Someone underestimated the market, saying that the “world is not yet ready for [him].” But that gave the artist an epiphany. He will create his own brand, and people will no longer be “victims of fashion.”
His ties sold like pancakes and they carried his name, the name now highly-regarded in the world of fashion—Ralph Lauren.
Since he renovated the Rhinelander Mansion and turned it into a flagship store for Polo Ralph Lauren, the fashion guru has bidden his modest beginnings goodbye. That does not mean though that Ralph has forgotten where he came from. In fact, it’s the thought of living in scarcity that encouraged him to push forward when faced with daunting challenges.
His father’s artistry inspired him to try his hands at designing. Watching his father do something with his hands gave him the confidence that he too was capable of creating beautiful things. Now successful and famous, he credits most of what he has achieved as products of his excellent upbringing.
It’s amazing how someone as deprived of luxury as Ralph could create trinkets, design clothes, and concoct fragrances that appeal to the elite. The unadulterated products of his sheer imagination have elegance written all over them. As hardly believable as it is, Ralph Lauren has been making things beautiful as opposed to merely making beautiful things. Who would have thought the discarded rags he fashioned into neckties would become the foundation of his world-renowned fashion empire? The world was not prepared for Ralph Lauren, but he was prepared to conquer the world. He was ready and he did not let anything keep him from doing what he loves to do.
More often than not, artists are defined by their creations. That is not the case for Ralph Lauren. His creations and he are one. He painstakingly works on every project he takes on and never releases a product without his approval. He might as well protect the brand because it carries his name. The fall of the product will be his failure. Now a billionaire, Ralph does not rest on his velvet couch to let his staff do the work. The reason he’s still robust in his seventies is his being in constant action—creating and brainstorming new designs.
Since he won the COTY award in 1970, Ralph Lauren has amassed seven COTY trophies and was already inducted into the COTY Hall of Fame in 1986. Before 1970s came to a close, he had been approached by movie producers to design “The Great Gatsby” and “Annie Hall” costumes. His contribution to the fashion industry also merited a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of American Fashion Designers in 1992.
During the same year, Woolmark Awards paid him tribute “for twenty-five years of impact on American style.” Four years later, The Council of Fashion Designers named him Designer of the Year, and by 1997, he has been known all over the world as the “bestselling designer.”
When he listed his company on the stock market under “RL,” investors came rushing in. His business kept doing well, enabling him to donate 13 million dollars to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Since his brain tumor removal, Ralph has also begun being active in raising funds for organizations that help people with cancer, particularly, breast cancer—the disease that took his friend Nina’s life. To honor her and help women battling with the deadly ailment, Ralph convinced his friends to join him in raising money for the Nina Hyde Center. This led to his being honored for his efforts in raising money for research into a cure for breast cancer.
They say that “the more you give, the more you will receive.” This was proven true by Ralph’s unprecedented success in fashion business. In 2012, Forbes estimated his worth at 7.5 billion dollars, making him the 122nd richest man in the world.
His success in business did not cause him to disregard his family, let alone become an absentee father. If anything, the business afforded him to provide for the needs of his wife and children—something he did not experience in the Bronx where he spent his childhood and teenage years.
He led by example and in the end enjoyed the fruits of his labor. All of his three children became successful in their chosen field. Among the three of them, only one—his second son—joined his father’s business. He did not impose on his children the kind of future he wanted them to have. What he did was, love them and accept them for who they are.
Ricky, his wife since 1964, remains to be his partner through thick and thin. Most of his success he also attributes to her who was a constant source of strength. With that kind of family behind Ralph, he was ready for anything. So in hindsight, Ralph did not get lucky. He got to where he is now because he continues to reinvent his creations with the closest people urging him to keep going. Never in his life did he procrastinate. Hard work and passion became his ultimate weapon. And we could say that he has gotten even better through the years.
But did the Ralph Lauren use to go by Ralph Lauren? What’s the story behind this man whose iconic name embodies prestige and elegance?
Before Ralph Lauren became a well-respected brand, he was first Ralph Reuben Lifshitz, born on 14 October 1939 in the Bronx, New York. He is the youngest of the four children of Fraydl Kotlar and Frank Lifshitz, both Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, from Pinsk, Poland—what we now know as Belarus. Frank was an artist. When the going gets tough, he would accept painting jobs to augment the household expenses of his big family. His youngest son, Ralph, would oftentimes go with him and help him finish his job.
Ralph loved watching his father complete his work. He watched in awe as his father completed projects stroke by stroke. He knew that his father was endowed with a great deal of talent. “When I went to see his work, it was special,” Ralph says of his father to Oprah. It was that realization that led him to conclude: “Somewhere along the line, I felt I was special.”
Being the youngest, he did not have the privilege of wearing new clothes. For the longest time, Ralph endured years and years of wearing his brothers’ hand-me-downs. Being Jewish, he attended the John Jay College Jewish Day School. He spent his elementary years in Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy, which during his time was known as MTA. His name was the brunt of all jokes at school. He grew up hating his last name because it “had the word shit in it.” His classmates used his last name to humiliate him.
