Ralph Lauren: American Dream Meets Old-World Sheen

Polo by Ralph Lauren label
Image is my own / All rights reserved

It’s hard to think of a more unlikely success story in fashion than Ralph Lauren — both the man and the brand. The former was a poor Jewish kid born to immigrant parents who changed his name from Lifshitz only to go on to rule the WASPy roost. His label would similarly achieve the impossible by being an upstart luxury brand that became a retail megalith in a market where age, legacy, and established prestige are prerequisites for success. 

Ralph’s taste for fashion and business go all the way back to his high school years. He would work nights at a New York department store and then sell ties to his classmates during the day at a $7-10 markup. Ties were also his entrée into the clothing world proper. After finishing high school and two years in the U.S. Army reserves, he got a job as a neckwear salesman at Brooks Brothers

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. smoking wearing a suit
Ralph Lauren inspiration, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Image credit: Allan Warren / CC BY-SA 3.0

His time at Brooks Brothers would help shape the vision of the nascent designer, with their Ivy League aesthetic being a clear analogue to the Anglo-American aristocrat vibe that would come to epitomise the RL look. There was apparently one moment in particular that solidified Ralph’s vision of the brand he wanted to create: One day, while he was working at Brooks, he bumped into Douglas Fairbanks Jr. on the street. A legendary clotheshorse of the old school, the 1930s film star’s double-breasted suit and spread collar — which contrasted starkly with the button-down collars and skinny ties of the era — helped Lauren realise precisely what he wanted to create. Sifting through classic looks and abandoned materials would indeed go on to become Ralph Lauren’s metier, be it in the form of polo shirts, country tweeds, or ranch-style denim.

But back to ties. When Brooks Brothers didn’t allow Lauren to work on his own designs, he moved on to Beau Brummell, an upmarket NYC neckwear boutique. It was here in 1967 that he first created and sold his own pieces, essentially working out of a drawer in their Empire State Building showroom.

Polo had officially been born, and its creator wasn’t wasting any time. He began presenting his designs to other department stores. Bloomingdales said they would only stock his ties if he reduced their wide ‘European’ cut and sold them as part of the store’s in-house brand. Lauren refused and took his business elsewhere; six months later, Bloomingdales had an entire section dedicated to Ralph Lauren.

From here the milestones seem to come quickly. Within a year (by 1968) he launched his first full men’s collection. By 1970 he had a dedicated store in Bloomingdales and in 1971 he opened his first stand-alone shop. In 1972 came the iconic polo shirt, all 24 shades of it and complete with the famous pony logo (which debuted the year before), all while dropping his first full women’s line. I could go on and on.

Ralph Lauren Double RL on a mannequin
Image credit: Peachyeung316 / CC BY-SA 4.0

The early ’70s were a boon for the hardworking young man from the Bronx, but it took Holywood to turn Ralph Lauren into a full-blown phenomenon. In quick succession, the brand provided costumes to two of the biggest films of the decade. In 1974, the male actors of The Great Gatsby wore clothes from the current RL line (with the exception of Gatsby’s famous pink suit, which Ralph made especially for Robert Redford). Then in 1977, the designer’s clothes featured in the costuming of Annie Hall, thus contributing to some of the most iconic silhouettes in film. 

Ralph Lauren storefront
Image credit: Henar Langa on Unsplash

From here the brand’s various clothing lines and diversifications read like the family tree at the start of a Russian novel. There is, inter alia, Polo Sport, Polo Golf, Club Monaco, and Chaps, as well as menswear favourites Double RL (which specialises in vintage-inspired Americana and takes its name from Ralph’s ranch) and Purple Label (which is their top tier of luxury menswear). Then there’s fragrances, jewellery, homewares, restaurants, and websites. They even sell paint, for goodness’ sake. And that’s not even considering the many sponsorships and philanthropic efforts.

It’s tough to determine precisely what accounts for the success of the Ralph Lauren empire. Productivity and a canny business sense are certainly part of it. It’s a brand that caters to just about every type of consumer, from the ones that shop primarily on Amazon all the way to the bespoke luxury coterie (not to mention the Lo-Life movement, which merits its own discussion all together). All of them, however, are connected by a single vision of timeless luxury. What is ultimately being sold is a lifestyle.

Man wearing a white ralph lauren shirt
Image credit: chelsea ferenando on Unsplash

The idea is perfectly embodied by the brand’s logo. The image of a polo player on horseback manages to engender a sense of upper-class style, all while its creator and nearly everyone wearing it will never have set foot on a polo field in their lives. Ralph himself said it best: ‘I don’t design clothes, I design dreams’.