How Ralph Lauren built his $11b fashion empire
A man defined by his own mythology, Ralph Lauren has, over 52 years of business, managed to pull off nothing less than the American dream.
The son of eastern European migrants, Ralph Lauren has lived the American dream and created an empire that champions style over fashion. Alexi Lubomirski/Trunk Archive/Snapper Image
It’s Saturday night during New York Fashion Week, and an abandoned bank on Wall Street has been staged to look like the most sublime 1920s nightclub you’ve ever seen. A jazz band plays. Waiters in white suits serve champagne and martinis. The room is abuzz.
Anna Wintour sits next to Cate Blanchett, while fashion It-girls Eva Chen and Lauren Santo Domingo chat with British Vogue editor Edward Enninful. Janelle Monáe, the evening’s star performer, sashays and preens and struts, singing jazz standards, picking up revellers’ champagne coupes and smashing them to the ground, sending a frisson through the crowd.
Lauren recreated the Jazz Age to celebrate New York Fashion Week.
As the models – dressed in sumptuous velvet suiting and tuxedo‑inspired gowns and drop-waist flapper frocks – finish their walks, they take their positions at the gleaming black bar, laughing among themselves.
“It’s all fake,” whispers the man next to me, another journalist. “The whole thing, nothing is real.”
That’s an understatement: of course it’s all been staged. And that’s the point: there are many fashion shows, but few as elaborate and exquisite as this one.
Because this is Ralph’s Club, the hottest ticket on Fashion Week’s calendar, staged by the man of the hour – who makes his soft-shoe shuffle entrance in a white tuxedo jacket, dancing with his wife as the crowd cheers.
A man defined by his own mythology, Ralph Lauren has, over 52 years of business, managed to pull off nothing less than the American dream, as the immigrant son who became the establishment and whose preppy look came to define it. He is to America what Chanel is to France, which is to say, synonymous and deeply intertwined. His biographer, Jeffrey Trachtenberg, wrote that Lauren “didn’t fantasise about becoming a fashion designer, he became a designer to fulfil his fantasies”. And he has.
Everyone will want to be part of this club. Everyone.
— Ralph Lauren
His brand – so intimately connected with his own image – embodies an upwardly mobile success story to end all success stories. It’s a brand powered by the rare ability to dress the customer who feels most comfortable drinking beer on the back porch, as well as the one who’d prefer a glass of champagne in a New York penthouse.
“When I design the clothes,” Lauren tells me at his Madison Avenue womenswear flagship the next day, where celebrations for the new collection are in full swing – another live band, more models, more champagne – “I’m thinking of a movie.”
This is nothing new; Lauren has been openly obsessed with cinema his entire life, once telling a journalist he was “more Cary Grant than Cary Grant”.
“There’s a mood,” he continues. “I was thinking, let’s do tuxedos. Then it expanded into gowns. And then I thought, they should be in a club, that’s where these women belong. Somewhere that doesn’t exist any more, something that should still exist. And I thought, everyone will want to be part of this club. Everyone.”
It’s an ideal Lauren has built his whole career on, and one that is unusual in the world of fashion: inclusivity. Most fashion is about pricing people out. What Lauren did was make fashion – or, as he puts it, style – democratic and attainable.
Janelle Monáe was the star attraction at Ralph’s Club, the hottest ticket at New York Fashion Week.
He created a category between luxury and mass, and was swiftly copied by the likes of Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. Before high-street chains such as Banana Republic, The Gap and J. Crew made affordable but aspirational-looking jeans and button-down shirts in the noughties, Ralph Lauren was doing it in the ’70s (albeit at a slightly higher price point).
Inspired in large part by Hollywood – films that exposed him to a life he never knew existed, full of travel and riches – Lauren created not just clothes but an entire world.
The story of his success is well told: he was the boy from the Bronx, born Ralph Lifshitz, without higher education or design training, who Anglicised his name as a teenager and has become such a symbol of WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) ideals that many people, even today, mispronounce his name as “Lo-REN” in the French manner, rather than “LAW-ren”, like the girl’s name.
He was just a kid, he likes telling people, who got his start selling neckties at Brooks Brothers, and famously walked away from a deal with Bloomingdale’s in 1967 because executives asked him to take his name off the ties and make them narrower. Six months later, Bloomingdale’s called back: it couldn’t find ties like his anywhere else. He could have his name. It was the beginning of Polo Ralph Lauren, which later became part of the Ralph Lauren Corporation.