Besides being known as having a funny sounding name at the MTA, he was also popular for selling ties in school. At an early age, Ralph was already into making designs. When graduation came and each student was asked what they wanted to be when they “grow up,” he innocently wrote “to be a millionaire.”
He sure was not serious about what he declared in their yearbook. Being a millionaire looked as distant as finishing college. His parents struggled to make both ends meet when he started high school. To help them pay the utilities, he worked part-time in New York department stores, selling garments. His eye for style was already beginning to develop as he saw new fashion trends emerging. Earning his own keep enabled him to buy a really nice suit. As he told Oprah in an interview:
"When I was younger, I worked at night and went to school during the day. I knew what it was like to want to buy a nice suit and not be able to afford it. I saved my money to buy the best suit I could. I always wanted the best one, and eventually I got it."
Working at department stores stimulated the artist in him. He also realized that money can buy pretty things, so he was inspired to work hard in order to earn big. Watching John Wayne, he thought it would be cool to one day become an actor. For a time, his greatest dream was to join show business. He also loved sports, but even playthings were hard to come by in their abject poverty. But instead of thinking of it as a hindrance, he was driven by it to work hard to eventually afford the things he liked:
“It was poor people's baseball. I didn't have a bike or a baseball mitt. Did I want them? Yes. But I knew my parents wanted to give them to me and couldn't. So I became motivated to get things on my own.” (Source: Oprah.com)
But his last name became a stumbling block for the aspiring artist. He knew he couldn’t succeed unless he changes his name into something that won’t attract negative allusions. Apparently, he’s not the only one bugged by having Lifshitz for a last name. According to him:
“My cousins who lived in California had changed their last name to Lawrence. So I just thought, "I'm going to pick a nice last name"—it wasn't particularly connected to anything or anyone. I was 16, and it was years before I became a designer. It had nothing to do with Jewishness, it had nothing to do with not being proud of who I am. It had to do with not wanting to be at a detriment for no reason in a world that makes fun of things.” (Source: Oprah.com)
No longer a Lifshitz, Ralph graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in New York in 1957. When it was time to go to college, he chose to enroll in Baruch College—the same school Bronx superstar J. Lo would later on attend—and took up business.
College made life even harder for Ralph. He wanted to finish his degree, but he also knew how overwhelming the expenses were for Frank and Fraydl. After only two years of attending college, he dropped out and joined the United States Army in 1962.
He served in the armed forces until he was discharged in 1964. He knew that going back to school would only set him back in his journey to greatness. So he chose to learn business through experience. He worked for the Brooks Brothers as a sales assistant. It was a very “important” phase in his life because that’s when he got more exposed to the apparel industry.
Then he met Ricky Anne Loew-Beer during that year. She was working as a receptionist at an eye clinic and Ralph saw her when he went for a regular check-up. The two have something in common—their Jewish ancestry. The catch is that, Ricky’s mother is what Jews would call a “gentile.” Margaret Vytouch is of Catholic faith and hailed from Austria.
Ralph knew his parents won’t approve of their marriage if he told them about Ricky’s half-Jewish ancestry. They kept her racial background a secret from Frank and Fraydl until they tied the knot on 20 December 1964. Five years later, Ricky would give birth to their firstborn, Andrew Lauren. Fortunately, Ralph was beginning to be recognized as a promising designer by the time their eldest son was born. It all started four years ago...
One day, on his way home, the twenty–something Ralph saw the famous Hollywood actor, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. He walked right past him and he could not help but throw him a second glance, not because he was famous or anything. Ralph quickly assessed what made the actor’s look so impeccable. Then his gaze zeroed in on his tie and his suit.
That’s where he got his wide necktie inspiration from. He then joined a necktie company and proposed his contemporary tie design. As he told Oprah:
“I'd worked for a tie company, and I said, "Can we do this kind of tie? I think we could sell them in New York." This older guy who ran the company said, "No—the world is not ready for Ralph Lauren." That was a big statement to say to a 26-year-old kid. The guy laughed at the idea of doing your own thing. I left there and started out of a drawer in the Empire State Building.”
The old man’s words rang in his ears and he took it as a compliment. Well, if the world is not yet ready for him, then he would prove to be someone they should watch for.
But first things first, he had to sell his ties. The drawer in the Empire State Building became the first working board of then wannabe designer. He had a clear vision of what he wanted to do. Whether the public would receive his design or not, he would still do it.
He went to work and sold every piece of it to department stores. Wearing jeans and a bomber jacket, Ralph would knock on the doors of department store managers to pitch his ties. They were entirely different, making them eye-catching. He convinced some of them to sell his ties, then carrying the name “Ralph Lauren.” Their sales picked up in no time. People were beginning to get creative and experimenting with neckties to give one’s look a distinct appeal was a welcome reprieve.
