raised among middle-class Jewish families in the Bronx, Lauren became closely linked to two themes far removed from his urban background: patrician England and the rugged American West. His signature "looks" grew into a $10 billion global brand for apparel and accessories, fragrances and home products. Born Ralph Lifshitz, he was raised in the same neighborhood as Calvin *Klein, with whom an intense rivalry would develop. His parents, Frank and Frieda Lifshitz, were East Europeans who settled in the U.S. in 1920. Largely through the influence of his mother, whose antecedents included a long line of rabbis, his early education was a combination of the secular and religious. When he was eight, he was transferred from public school to Yeshiva Rabbi Israel Salanter, one of New York City's feeder schools to the Manhattan Talmudical Academy. Three years later, he returned to public school for two years, and then went back to Yeshiva. At 14, he entered the Talmudical Academy but transferred to a public high school a year later, ending his formal religious education. He attended City College of New York, taking business courses at night while working as an assistant buyer of men's furnishings. In 1959, he and an older brother changed their last name to Lauren because it sounded more genteel than Lifshitz and a year later he dropped out of college. By that time, the fashion esthetic that would inform his career had taken shape. He was influenced by movie stars such as Fred Astaire and Cary Grant and wore clothes that were elegant and sophisticated. He was also attracted by the mystique of the American cowboy.
Lauren was drafted into the U.S. Army Reserves in 1960. After completing his military obligation in 1963 he held a series of jobs selling gloves and ties. He married Ricky Lowbeer in 1964 while employed as a tie salesman for A. Rivetz & Co., where he began designing his own line. Lauren's ties were innovative, much wider than the prevailing versions and made in sumptuous fabrics with bold patterns. Lauren joined Beau Brummel in 1967 and soon had his own collection of ties. It was called Polo, a name that evoked an image of international glamour. The ties were spectacularly successful. In 1968, backed by a $50,000 loan, Lauren left Beau Brummel, took the Polo name with him, and opened his own business. He soon began making a complete line of men's clothing, merging classic American styling with European flair. In 1969, Polo by Ralph Lauren was established as the first designer boutique for men in Bloomingdale's in New York, the first major retailer to recognize Lauren's talent. In 1971, Lauren launched his first women's line and opened a shop in Beverly Hills, Calif., becoming the first U.S. designer with his own freestanding store. Through the 1970s, he expanded his reach into footwear and accessories, boy's wear and fragrances. In 1978, he launched his Western-wear collection and appeared in the ads for it. He pioneered the use of multipage magazine advertising, running spreads of up to 20 consecutive pages that collectively presented "the world of Ralph Lauren." His first store outside the U.S. opened in London in 1981. In 1983, the home collection was launched and in 1986, the new Lauren flagship opened in a historic remodeled mansion in Manhattan. By 2003, there were Polo Ralph Lauren stores in some 30 countries. In 1997, Polo went public. What began with 26 boxes of ties in 1967 had become a giant corporation listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Lauren himself had become a billionaire with a Fifth Avenue duplex in New York, an estate in Bedford, n.y., a beach house on Long Island, two homes in Jamaica, and a cattle ranch in Colorado. He amassed a world-class collection of antique cars.
He won his first Coty Award for men's wear in 1970, and was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame for men's wear in 1976 and women's wear in 1977. He is the first designer to have been given the Council of Fashion Designers of America's four highest honors – Lifetime Achievement, Designer of the Year in men's wear and in women's wear, and Retailer of the Year. He received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Brandeis University in 1996, the same year he was presented with the first Humanitarian Award from the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research at Georgetown University in Washington, d.c., a facility Lauren was instrumental in establishing.
Lauren's philanthropic activities have focused on cancer care and prevention, but include artistic and cultural projects related to American history. In 1998, he donated $13 million to the Smithsonian Institution to fund preservation of the American flag that inspired "The Star Spangled Banner." The beneficiaries of the Polo Ralph Lauren Foundation include the Pink Pony Fund, established by Lauren in 2000 to support cancer care and prevention in medically underserved communities. His gift to the Lexington School/Center for the Deaf in New York in 2002 enabled it to build a performing arts center and in 2003, the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention opened in the East Harlem section of New York.
