Ralph Lauren is a household name in the fashion world. As one of our generation’s most outstanding and recognizable designers, Lauren is known for his sportswear line Polo Ralph Lauren, the centerpiece of his fashion empire. He led one of the world’s most successful fashion empires for over half a century. His name is often synonymous with menswear – whether in the form of classic polos or luxury suits.
Learn more about Ralph Lauren’s life and its impact on the fashion world here.
Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Rueben Lifshitz on October 14, 1939, in the Bronx, New York City, to Frieda Cutler and Frank Lifshitz. His parents were both Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who fled from Belarus.
At the age of 16, Ralph and his brother Jerry changed their last name to Lauren after being consistently teased at school. Their other brother, Lenny, retained the family name. But even then, Ralph was already known for his distinctive fashion sense, as he found inspiration from screen icons like Fred Astaire and Cary Grant while having a taste for both preppy and vintage looks.
After high school, he took business classes at a night college in Manhattan and worked in sales by day. While working for a tie company, he was inspired to design his own neckwear.
In 1967, Lauren began designing his own men’s neckties and branded them under the name “Polo.” He sold them at large department stores, including Bloomingdales.
Lauren released his first menswear line in 1968 that featured classic tweed suits. He received the Coty Award for his men’s design in 1970. After this recognition, he launched his first womenswear line that continued to explore classic tailoring but with a feminine twist.
In 1972, Lauren released a short sleeve, cotton sports shirt in 24 colors. The shirt came with the company’s famed logo, a polo player – which became the brand’s signature look.
Since the inception of his brand, Lauren’s creations were described to have a moneyed style that evoked the look of English aristocracy adopted by the sporty American elite from the East Coast. Some criticized his designs for not being innovative while also embraced by lots of consumers who prefer more approachable looks.
The Ralph Lauren style became a nationwide phenomenon when he dressed the male actors in the classic 1974 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby in clothes from his current line. The film’s aura of the elegant era of the Roaring Twenties offered a perfect vehicle for Lauren’s classic and sometimes nostalgic vision. He also received credit for helping outfit the cast of 1975’s The Wild Party. Lauren received further attention when he created the clothes worn by Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in 1977’s Annie Hall.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Polo expanded rapidly, opening boutiques across the United States and abroad. By 1986, Lauren had a flagship store in the Rhinelander Mansion on Madison Avenue, New York, which has since become flanked by other Ralph Lauren stores. By the ’90s, the presence of both his brand name and shops became global.
Among his many accolades include the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) awards for Lifetime Achievement (1991), Womenswear Designer of the Year (1995), and Menswear Designer of the Year (1996 and 2007), and Fashion Legend Award (2007). The government of France gave him the Legion of Honor award in 2010, and the Smithsonian Institution awarded him the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal in 2014.
Ralph Lauren’s Impact on Fashion
He popularized polo shirts.
Contrary to popular belief, Ralph Lauren wasn’t the inventor of a polo shirt. Rene Lacoste invented it in 1926, as he thought stiff tennis shirts were too uncomfortable. But it was Lauren who made the shirt popular. It became highly marketable in the late ’70s and has become a staple shirt for years since it bridges the gap between the too casual T-shirt and the too formal dress shirt. Check out the do’s and don’ts of proper polo shirt etiquette.
He made wide and colorful neckties fashionable.
Lauren started off his fashion career as a tie designer. After working as a salesman for the Brooks Brothers, he branched off and started his own business. He went from store to store to sell ties out of a drawer in the Empire State Building.
He designed wide, colorful neckties when narrow and plain was the norm. His radical approach to ties won over Bloomingdales. In one year, he sold $500,000 worth of ties. Because of Lauren’s idea, other designers followed suit.
He was the first designer to introduce two fragrances simultaneously.
The first Ralph Lauren fragrances were launched at Bloomingdale’s in March 1978. He released Lauren, a fragrance for women on March 12, and then Polo, cologne for men, on March 26. This simultaneous release of two fragrances – one for men and one for women – was a first for any designer.
He was a visionary who allowed fashion labels to diversify.
As a well-known fashion designer, Lauren once said ironically that he is interested in timelessness, longevity, and style, not fashion. His work throughout the decades of his career reflected this motto. Even as he explored new ideas like safari looks and Southwestern themes, he remained grounded in his central focus on classic American clothing.
Lauren’s style appealed to a wide variety of people – transcending generations – and his label quickly turned into an empire. When he saw how his clothing was associated with a certain lifestyle, he expanded his business in 1983 to include a range of home accessories that would include pillows, bed and bath products, throws, furniture, and even household paint. He also diversified his label by offering clothing lines and accessories targeted at a wider range of demographics and price points, including a children’s line and a jean’s line.
He was an inspiring rags-to-riches story in the fashion world.
People who dream of being big in the fashion world can take inspiration from Ralph Lauren’s story.
Ralph Lauren has amassed billions, and as of 2019, he’s the 102nd richest person in America, according to Forbes. But he wasn’t born with privilege. Lauren grew up in an impoverished neighborhood in the Bronx. His family wasn’t well-off, so he immersed himself in the fantasy world of cinema to escape his dull life. But despite his humble beginnings, he has always been thinking big. In his 1957 high school yearbook, he wrote “millionaire” as his life goal.
Having only a high school diploma and a few business classes under his belt, the decision to start his own company was the first of many risks Lauren would take in his career. Ralph Lauren proved that New York City is really a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” as he lived out his American dream.
He is the only designer to win the CDFA’s top four honors.
Ralph Lauren is the only designer who has won the fashion equivalent of the EGOT. He won the Lifetime Achievement Award, the Menswear Designer of the Year Award, the Womenswear Designer of the Year Award, and the Retailer of the Year Award.