As his ties were becoming well-known, he summoned enough courage to approach Bloomingdale’s and to convince the upscale department store to carry his neckties. Ralph’s designs impressed the manager. But the deal was not made due to the terms that did not sit well with the budding artist. He animatedly tells Oprah:
“When I finally had the chance to show the buyer the ties, he said, "Ralph, I like the patterns—but you gotta make them a quarter of an inch narrower. And I want you to take your name off and put on Sutton East"—that was their private label. I said to the guy, "Gary, I'm dying to sell to Bloomingdale's, but I'm closing my bag because I can't take my name off. And I can't make the tie a quarter of an inch narrower.”
In six months’ time, however, Bloomingdale’s contacted him to offer a whole rack for his ties alone. But his biggest break was when Neiman Marcus had one of his staff drop by his office. He asked if they could look at his ties and see if what they were hearing about was true. Ralph knew that his big break was at arm’s length. Rather than showing Neiman Marcus his ties, he decided to personally see him to explain his product. It was a cunning business move. He went home with 100 dozen of orders from his new client.
In 1967, he began to explore other business possibilities. He partnered with Norman Hilton, a Manhattan clothing manufacturer, to put up his own necktie store. He sold the neckties under the name “Polo,” which he bought from the Brook Brothers. Although he was credited for designing the hip buttoned-down collar shirt, the design’s rights remained with Brook Brothers. Later on, he began his menswear line. Because of his unique designs, he bagged the 1970 COTY Award.
The year 1971 was a memorable moment for the Laurens. The second of their sons, David, was born. In the same year, he introduced his women’s line. The first set of apparel he launched consisted of “Polo's famous short sleeve mesh shirt with the Polo logo.” He released the same style in varying sizes and made them available in 24 colors. They were an absolute hit!
In choosing the name Polo and its corresponding icon, he matter-of-factly tells Oprah: "My symbol was always a polo player because I liked sports, and polo has a stylishness to it." He also added that he couldn’t call it “basketball” so he settled in christening his line “Polo.” The name has a nice recall to it and people were soon raving about his designs and everyone went gaga over the Ralph Lauren ensemble.
His fame soon reached Hollywood and he was contracted in 1973 to design and make the costumes for the movie, “The Great Gatsby.” The following year was another busy time for Ralph who was again commissioned to dress up “Annie Hall” characters. A year went by and a daughter they named Dylan completed Ralph’s family.
In 10 years’ time, Ralph had saved enough money to purchase the iconic Rhinelander Mansion. He then renovated it to become the Polo Ralph Lauren flagship store. Just when Ralph was enjoying the fruit of his labor, he was diagnosed with having a benign brain tumor in 1987. At 40 years old, he was at the prime of his fashion career. The surgery was successful, but it changed the way he looked at things.
Since his operation, he has partnered with the Memorial Sloan-Kettering and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. to help cancer patients in need of financial and moral support. He also raised funds to establish the Nina Hyde Center after his friend Nina died of breast cancer. To top it all, he founded the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Prevention and Care at North General Hospital.
From the time he has started his career, he was able to buy the things he once only dreamt of buying. Among his favorite acquisitions are vintage cars. His collection has been exhibited at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
The Ralph Lauren company went public in 1997 and is now trading using the symbol RL. In 2010, he was honored by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur. He is also believed to be 2012’s 122nd richest man in the world.
From selling neckties, Ralph Lauren is now a respected name that carries fragrances, a home collection, avant garde fashion, a restaurant, and accessories.
In an interview, he tells Oprah, "You have to create something from nothing." Now a billionaire, he has proven that it can be done.
Organisations and Campaigns Supported
- Breakthrough Breast Cancer
- Memorial Sloan-Kettering
- Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
- Polo Volunteer Program
- Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Prevention and Care at North General Hospital
- Fashion Targets Breast Cancer
- Nina Hyde Center
- Pink Pony Campaign
- American Heroes Fund
- Habitat for Humanity
- Polo Fashion School
- 1970: Won the COTY Award for his menswear line
- 1971: Introduced his women's line
- 1971: Opened his own free-standing store
- 1972: Debuted signature Polo sport shirt
- 1973: Contracted to provide clothing styles for the movie The Great Gatsby
- 1977: Contracted to provide clothing styles for the movie Annie Hall
- 1984: Established the Polo Ralph Lauren flagship store
- 1986: Inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame
- 1990: Established Fashion Targets Breast Cancer
- 1992: Received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of American Fashion Designers
- 1992: Woolmark Awards paid tribute to him for twenty-five years of impact on American style
- 1996: Elected Designer of the Year by The Council of Fashion Designers
- 1997: Touted as the best-selling designer in the world
- 1997: Began trading on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol RL
- 1998: Donated $13 million to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
- 1998: Honored for his efforts to raise money for research into a cure for breast cancer
- 2000: Introduced the company's Web site, Polo.com
- 2007: Established over 35 boutiques in the United States
- 2009: Reported by the Financial Times to have earned $5 billion
- 2010: Appointed Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur by French President Nicolas Sarkozy
- 2012: Declared by Forbes as the 122nd richest person in the world
- The first designer to appear in his own advertising
- The first fashion designer to launch a home line
- Cars won "best in show" at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance multiple times
- Has seven Coty design awards
- Raised money for Nina Hyde Center