By Jacqueline Cutler
Every designer sells clothes. Ralph Lauren sells dreams.
People don't just buy his trimly tailored tweed jackets. They buy into the idea of joining the gentry. A lovingly detailed prairie skirt doesn’t just promise casual feminine style. It promotes a fantasy of cowgirl adventure.
Other designers create lines. Lauren, however, creates lives – or at least the trappings of those lives.
It’s an aspirational universe celebrated in “Ralph Lauren: In His Fashion.” And, as lovingly assembled by fellow designer Alan Flusser, the oversize, photo-crammed book is also the story of a man whose greatest creation may have been himself.
Born in 1939, as Ralph Lifshitz from the Bronx, Lauren was the fourth child of Frank and Frieda. Frank, an aspiring artist, turned to house painting to support his family. Frieda kept their two-bedroom apartment on Steuben Ave. spotless and pushed the children to study hard.
Ralph had other interests. He loved sports and made the basketball team at the Talmudical Academy – an honor he lost when he transferred to the larger and more competitive DeWitt Clinton High. He loved the movies, too, spending hours at the palace of theaters on the Grand Concourse, Loew’s Paradise.
Mostly, though, like other teens in the ’50s, he just hung out. In the Mosholu Parkway neighborhood, that happened at "The Rail,” a small fenced area opposite Public School 80.
“That was your social life,” recalled the late Garry Marshall, another local boy made good. “Our neighborhood was unique in that elsewhere what mattered was how well you played ball and how tough you were. Here, you could be funny or dress up and nobody would call you a sissy. We respected humor as well as looking cool and going with girls.”
Lauren liked dressing up. His style idols were Fred Astaire and Gary Cooper, but their formal elegance was hard to pull off as a Bronx teenager. Instead, he went for the preppy look, sporting white tennis sweaters, and penny loafers. Under "Ambition" in his high school yearbook, he wrote “Millionaire.”
The first step in that plan was going to Baruch for a business degree. The second was following his older brother Jerome’s lead and changing his last name to Lauren, finally ending a lifetime of vulgar playground jokes.
He was a young man in a hurry, and quit college after two years. After a brief gig selling clothes at Brooks Brothers, Lauren landed a job as a salesman for a glove company. From there, he moved on to pushing ties.
He wasn’t the first boy from the Bronx to go into the rag trade. Except, in Lauren’s eyes, he wasn’t in the garment industry. He was in fashion.
He dressed the part, too, with an eclectic wardrobe that ranged from expensive suits to leather bomber jackets. Trade papers like the Daily News Record began writing about the eager young tie salesman with the million-dollar style.
Of course, it’s easy to spend all your money on clothes when you still live with your parents.
But Lauren soon got bored selling other people’s ties, especially when they all seemed to be the same, sad, narrow strips of cloth. He pushed his bosses to let him start choosing the colors and patterns. When they balked at most of his ideas, he went out on his own.
It was a significant risk. Lauren had recently gotten married, and money was tight. His entire inaugural collection could fit in a single desk drawer. But it was 1968, and Lauren saw something his staid employers didn’t: American men were ready to get groovy.
Lauren nearly doubled the average width of a tie, from two inches to three and a half, and used lush fabrics usually reserved for draperies and upholstery. He also favored wilder patterns, like tapestry and windowpane checks. He took the top price from $5 to $7.50.
The menswear establishment mocked his innovations, comparing his neckwear to napkins. But men liked them, and they remembered the brand name: Polo.
It was a distinctive look. Yet for Lauren, it was all about the feel.
“I’m promoting a level of taste,” he told a fashion reporter. “I don’t care how wide the lapels or the neckties are. All I want is the old money look. I want to stand for the same kind of thing Abercrombie & Fitch and Brooks Brothers used to, and should have gone on to.”
Of course, once the broader ties caught on, the entire fashion silhouette began to change. And Lauren was there for that, too, eventually expanding his offerings into a full menswear line.
But he was still thinking even grander than that. He told retailers he didn't want his ties on the first floor, his jackets on the fifth. He wanted an entire Polo department – a store within a store. It took some convincing, but Bloomingdale's opened the first in 1969.
It was, Flusser writes, “one of Ralph’s most important and game changing contributions to not only the emerging designer landscape, but the future of modern retailing: lifestyle merchandising. Over the years, Ralph would flesh out his idealized worlds into panoramic vistas that employed clothes, furniture, and props to advance a larger visual narrative.”
Lauren wasn't just selling fashion anymore. He was selling fantasy.
Still, even daydreams go in and out of style. At various times, Lauren’s empire has pushed Ivy League casual, upper-crust formality, Santa Fe rustic, and British safari chic. Briefly, in a bit of synchronicity with the Robert Redford movie, he even promoted “Great Gatsby” glamour. He managed to anticipate, then satisfy the public's taste. Lauren sold what sells.
As a result, some have damned him with faint praise, calling him merely a clever mimic and gifted merchandiser. What is his famous Polo knit shirt anyway, but another Lacoste knockoff, with Lauren’s equestrian logo replacing Izod’s jaunty little alligator? What self-respecting designer would also hawk coffee, candles, and cashmere doggy sweaters?
Even after he moved into women’s wear, creating Gwyneth Paltrow's chic pink 1999 Oscar gown, Lauren often found it challenging to be taken seriously by America's highbrow, high-fashion press.
His style and philanthropy always drew praise. But unlike, say, fellow Bronx designer Calvin Klein, he sometimes seemed more liked than respected.
“I asked Ralph about it once, and he shrugged as if this was familiar terrain and, not surprisingly, a sore subject,” Flusser writes. “He replied that for too long many in the American fashion media just didn’t get him.”
But the American consumer does.
The tie salesman who once worked out of a one-room office is now the chief creative officer of a multi-billion dollar corporation. Its fashion offerings alone include clothes for men, women, and children, and a wardrobe that stretches from blue jeans to formal wear.
Lauren’s goods are now carried in stores around the world. Meanwhile, the company’s twin mansions on Madison Ave. offer their own deluxe, immersive retail experiences, where it’s all Lauren, all the time. Exhausted after hours of shopping? Take a break in the Polo Bar, where “Ralph’s Corned Beef Sandwich” goes for $28.
“I don’t do shoulders,” Lauren said once, in reply to a design question. “I do worlds.”
More than 50 years on, his own is bigger and bolder than ever.