"I am not looking like Armani today and somebody else tomorrow," says designer Ralph Lauren. "I look like Ralph Lauren. And my goal is to constantly move in fashion and move in style without giving up what I am." And since he launched his own fashion label, Polo, in 1967 he's done just that.
While fashion trends come and go, Ralph has remained true to his original concept: selling not just preppy clothes but a lifestyle. It's earned him a personal fortune close to $1 billion and a place in design history. Not bad for a kid from the Bronx, New York, who wore tennis sweaters to school when everyone else was slouching around in leather jackets.
Ralph Lauren, née Ralph Lifshitz, was born on October 14, 1939. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish household and for a time shared a bedroom with two of his three older brothers. Possessed of an innate fashion sense from birth, he took part time jobs early on to fund his penchant for designer clothes. His chosen course of study, however, was business, although he left the course at City College in Manhattan before receiving his degree.
Unhappy with the design of men's clothing at the time, Ralph designed his own despite his lack of formal training and had them custom made. "You have to remember this was the late Sixties and everything was three buttons and narrow lapels," says the fashion maestro. "I had always loved the look of the old English gentleman who dressed in class and style, who knew what he was wearing but acted like he didn't care. That's the image I wanted. I loved fashion and wore clothes well, but had no idea I could use that in terms of a career."
After a stint in the army, Ralph was given an opportunity to prove himself when he convinced New York City clothier Beau Brummel to invest in his wide tie venture. In the first year he notched up sales of half a million dollars. Tailored suits and shirts were added the following year and Polo menswear "tweedy English-American look with a French cut," as he described it was born.
The company name was always intended to be evocative of a lifestyle. "Well, what kind of people play polo?" he asks. "Wealthy, cosmopolitan, chic, wealthy. I wanted to create a concept for the name." And he did, ironically (considering his personal reinvention) designing the wardrobe for the film version of F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby along the way.
Women's clothing and houseware bearing the Ralph Lauren name followed and in 1997 the firm went public. Ralph the first fashion designer to have his own signature store pocketed $465 million that day.
Shortly after leaving the military in 1964, Ralph married Ricky Low Beer. The couple have three children Andrew, Dylan and David. Only David is involved in the family business: his brother and sister have pursued their own interests despite their father's hopes that they join the firm.
Unlike most other fashion houses, Polo and Ralph Lauren are inseparably tied. "A lot of what you see in the clothes and stores comes literally from my father's life," says David. The man himself is self-deprecating about his contribution to the 20th-century fashion scene. "I don't think I created fashion," he says. "I don't know what original means. I think I made a mark, a niche that was a little distinctive for what it is personally."