As a high school senior in 1957, Ralph Lauren was asked to write about his future goals. He simply wrote one word, ‘millionaire’. Now, sixty years later, Ralph Lauren is worth an estimated $5.8 billion. But life wasn’t always so easy for the future fashion icon.
Ralph Lauren was born on October 14, 1939 in the Bronx in New York. Growing up the youngest son of a working-class Jewish family, Lauren was constantly harassed by classmates for his Semitic last name, ‘Lifshitz’. Lauren’s father Frank painted houses, and the six-person family subsisted on the meager income. To escape the pressures of this situation, Ralph Lauren would often go to the cinema and watch the film icons of the day, Cary Grant, and Fred Astaire. There was a timeless elegance to their look that introduced Lauren to the vintage, preppy look that would have so much influence on his life.
Even at a young age, Lauren was always an exceptional dresser. When he was 12 years old, Ralph Lauren began selling luxury ties to his classmates. In one interview he recalled, “Those ties were handmade, by the way. Back then, ties, even designer ones, didn’t sell for more than $5 apiece. Mine were $12 to $15. Such luxury in something so simple was revolutionary.” At the age of 16, after many years of harassment, Ralph and his older brother Lenny both changed their last names to, ‘Lauren’.
After high school, Lauren spent a brief stint in the U.S. Army. After that, he attend a few years of college but never graduated. After this, he accepted a job with Brooks Brothers as a salesman. It was around this time that Lauren had an experience that would change his life; Lauren’s friend, Warren Helstein, took him to a polo match. As Helstein later recalled, “We were exposed to fabulous things. The silver. The leather. The horses. The tall slinky blondes with the big hats, and the high society that we really weren’t knowledgeable of.” The event lit a fire within the young Lauren and he soon desired to create his own high-end clothing line. Lauren went to Brooks Brothers and asked to design a series of ties for them, but they declined. As Lauren recalls, “I tried to convince them to do their own brand but they weren’t interested. So I approached another tie maker from Cincinnati and they got it.” That tie maker was, Beau Brummell.
Brummell agreed to allowed Lauren to sell his own designs in their showroom, in the Empire State building. So, in 1967, Lauren founded the Ralph Lauren Corporation. While the rest of the industry was making thin, plain colored ties, Lauren decided to go the other direction. He made thick, colorful ties, that stood out. The approach paid off. By the end of the year, Ralph Lauren had sold over $500,000 worth of ties. It was at this time that Lauren knew he needed a name for the line. What better name he thought, than ‘Polo’. The name spoke to the high-class, the gentry, and the elite. Polo, after all, was known the ‘sport of kings’. But, it also spoke to leisure. The idea was perfect.
By the following year, in 1970, Lauren expanded to a full line of menswear. By 1971, Ralph Lauren became the first company to design a line of women’s suits. And in 1972, Lauren released his first short sleeved cotton ‘polo shirts’. The original line launched in 24 colors and has changed remarkably little throughout the years. According to Lauren, “What matters the most to me are clothes that are consistent and accessible. When I look at the people I’ve admired over the years, the ultimate stars like Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant and Astaire, the ones who last the longest are the ones whose style has a consistency, whose naturalness is part of their excitement.”
Since the early days, Ralph Lauren’s Polo has become one of the most recognizable brands on earth. Along with his mens and women’s clothing lines, Ralph Lauren has also designed a line of home goods, and a line of fragrances as well. In 2015, Ralph Lauren stepped down as CEO of the company, but retains an 82% voting stake in the company board. Throughout it all, Ralph Lauren has remained the definition of class. This sensibility, and attention to detail and quality have set the brand apart. And inspired a whole new generation of designers from within its own ranks. Notable former employees of Ralph Lauren include John Varvatos, Vera Wang, and Tory Burch just to name a few. Today, Lauren is worth an estimated $5.8 billion, but he has never lost site of what got him there. ”People ask how can a Jewish kid from the Bronx do preppy clothes? Does it have to do with class and money? It has to do with dreams.”