Who Is Ralph Lauren?
Iconic designer Ralph Lauren's first job in the fashion industry was in retail at Brooks Brothers before developing a line of neckties. The brand he established, Polo, is now one part of an international empire that includes fragrances, home furnishings, luxury clothing and dining based on a fantasy aesthetic of upper-crust life. Lauren, a funder of cancer research initiatives, has also used his personal fortune to amass a collection of rare and classic cars as well as a massive Colorado ranch.
Background and Early Life
Lauren was born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx, New York City, on October 14, 1939, the third of four siblings. His parents Frieda and Frank were Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who had fled Belarus, and the youngster grew up in the Mosholu Parkway area of the family's adopted borough.
At the age of 16, Ralph and his brother Jerry changed their last name to Lauren after having been teased consistently at school. Another brother, Lenny, retained the family name. Ralph was known for his distinctive fashion sense as a teen, finding inspiration in screen icons like Fred Astaire and Cary Grant while having a taste for both classic preppy wear and vintage looks. He went on to attend Baruch College in Manhattan, where he studied business for two years. After a brief stint in the Army, Lauren took on a sales job at Brooks Brothers.
Developing an International Brand
In 1967, while working for Beau Brummell, Lauren began designing his own men’s neckties with a wider cut, branding them under the name “Polo” and selling them at large department stores, including Bloomingdale’s. Lauren was able to more fully develop his business with a $30,000 loan, eventually expanding his designs to a full menswear line.
In 1970, Lauren was awarded the Coty Award for his men's designs. Following this recognition, he released a line of women's suits tailored in a classic men's style. Then in 1972, Lauren released a short-sleeve cotton shirt in 24 colors. This design, emblazoned with the company's famed logo—that of a polo player, created by tennis pro René Lacoste—became the brand’s signature look.
Lauren is known for capitalizing on an aspirational style and key insignia which evokes the British gentry while also referencing the aesthetics of the American upper class. His fashion ideas have been criticized by some for not being particularly innovative while also embraced by scores of consumers who prefer more approachable looks. Lauren subsequently broadened his brand to include a luxury clothing line known as Ralph Lauren Purple, a rough and rustic line of apparel dubbed RRL, a home-furnishing collection called Ralph Lauren Home and a set of fragrances. Polo currently produces clothing for men, women and children and has hundreds of internationally placed stores, including factory stores that produce the majority of his sales domestically.
Lauren has also designed Olympic uniforms for Team USA, though controversy ensued when it was discovered that the competitors' attire for the 2012 summer games was made in China.
Screen Work: 'The Great Gatsby' and 'Annie Hall'
During the 1970s, Lauren made his foray into the film business as well, further cementing his status as a classic American designer by outfitting cast members for the 1974 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Lauren also received credit for helping to outfit the cast of 1975's The Wild Party, another early 20th-century outing starring James Coco and Raquel Welch. The designer then became well known for Diane Keaton's rather distinctive looks in the 1977 comedy Annie Hall.
Decades later, Lauren would be enamored by a show that wholeheartedly reflects his particular vision, the PBS series Downton Abbey. He subsequently created a fall collection inspired by the show and sponsored its final season in 2016.
Stepping Aside as CEO
Polo expanded rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s, opening boutiques across the United States and abroad. In 1986, Lauren opened his company's flagship store in New York’s Rhinelander Mansion on Madison Avenue, which has since become flanked by several other Lauren stores. With Goldman Sachs having purchased more than a quarter of the company in the mid-1990s, Polo Ralph Lauren went public on June 11, 1997, trading under the symbol RL. As of October 2015, the success of Polo has earned Lauren a personal fortune estimated at more than $6 billion, ranking Lauren among the 200 richest people in the world.
After a year of falling shares, Lauren stepped aside as chief executive of Ralph Lauren Corp. in September 2015 and appointed Stefan Larsson, the global president of The Gap's Old Navy division, to take over as CEO. Lauren took on the role of executive chairman and chief creative officer of the company he founded.
Personal Life and Pursuits
Lauren married teacher and part-time receptionist Ricky Anne Low-Beer in New York City in 1964. The Laurens are the parents of three children: Andrew, David and Dylan. David Lauren is the only one of the three to have made his career at Polo. In 2011, he married Lauren Bush, the niece of President George W. Bush and the granddaughter of President George H.W. Bush. Andrew is a film producer, while Dylan is the owner of the New York City candy store Dylan’s Candy Bar.
Lauren had a health scare when he underwent surgery in the mid-1980s to remove a benign tumor from his brain. He has since funded a number of initiatives pertaining to cancer research and care and in 1989 co-founded Georgetown University's Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research.
Using his considerable fortune, Lauren has amassed a famous collection of rare automobiles, including a 1930 Mercedes-Benz Count Trossi SSK known as "The Black Prince." In 2005, Lauren allowed his collection to be displayed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In 2011, a selection from his car collection was exhibited in Paris.
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