M. Gross, Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren (2003); J.A. Trachtenberg, Ralph Lauren: The Man Behind the Mystique (1988).
[Mort Sheinman (2nd ed.)]
The name of American clothing designer Ralph Lauren has become associated with class and taste. In addition to clothing, he designs home decorating products such as furniture, bedding, drapes, towels, rugs, china, and silverware.
The youngest of four children, Ralph Lifshitz was born in the Bronx, New York, on October 14, 1939. His father was a house-painter. Ralph became interested in clothes when he was in seventh grade. While attending DeWitt Clinton High School in New York, he worked part-time for New York department stores, saving his money to buy clothes. He changed his name to Lauren in the mid-1950s. After graduating from high school he worked as a salesman and began studying business at night. He quit school after a few months, spent time in the army, and then looked for a job in fashion.
Creates popular fashions
In 1967 Lauren was hired by Beau Brummell Ties as a designer. His wide, colorful ties were the opposite of the narrow dark neckties common at the time; they sold well and started a new trend. Lauren started his own company and the next year launched a line of men's clothing, Polo, offering styles that were a mix of English and American styles and that expressed an image of class. Lauren's menswear was a success, and in 1971 he introduced his women's line. As the years went by he continued to branch out into children's clothes, colognes, footwear, home products, and other merchandise.
Lauren designed costumes for the films The Great Gatsby (1973) and Annie Hall (1978) that influenced the way millions dressed. Modestly describing his work, Lauren stated, "I believe in clothes that last, that are not dated in a season. The people who wear my clothes don't think of them as fashion.' Lauren's vision was to represent American style with a dash of British elegance and the comfort of natural fibers.
Lauren lived the image he projected, and he was often featured with his family in magazines devoted to lives of the rich and famous. He was also the first designer to appear in his own advertising. One of the secrets of Lauren's success lay in his attention to detail, always checking product quality and maintaining tight control over the brand image he crafted so carefully. Lauren's fashion formula earned many honors from his peers. He had seven Coty design awards and was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1992 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of American Fashion Designers and a tribute for twenty-five years of impact on American style from the Woolmark Awards. The Council of Fashion Designers later elected him Designer of the Year in 1996.
In 1971 Lauren opened his first retail store in Beverly Hills, California, building toward a total of 116 Polo-Ralph Lauren stores in the United States as well as 1,300 boutiques (small shops within department stores). In 1986 he made fashion retailing history with a large megastore housed in the elegant former Rhinelander Mansion in New York. John Fairchild, chairman of Women's Wear Daily, called it "The best boutique in America, probably the world." Consumers responded, spending over $5 billion a year by 1997 to have the Lauren look and making him the best-selling designer in the world.
Two major new ventures begun in 1995 took Lauren into the highly competitive blue jean and mass-market women's clothing categories. Both took the Lauren name to a new customer at lower prices and were instant hits. In 1996 Lauren's Home Collection contributed about $535 million in sales world-wide—more than any other designer. Paints were launched the same year, along with instruction videos and all the tools needed to create the living environment of one's choice. By 1997 investment bankers were fighting for the opportunity to help Lauren put his company on the stock market.
In 1998 Lauren announced that his company would donate $13 million to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., mainly to preserve the original American flag that inspired the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in 1812. That same year he was honored for his efforts to raise money for research into a cure for breast cancer. In 2000 the company's Web site, Polo.com, was introduced, allowing online access to all Ralph Lauren products. Lauren's charitable contributions continued with the creation of the Polo Volunteer Program and the contribution of $5 million to establish the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Prevention and Care at North General Hospital in Harlem, New York.
For More Information
Canadeo, Anne. Ralph Lauren: Master of Fashion. Ada, OK: Garrett Educational Corporation, 1992.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. NY Fashion: The Evolution of American Style. New York: Abrams, 1989.
Trachtenberg, Jeffrey. Ralph Lauren: The Man Behind the Mystique. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.