Ralph Lauren: Ralph Lifshitz from the Block
Mention the name ‘Ralph Lauren,’ and no matter where you are in the world, the name commands reverence. Immediately, images of luxury, Ivy League peppiness and sleek athletic wear are conjured up – idealised symbols of the American Dream.
Perhaps the name ‘Ralph Lifshitz’ isn’t as well known and doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as ‘Ralph Lauren,’ but it’s the name this totemic figure of the fashion world was born with back in 1939, in The Bronx, and from whence came this scion of Russian Jewish immigrants.
Like many great entrepreneurs, Ralph Lauren’s hunger, drive and vision saw him eclipse his humble beginnings, rising above a geographical and socio-economic state of affairs that might have otherwise been seen as a barrier. Ralph Lauren has always maintained that he “just wanted to be the cool guy,” but throughout his illustrious career, despite the accolades, worldwide fame, his financial success and legions of fans, Ralph Lauren remains the consummate gentleman; sincere, elegant, modest and humble to a tee. In many ways, he’s still Ralph Lifshitz from ‘The Block.”
From Rags to Riches
Ralph Lauren once said, “If you never wish you had anything, you are missing half your life. Sometimes, being born without money can be a blessing. I had to go out and earn the money to buy clothes and anything I bought was very precious to me. I think this made me sensitive to the value of things that last.”
With an appetite for quality and aspiration for ‘nice things’ Ralph Lauren began working as a 16 year old in Alexander’s department store. But what struck him was that the clothes hanging in the store weren’t necessarily the stuff his dreams were made of, nor were they representative of the clothes donned by the movie stars of his time, such as Cary Grant or Fred Astaire. Disappointed with what was on offer, Ralph Lauren began dreaming of one day creating the type of timelessness, glamour and elegance he saw his idols wearing.
Like a Rhinestone Cowboy…wearing a leather bomber jacket in a vintage Morgan
It has been said that Ralph Lauren embodies the American sense of optimism, idealism, capacity to dream and capability to be resilient that makes the US such fertile ground for entrepreneurship.
When Ralph Lauren couldn’t find another Levi’s western shirt to replace his dearly loved and badly fraying one he bought at the age of 17, he decided to make his own. It was at this point that the young Ralph Lauren began to see that to have things exactly as he wanted, he would have to make them.
Ralph Lauren’s first real entrée into designing came in 1966, when at the age of 26, he began working for Rivetz tie company. At the time, the trend was for ties to be narrow, striped, and very ‘Ivy League.’ But Ralph Lauren dreamed of selling beautiful, wide, woven neckties with interesting patterns – bringing classic old-world European charm back to men’s ties. The idea was summarily rejected by the company, so Ralph struck out on his own, and with the backing of an investor, Norman Hilton, Ralph Lauren made his vision a reality, hand-making ‘wide ties’ himself.
Ralph Lauren would drive around selling ties in a vintage Morgan wearing a leather bomber jacket, making himself quite conspicuous in New York City. After finally getting the attention of the buyer at Bloomingdales, during the first meeting, Ralph Lauren was asked by the buyer to make his ties narrower and to replace the Ralph Lauren label with the department stores own in-house label. Ralph Lauren closed his bag immediately and walked out of the meeting – uncompromising on his values and sticking to his instincts. As a young up-and-coming designer, he risked becoming ‘up-and-went’ or being placed in fashion exile by his unyielding attitude, but 6 months later, that same buyer at Bloomingdales called him back, wanting to put a whole rack of Ralph Lauren’s ties in the store. This set the tone for who Ralph Lauren would become – someone who takes pride in his product, loves his work and never sells out.
The evolution of Ralph Lauren from ties, to dress shirts to menswear followed a natural path. The leather bomber jacket gave way eventually to double breasted suits with side vents and wide lapels; Ralph Lauren invested the money he was making back into his own wardrobe, having a tailor custom make his suits. Soon, when he would present his tie collection, people would ask where they could buy the shirts and suits to go with the ties.
During the 1970s in America, Ralph Lauren was seen as a maverick of sorts, taking a stance against the bright, showy colours and floral patterns so common at the time and instead designing clothes with a classic and timeless elegance, made from special fabrics and with unique details. This was Ralph Lauren’s vision and he didn’t waver from the style he loved. He became known for his wide ties with big knots and his collection of shirts and suits were designed to complement them.
Ralph Lauren by this stage was a married man with three children and true to form, he decided to make children’s clothes out of sheer frustration that there wasn’t anything on the market exactly as he wanted, nothing in 100% cotton.
Women’s wear followed soon after, with Ralph Lauren citing his Austrian wife, Ricky, as his muse. Ralph Lauren said “I wanted to make things for the type of girl that I found attractive. And this is not a girl who wore lots of makeup and was dressed up all the time, but a girl who looked beautiful in a natural way. She would wear a pair of worn jeans and her boyfriend’s shirt, or a denim jacket and a string of pearls while riding a horse. I don’t admire a man or woman who is overly self-conscious about their clothes.” Ralph Lauren’s first piece he designed for women was the hacking jacket – a smart, tailored jacket made from tweed which you’d imagine the well-to-do wearing in the country with a pair of jodhpurs and riding boots.