The gamble paid off – big time – and became the turning point for both Ralph Lauren the man and Ralph Lauren the company. He got a rack in the New York store, and then, a few years later, his own store-within-a-store, the first designer to do so.
Fifty-two years later, it’s clear Lauren is still proud of that story, using it to define himself. I ask him where his sense of confidence and ease comes from – the same sense that has appeared in his clothing from the very beginning – and he goes back to his origins.
Lauren is proud of how he got his start, refusing to change the design of his own brand of neckties.
“Confidence comes from growing,” he says. “I always believed in what I was doing, but I got more confident as I grew. Like with Bloomingdale’s. They said, ‘Ralph, they’re too wide.’ And I thought, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ So I lost the account.”
Once the store started stocking his ties, his only question was whether they were selling. “I believed in what I had to say,” he says. “I liked what I liked. I didn’t follow what other people were doing. My question was, are people buying it? And if they were, that was enough for me.”
The Ralph Lauren empire has grown to include a full line of menswear, womenswear, childrenswear, homewares and then hospitality. In 1997, it was listed on the New York Stock Exchange; in 1999, it bought casual clothing retailer Club Monaco. Opposite the St Regis in New York is his Polo Bar – a 1950s-style restaurant, rich in mahogany and American walnut, that serves stuffed olives and prawn cocktails alongside gimlets and manhattans. There are outposts in Chicago, London and Paris.
Fashion is something that is momentary. It’s in and out. Style continues on.
— Ralph Lauren
At the flagship womenswear store on Madison Avenue, much of the bottom floor is taken up by Ralph’s Cafe, a kitsch coffee shop selling Ralph‑branded coffee beans and brownies I’m told are based on his mother-in-law’s recipe. Here, with the menswear store opposite, it is possible to eat like Ralph, drink like him, dress yourself, your children and your pets in his clothes, wear his jewellery and watches, wrap yourself in his towels – even sleep on a bed Lauren designed.
The flagship New York womenswear store on Madison Avenue.
Each floor of these flagship stores is set like a stage, fully embodying the sensibility of the products on the racks. Men’s Purple Label suits, which debuted in 1994, sit in a rarefied English gentlemen’s club setting. Downstairs, the sporty Polo label is sold amid vintage tennis racquets, Harvard rowing trophies and a television showing the US Open, which the company sponsors. The stores are not just stores; they are temples of retail. The clothes themselves are wearable and familiar; Lauren is not – and has never claimed to be – one to push the envelope (except, of course, for those too-wide ties).
In fact, Lauren has always attested that he does not create fashion. He is not a trained designer, after all, but more to the point, he considers what he does a lesson in style, not fashion, and to him the two are mutually exclusive. “Fashion is something that is momentary,” he says, in his soft nasal drawl. “It’s in and out. Style continues on.”
People with style, he says, are not looking for the next big trend. They seek out the pieces they like, and wear them in their own indefinable way. For Lauren, this has often meant designing for himself first, rather than following trends. “Those jeans and cowboy boots,” he says, pointing to a look on a mannequin, “those are things I did for myself. I’m the experiment.”
If we did our own stores, we could have more products, more space, more customers. I wouldn’t get lost in the noise of everyone else.
— Ralph Lauren
For years, critics have opined that Lauren is overly obsessed with nostalgia, and his designs are nothing more than reworked versions of the old ones. Certainly, he doesn’t follow trends. Though he has a luxury line (witness those tuxedo gowns), he’s not known for red-carpet dressing – the exception, of course, being the candy-pink ballgown he created for Gwyneth Paltrow to wear to the 1999 Oscars. She won Best Actress; the dress was universally panned.
Fashion journalist Teri Agins once said there was no question Lauren was a genius. And there is a genius to his work; who else has so deft a hand as to move from Native American style to rugged prairie dressing? From denim to old Hollywood and English country club, from preppy Ivy League to upscale sportswear?
Cate Blanchett was just one of the celebrity guests at Ralph's Club.
