You don’t know him by his birth name. But you know the brand he created. The world he created. Ralph Lifshitz was born in the Bronx in 1939 to Jewish immigrants from Belarus. The youngest of four siblings, his father was a commercial painter and his mother an artist. He shared a room with his two brothers and, by all accounts, had an enchanted youth.
From those humble beginnings, and with no formal training in the fashion world, no family ties, or a college degree (he dropped out of Baruch College after two years), he kept changing his name. And change the way Americans dress. And dream.
This improbable journey from rags to the riches of the ragpicker is absolutely American. Just as the work of iconic lifestyle brand Ralph Lauren would come to embody. All of this is captured in the recently released HBO documentary. Very Ralph.
It was clear from an early age that there was something about Lauren that separated him from his friends in his neighborhood, which was full of sons and daughters of working-class immigrants: his style. He had a knack for pulling himself together. “I always felt a bit special about who I was,” he said in the film.
Talk about an understatement. From an early age, girls wanted to dance with him and boys wanted to dress like him. “He dressed so differently from everyone else,” recalled fellow fashion designer Calvin Klein, who grew up with Lauren in the Bronx. “He was wearing army fatigues with a tweed blazer, for example, or thick woolen shorts with knee high socks, and I thought, It’s cool that he has the courage to walk around like that. He had a very personal look.”
And that courage came through in a life-changing moment early in his business career. Working in a small office in the Empire State Building in 1968, he had just launched his own brand, focusing on ties made with beautiful fabrics and bright colors. The ties had another peculiarity: they were wider than those worn by men at the time.
Lauren got an appointment with a buyer from Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan. It was a big deal for Lauren, like any newcomer. “He showed his connection to the buyer,” former Bloomingdales CEO Marvin Traub explained. “The buyer said, ‘I like them, and I’m going to buy them, but I don’t want the Ralph Lauren label on them. I want the Bloomingdales label on them.'”
Most young designers would have written the order on the spot. Not Lawrence. “Now here’s Ralph, struggling with his business, about to get an order from Bloomingdales, and he closed his sample box and said he wouldn’t accept the order without his name,” continued Traub.
A few months later, Bloomingdales arrived. “I thought the ties were great, and if he wanted his name on it, that was fine,” Traub added, “because I thought the ties would sell.”
And sell they did. It wasn’t long before Lauren had her own store in Bloomingdales. And soon after, the world would know his name, his face and his brand.
It was not a difficult decision for Lauren. He explained why in a 1993 interview with Charlie Rose. “It’s about staying on a path, having a point of view and believing in what you’re doing,” Lauren said. “And having the strength to say, ‘This is who I want to be. This is what I love.'”
It was also an easy decision because Lauren never thought of herself as a fashion designer. He sold more than jackets and shirts. He was selling a way of life. He was selling his version of the American dream, the one he had learned in the cinema growing up.
“If you look at Gary Cooper in movies, he was a very elegant man,” he explained. “At the same time, you would see high noon, and you really believed he was a cowboy. And I loved him in both roles.”
Indeed, Lauren had an unabashed love affair with the country that adopted her parents. His mark was as much about the country he loved as it was about the way he dreamed of living there. A dream he harbored as he shared close quarters with his brothers in the Bronx.
The world has rewarded him generously for dreaming with and for us. Last year, Ralph Lauren Corp. achieved over $6 billion in sales across every possible lifestyle category. In her 50 years in business, Lauren has racked up an impressive list of firsts: the first fashion designer to create a home collection, the first to open her own retail store, and the first American designer to be knighted. by Queen Elizabeth II. Lauren also helped propel African-American models to stardom, making Tyson Beckford, who like Lauren is from the Bronx, the face of her menswear line.
Lauren’s life has been filled with triumphs, but there have also been setbacks. Early in his career, he nearly lost his business, until Traub gave him a line of credit. And Lauren’s brush with death was conspicuously absent from the film. As he was about to appear on Time cover of the magazine in 1987, he learns that he has a brain tumor.
“I lived both distances of life at the same time,” Lauren confessed. “How can I have a brain tumour? It happens to someone else. Time magazine happens to someone else. I was cut in two.”
The surgery was a success, but Lauren learned an important life lesson. “I was able to step away from myself,” he said, “and see life as something that wasn’t always going to be there.”
This life, like Lauren’s trademark, would not have been possible without his wife. “When I first met Ricky she was 19 and a half,” he said in the documentary. “There was an honesty and integrity about her, and a sweetness. And by accident, she turned out to be gorgeous.”
Fashion magazine icon Wei Koh, who is Singaporean, skillfully put into words what Lauren’s life and brand was all about. “He finds beauty in all aspects of American culture, whether it’s Native Americans, cowboys, or Ivy League culture, he finds nobility in all of them.”
Koh wasn’t over. “Ralph Lauren democratized the whole idea of what was stylish and that’s America’s history. He was the first to say no, I think the guy who’s a GI, or the guy who’s the cowboy or the guy who’s the worker—he can be as cool as the aristocrat.”
This is the story Lauren has told in all the commercials he has done: Each of us can live this beautiful life. He celebrated the good life – and the country he loves – in every setting.
“My feeling is that you can make your life whatever you want it to be,” Lauren once said. It’s a fundamentally American notion… That’s why millions of people aspire to live here.
Accused by some critics of not being edgy enough, Lauren continued to do what he knew and loved. Trends weren’t his thing.
“I’m inspired by a happy lifestyle,” he said. “We all go through life hoping we’re going to be successful, hoping we can buy the house we want or the ranch we want.”
Critics may have been annoyed by this sentiment. But most Americans loved Lauren for her consistency, integrity and optimism. His brand has always represented the good things in life. The beautiful things in life.
The last word in any Lauren story should be left to the woman whose sense of elegance has inspired generations in America and around the world: Audrey Hepburn.
In 1992, she presented Lauren with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers. “There’s not one adjective — or 10 adjectives — that describes what you stand for,” Hepburn said. “You have not only created a total concept of fashion and style, but by your consistency and integrity, you have protected it, always reminding us of the best things in life. And if you say something is ‘very Ralph Lauren, ‘you are immediately understood.”
Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.