With a valuation of $10.6 billion, 11 different lines, and 472 stores in 60 countries, it’s fair to ask: What exactly is Ralph Lauren? Well, from the top: a line of neckties—wide, florid, kind of Italian. Then shirts and suits, womens wear and children’s clothes. Fragrances. Homewear. Four restaurants. The U.S. Olympic team’s uniforms. It’s an adjective, as when Kanye said of another designer: “It ain’t Ralph, though.” It’s Gwyneth Paltrow at the Oscars and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. It’s the khaki shorts my mom used to buy me at TJ Maxx. If you’re not a nudist or a staunch anti-capitalist, it’s quite likely a garment hanging in your closet, too.
Such is the Fantasia of fashion’s own Walt Disney, Ralph Lauren himself, the first American menswear designer to bring a name and a face to a brand. When he launched his label 50 years ago, he also quickly established himself as the first designer to truly understand refined and rustic. He introduced the Marlboro Man to the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, then threw a cookout for their families and dressed them all.
When I meet him in the mahogany-paneled clubhouse that serves as his Midtown Manhattan headquarters, I find an eclectic office: model planes and race cars, photographs of muses—Audrey Hepburn and Princess Diana, among others—a note from Karl Lagerfeld telling him he should run for president. He pauses at a particularly cinematic image of himself in jeans and a white T-shirt at his 17,000-acre ranch outside Telluride, Colorado. “My Steve McQueen shot,” he says and smiles. Today, he’s dressed slightly less casually, in black jeans and a key-lime cashmere sweater over—what else?—a white Polo shirt. Speaking as softly as his early idol, Marlon Brando, he begins to tell the story of how Ralph Lifshitz, a college dropout from the Bronx, the youngest son of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from imperial Russia, went from necktie salesman to revered designer to CEO of one of the world’s most recognizable fashion brands. (Now 78, he has, since 2015, served as his company’s chief creative officer—hardly a step toward retirement.)
Despite all the grandeur, his business started out like any other American hustle. “I worked very hard on something as simple as a tie,” he says. “To make them unusual. To make them stand for something.”
Let’s start at the beginning, 50 years ago. It seems like you went from tie salesman to celebrated designer almost overnight. How did you get your break?
When I was a kid, in my 20s, I worked for a tie company, Abe Rivetz, out of Boston—they made preppy ties for Brooks Brothers and Paul Stuart. It was the era of very traditional brands like Gant shirts. I never thought about being a designer, but I always had some style as a kid, and I had some ideas about how ties should look. Someone recommended me to a guy at Beau Brummell, out of Cincinnati, Ohio. They made clip-on ties, very inexpensive. I met the guy in New York, at the Plaza. He said, “Listen, Ralph, I’m not going to hire you now, I just want to talk to you. You’ve got some good ideas.” He was an ex-Navy officer, very nice guy. I was so enthusiastic that he gave me a drawer at the bottom of this showroom, in the Empire State Building, and I kept all my stuff in there. Some of the people at Beau Brummell passed by, they laughed. My ties were wider. The linings were heavier. They were handmade. There were unusual fabrics. The patterns were different.
Why did you call your company Polo?
I thought it was a sporty name. I couldn’t call it baseball. I couldn’t call it basketball. The ties started to take off. Neiman Marcus bought a hundred dozen. Bloomingdale’s said, “We really like your ties, Ralph, but they’re real wide. Would you make them narrower? And we want to use our own label.” I said, “I’d love to sell to you, but I can’t do that. I have to keep the brand the way I see it.” Six months later they came back. They gave me an order and put me on a rack of ties in the men’s department. When I turned down Bloomingdale’s, it was a very important time for me. Most people wouldn’t have done that.
Because that was a big risk, right? You were already married, about to start a family. And Bloomingdale’s hadn’t bought anything from you before.
Yes, it was a big risk, but I knew it was
happening. People were buying my clothes. You know when something’s good. It built my confidence up. I got a sense of who I was. I didn’t get hooked into trends. I made my own trend. It felt like playing basketball in the schoolyard: I had a good hook shot. You know what you’re good at. This was done with instincts, not with paper and figuring it all out ...
