“I don’t like it when a woman looks like a fashion victim” – Ralph Lauren
Ralph Lauren Biography
Ralph Lauren’s clothing brands are marketed on the iconography of luxury and privilege, a completely different world from where the fashion designer started out in life.
The youngest of four children born to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants Frank and Fraydl Lifshitz, Ralph Lifshitz was born in The Bronx, New York on 14th October 1939.
With patriarch Frank working as a house painter, the family was decidedly working-class. The youngest Lifshitz child dreamed of fame and fortune by becoming a baseball player, actor, or dancer. He spent most afternoons in movie theaters dreaming of a better life.
Lauren would later credit that desire for escapism as the driving force that led him to fashion. Actors such as Fred Astaire and Cary Grant are said to have provided inspiration for Lauren’s signature style, alongside Cedric Gibbon’s classic set designs for MGM Studios.
At the age of 16, Ralph and brother Jerry anglicized their name. Tired of being constantly picked on and teased, the brothers re-branded themselves as Ralph and Jerry Lauren. Ralph Lauren would later state that his name change had nothing to do with trying to hide or escape his Jewish ancestry. He ultimately wanted a name he could market.
Lauren graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1957. He later told interviewers that, under his picture in the yearbook, he stated that his ambition was to be a millionaire.
After graduation, Lauren enrolled at Baruch College to study business. He dropped out two years later.
From 1962 to 1964, Lauren served time in the U.S. Army. When he was discharged he took a job at Brooks Brothers. That job was short-lived as he left soon after to become a salesman for a tie company.
On 20th December 1964, Lauren married Ricky Anne Loew-Beer in New York City. The couple had met six months earlier in an eye doctor’s office where Ricky was working as a receptionist. Lauren made a point not to mention to his parents that his new bride was only half-Jewish and that her mother was a Gentile. The couple has remained together ever since and they have three children.
In 1966, at age 26, Lauren was inspired by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. To design a European style necktie. The idea was rejected by his employers who didn’t think such a wide tie would be commercially viable in America. Disagreeing, Lauren left to start his own company.
Lauren busied himself making men’s ties out of rags. He managed to sell his ties at a number of small shops around New York, but he was still working out of a drawer in the Empire State Building. His break finally came when he was approached by Neiman Marcus who wanted to buy 100 dozen of Lauren’s ties.
In 1967, buoyed by the financial backing Norman Hilton, the Manhattan-based clothing manufacturer, Lauren opened a necktie store, selling his own designs, under the brand name “Polo.” In short order, he would go on to expand his designs into a full menswear line.
The 1970s would prove to be a crucial decade for the growth of Lauren’s business. In 1970 he received the Coty Award for his menswear line. Around the same time, he released a line of women’s suits tailored in a classic men’s style. It was here that the Polo emblem was first seen.
In 1971, he expanded his line and opened a Polo boutique in Beverly Hills, California. In 1972, he released a short-sleeve cotton shirt in 24 colors. This design, emblazoned with the Polo logo, became the brand’s signature look.
Lauren also gained recognition after he was contracted to provide clothing styles for the 1974 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby and the 1977 film Annie Hall.
In 1984. Polo Ralph Lauren opened it’s flagship store in the former ‘Rhinelander Mansion’ home of photographer Edgar de Evia and Robert Denning which had been transformed by Lauren, especially for the purpose.
Polo expanded at a rapid clip through the 1980s and 1990s, opening stores across the United States and internationally. The company went public on 11th June 1997, trading on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol “RL.”
In the intervening decades since the launch of the Polo brand, Lauren has broadened his product line to include a set of luxury clothing called Ralph Lauren Purple; a home furnishings collection and a collection of fragrances. There are men’s, women’s and children’s lines marketed under the Polo brand and the brand has also provided uniforms for the Olympic Team USA.
The wild success of Polo has earned Lauren a personal fortune estimated at somewhere in the vicinity of $6.5 billion. If accurate, that figure would serve to make Ralph Lauren the 122nd richest person in the world and more than fulfill the ambition he had as a teenager of becoming a mere millionaire.