Ralph Lauren: And a real hero…
Ralph Lauren has always loved a hero. Men like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr were early influences in Ralph Lauren’s career, and whilst he loved ‘old world’ values, he also loved athletes and cowboys. Ralph Lauren has always been a chameleon of sorts, as at ease wearing a cowboy hat and western shirt driving around in a jeep as he is in his trademark turtleneck and double-breasted navy blazer driving a classic Bentley.
Ralph Lauren realised early on that part and parcel of the heroic image these men projected, was done so through their clothing. Their clothes defined these men as individuals who would fight for what was right. Ralph Lauren said, “I was enamoured with the heroes I saw in films. I always respected the type of man that made his mark on the world and for me, the clothes and the identity of these men were inseparable.” It is this philosophy, the nexus between what a man wears and the image he projects, the dream or desire to ‘be somebody’ whether that be “Chairman of the board or a cowboy” that makes Ralph Lauren’s clothing so identifiable, aspirational and perhaps the reason why he’s successfully managed to subdivide the Ralph Lauren label into sartorially elegant formal wear, rustic Americana, urbane sophistication, preppy and athletic lines.
…….A Real Human being
There are many aspects to both Ralph Lauren the man and the label that put the brand in a league of its own. Whilst most brands concentrate on a single look, Ralph Lauren has managed to create a complete luxury universe – from iconic staples like the pique cotton polo shirts to pinstripe suits, women’s and children’s wear and even more recently, watches. Few designers would be able to get away with this kind of diversity – and do it well, let alone build a fashion empire, but Ralph Lauren has clearly proven itself a stayer.
Key to the Ralph Lauren vision and the secret behind his success and longevity in the fickle fashion industry is that quality and timelessness underpins everything Ralph Lauren creates. Ralph Lauren designs clothes that people identify with, that real people want to wear, and re-connects the consumer – especially men, with the fundamentals of classic elegance.
One of the many things that distinguishes Ralph Lauren, the man, from others in the fashion industry, is that the term ‘fashion designer’ is a rather strange bedfellow for him. “While I’m called a fashion designer, I don’t think what I do relates to fashion. I like to think what I create has a timelessness rather than trendiness you see in fashion.” Unlike many other designers, Ralph Lauren resists the vicissitudes of fashion from season to season, he rejects what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out.’ Rather, Ralph Lauren seeks to create quality goods that actually grow better with age.
Ralph Lauren, aged 75, still has complete oversight over his company and all garments and objects that emerge from the Ralph Lauren stable are passed under the discerning eyes and through the trained hands of Mr. Ralph Lauren. His family is also involved in the running of the company – his brother and one of his sons are part of the operations and his other son, his daughter and wife are by his side at every important Ralph Lauren event, opening or launch. Ralph likes to use his own image and that of his wife, Ricky, as the face of the brand, because he feels it’s more authentic. What can we say; he’s a real human being.
Ralph Lauren: His Moral Compass
Along with a healthy dose of genius, determination, vision and hard work, it is Ralph Lauren’s moral compass that has piloted the greatest-ever American luxury brand to its lofty heights with its founder, crowned the undisputed King of Luxury. The same honesty, authenticity and attitude that echoes so strongly in Ralph Lauren clothing, are the same qualities that resonate in everything Ralph Lauren does.
Ralph Lauren’s father clearly taught him well, because Ralph knew that the two most important things a man can do in life are; “he should be a good person, meaning he shouldn’t compromise on his values, and he should do what he loves.” These pearls of wisdom helped steer Ralph Lauren away from making mistakes throughout his career; imagine if he’d sold out to the buyer at Bloomingdales by removing his label and making his ties narrower?
Quality and timelessness is something that underpins all Ralph Lauren products. He’s always appreciated goods that get better with age, which can be passed on to the next generation. From a young age, Ralph Lauren recognised “there are two types of products in this world – those that lose their lustre from the moment you use them, and things that become more beautiful the more you use them. The difference between them is simple – the thing that ages well has quality and timeless design.” In a disposable society, Ralph Lauren showed the world that America could create quality goods which were made to last.
Ralph Lauren is pretty happy with the man he is and the life he has created: “I like who I am. I am happy with life. I have a great family. I’ve been successful for [over 40] years. I fight every day to do what I love…with quality and class.” And whilst he has every right to be pretty happy with his lot, Ralph Lauren remains humble and displays great insight; “I’m not saying I’m perfect. I make mistakes like everyone. But I have a feeling I’ve done the right things in life. Most importantly, I try really hard to treat people the way I would like to be treated.”
And what of the experts, the fashion press or even general population who don’t love what Ralph Lauren creates? “Every time I wanted to do something – from when I first made my ties, to my first shirts, to my first suits – someone would tell me that the world didn’t need me to do them, but I did and they were very successful. In life, you have to believe in what you are doing. If you believe in yourself, then you’ve got to follow that belief and not let people prevent you from achieving what you want.” What can we say…Haters gonna hate. Shake it off!
We love the philosophy behind the Ralph Lauren label and admire the man himself who has created such an impressive empire. At Philippe Perzi Vienna, we are similarly passionate about re-establishing men’s roots with the fundamentals of classic elegance and as a family run business, we respect the same values that Ralph Lauren has imparted throughout his company. Bravo Ralph. What a Legend.