No focus groups.
No, no focus groups. It was done with guts and instinct. Then Bloomingdale’s said, “What else can you do?” I said, “I can do shirts,” and I did shirts—unusual patterns, different collars, spread collars. The men’s industry looked like they look now: narrow lapels, narrow ties. They were very boring, very IBM-looking.
They weren’t very happening. So I made shirts. They gave me a shirt-and-tie shop, and then I said I could make men’s clothes, and I made men’s clothes. I started with a guy in the clothing business by the name of Norman Hilton who lent me $50,000 to start my company. In those days there were tie companies, shirt companies, but there weren’t designer companies—very few. Pierre Cardin in France was just coming over, and someone was promoting him as a men’s fashion designer. That was the only real name.
As your brand evolved, what did you come to see as key elements of the Ralph Lauren look?
I could do Western clothes and English clothes and preppy clothes. They were not aimed at super fashion, they were aimed at the guy who wanted quality. As the world changed, a lot of my customers started to make a lot of money. They worked for Goldman Sachs. They started to go to Europe, started to buy more, so I started to make better clothes and more expensive stuff. I called that Purple Label. It’s very English, Savile Row. Then I started Double RL, which was thrift-shop, vintage clothing. There’s the glamour of beautiful tailored stuff, wearing a tuxedo and driving a Bentley. But I could see both worlds. I like trucks. I like denim shirts. I like Clint Eastwood.
Before you got into fashion, you were in the Army Reserve, and there’s a military motif that’s stayed in your work, for instance in the bomber jackets and peacoats in your fall men’s collection. Are you still a bit of an Army man?
The Army was tough, but I always liked military things because they have utility. I like horses and saddles and denim. I like epaulets. I didn’t like fashion-fashion. Yeah, these uniforms were made for the Army, but it was great-looking shit. It’s what I’m doing today with chinos and army shirts and denim shirts. I gave them new life— I’ll pick a chambray work shirt and dress it up with a blue suit.
Tell me about growing up in the Bronx. How did the neighborhood affect your sense of style?
People like to think of slums, but it was Mosholu Parkway, a nice part of the Bronx. I lived across from a school, and there was a park, and at night you’d see kids singing and Bungalow Bar ice cream trucks. Rock and roll was just starting—it wasn’t Elvis yet, it was more like Dion and the Belmonts. Everyone wore motorcycle jackets like Marlon Brando and their hair with little curls in the front. I grew up with that world, but I loved preppy. I liked the Ivy League look. I was always welcomed by the neighborhood, but I wore tweed, Bermudas, and button-down shirts. I had my own style at a young age. When all my friends were wearing blazers, I was wearing motorcycle jackets. I loved so many different things. I’ve always admired Fred Astaire and Cary Grant, but I also loved Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, Steve McQueen.
Did you ever design with a certain customer in mind?
I just made the clothes that I loved. They weren’t around the way you think they were. You couldn’t buy a work shirt. Those shoes you’re wearing—you couldn’t buy those. You couldn’t buy the right stuff. I made all those things because I wanted them for myself. When I got married, my wife started to say, “Why don’t you make things for me?” So I started to make women’s clothes. When I had kids I made kids’ clothes. My designs came out of living. It wasn’t about fashion. It was about how you’d like to live.
Does any particular garment stand out— something you wanted for yourself but couldn’t find anywhere and just had to recreate?
I’m a classicist. I love tweed jackets. In high school my teacher always wore a tweed jacket. He had salt-and-pepper hair, and he had a pipe. I said, “Oh, that’s cool.” I wanted a tweed jacket like that one. I was making movies in my head. My clothes are really all about the movies.
And the movies became a great way to promote your clothes. You provided the menswear for the 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford. It’s a perfect project for a designer—I think of the scene where Daisy weeps when she sees all of Gatsby’s beautiful shirts. How did that come together?
They came to me. I was already doing the clothes—1930s suits and tennis sweaters. I was a natural. So they called me up. There was a costume designer on the movie by the name of Theoni Aldredge—she made the clothes for theater shows, but she wasn’t a menswear expert. I thought this movie might win an Academy Award for clothes. She said, “I will not mention your name.” It did win, and she never mentioned my name. But the stores kept calling me.
Were you on set, tailoring outfits for Redford?
Yes, I made clothes for Robert Redford. I thought he was a nice guy. I got to know all of them—Bruce Dern, Mia Farrow. I think on some level I always wanted to be in the movie business, and I didn’t think I was handsome enough. I became handsome later on ...
Some would say you have pretty high standards for good looks! On that note, you’ve cited Cary Grant as an early inspiration. What was it about his style that captivated you?
He was funny, and he dressed very sleekly. I got to know him. It’s really amazing how you get to know everybody in the world. He came up to my office. He told me he used to sell ties on the Coney Island Boardwalk. He used to walk on the boardwalk with these stilts in the ’20s when he’d just come to New York and had no money. He said, “If you come to California, I’ll take you to the racetrack.” I went, and he picked me up at the Hotel Bel-Air. He said, “I can’t go into the stores, but I’ve been wearing your things for a long time.”
Well, if you couldn’t be an actor, that’s a pretty good second best. Any other memorable run-ins with Hollywood heroes?
I once went to see Rocky on Broadway. Sylvester Stallone was there. I was looking at him— he was talking with someone else—and he just gave me a thumbs-up. Then, a few weeks later, he sent me a note. It said, “You are the real Rocky.”
Speaking of big names, the alumni of your brands is a who’s who of designers: Thom Browne, Tory Burch, Michael Bastian, John Varvatos, Todd Snyder. Is there anyone you saw as a protégé? Anyone who showed you a glimpse of your younger self?
I know John Varvatos very well. He worked for me twice. He left, he came back. The second time, when he was leaving, I said, “John, if you have something to say, then it’s OK, but if you have nothing to say, don’t do it.” He had something to say, and he’s doing well.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and your Pink Pony initiative has raised tens of millions in research funding. But you also have a personal connection to the disease going back to 1990, when you lost a close friend, Washington Post fashion editor Nina Hyde, and had a cancer scare yourself. How did those experiences shape your philanthropy?
Well, I had had a brain tumor. It was benign, and one day when I’d just gotten out of the hospital, I saw Nina Hyde. She’d helped me when I was just starting out. She knew everyone in Washington. She knew senators, she introduced me to the publisher of The Washington Post, Katharine Graham. She said, “I have breast cancer, Ralph. I’ve gone to a few designers, and no one’s really done anything. You’re designing for women, and you can give back.” When she was alive, I wrote letters to everybody, and when she died, I started the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research, at Georgetown. I felt that
we could do more to help, so we started the Pink Pony Fund. Breast cancer touches all of us. It’s not only a women’s disease.
One word you use a lot— when you describe your clothes and the people who have inspired them— is integrity. What does that word mean to you, in terms of style?
It’s authenticity. It’s making the best jacket, one that will last for 20 years and still look great. I’ve always seen my work not as fashiony but as longevity. It lasts forever.
So, 50 years— you’ve seen a lot of competitors wax and wane. Brooks Brothers represented a certain kind of ideal when you were starting out. J. Peterman was big in the ’80s, GAP in the ’90s, J. Crew in the aughts. Now Uniqlo is leading the charge of fast-fashion brands. You’ve been remarkably consistent. How have you stayed so relevant for so long?
When I was a kid, I used to go to Brooks Brothers. I loved what they made, and I believed in it, and I wanted to wear it. They didn’t stay with the times, though. It’s subtle, but they didn’t. I stayed with the times. I kept moving. At the same time, I always like things that have a lasting sensibility, like people. I don’t think people should dye their hair. I think they should be natural. I believe in showing my clothes in a certain way, with a voice, with taste. When I do my store windows I have my own dreams. I’m not this year’s look. I’m the real thing.