Who else predicted that the stand-alone designer store would take over from the department store back in the ’70s? (“If we did our own stores, we could have more products, more space, more customers,” says Lauren. “I wouldn’t get lost in the noise of everyone else in the department stores.”)
Who else opened their first athleisure store in 1993, predating that trend by a good two decades? Who else launched a branded lifestyle website in 2000? He even touted Oprah Winfrey as a presidential candidate back in 2007. And he’s still chasing newness.
There is a fondness for the old days – the jazz band, the white-gloved waiters – but also a collaboration with streetwear brand Palace, advertising on social media app TikTok, and a partnership with Internet of Things software platform Evrything to digitise the product line, meaning each Ralph Lauren item can be fully traced.
There was also a tongue-in-cheek women’s workwear line inspired by Friends character Rachel Green, to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary. Lauren had a cameo on Friends in 1999, playing himself as Rachel’s boss.
“I didn’t want to do it,” he says. “I didn’t care for television. But I’m glad I did because I see the episode in reruns all the time now.” He pauses. “You know, what’s-her-name, the star?”
“Jennifer Aniston?” I volunteer.
“Yes. Jennifer was in my restaurant the other day and I said, ‘Hey, remember me? The silver fox, right?’ And she remembered me!”
Lauren is the son of immigrants from present-day Belarus and agrees that being second-generation American has deeply informed his story, going so far as to tell me that the biggest influence on his life has been his ability to dream. “Coming from humble beginnings, going down to Manhattan from the Bronx, it was like, ‘Oh, wow’. And starting to form that identity and build those dreams to make things happen.”
The son of immigrants from present-day Belarus, Lauren grew up in the Bronx.
His father was an artist who kept the family afloat by painting houses. “There were days when he painted houses and days when he painted beautiful murals,” he says. “My parents were very hard-working, very kind. They taught me to be my own person.”
When it came to building the brand, he says, it was all from scratch. “Everyone looks for the mystery but the secret is that I worked hard. You have to prove yourself. That tie recognition was good, but it could just as easily not have happened.”
What would he have done, then?
“I would have kept working.”
As much as he insists his success is all down to his self-confidence, and that he had no back-up plan (“I don’t know! I would have run an elevator!”), Lauren simultaneously claims he had no idea he’d end up where he is now, presiding over a global empire.
"They could choose to wear anything, and they chose me”: Celebrities are not Lauren's barometer, he says.
“I never thought, ‘This could be big,’ ” he says. “Somebody lent me $50,000 at the beginning, and when you don’t have a lot of capital, there’s a tendency to follow other people. I did what I wanted to do and I believed in myself. But I never really thought, ‘This is going to be something.’ ”
Some people loved it, he says, and some didn’t. “I wasn’t the sweetheart right away. The New York Times hated it. But I continued. I had to prove myself constantly. I stood alone in the world.”
During our 30-minute interview, in almost every answer he gives, there is a constant refrain of hard work, combined with unwavering self-belief. The tale of the too-wide ties that Bloomingdale’s didn’t want, and then decided they did, is one he’s told again and again. It is his lodestone, a bit like the way for many men a white cotton shirt (with a Polo logo) is their go-to item to wear to dinner.
Lauren’s adherence to his own myth-making stories, of having willed himself into success, finds parallels in this approach to clothing, often seen as staid and certainly never boundary-pushing.
Just as you know what the clothes will look like when you walk into a Ralph Lauren store, when you interview the man, you will get many of the same stories he has told before. You don’t get to be a powerhouse in fashion by changing the script.
Perhaps he never did doubt himself – his business had almost instant success. In his first year, he sold $US500,000 worth of ties to department stores. When his ties started selling out, Bloomingdale’s requested shirts. Lauren reinvented the English polo shirt, adding his insignia – a polo player atop a horse – then created pants, then jackets. Womenswear came next.
More Cary Grant than Cary Grant: Lauren has is the king of a peculiarly American kind of WASP-y aspirational cool. Christopher Sturman/Trunk Archive/Snapper Images
In 1971 Lauren was the first American designer to open a free-standing store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. By the mid-’70s, he was designing Robert Redford’s clothes for The Great Gatsby (and, allegedly, generating so much press for himself that the film’s costume designer tried to get his name taken off the credits) and then Diane Keaton’s for Annie Hall.
He won his first Council of Fashion Designers of America Award at the CFDA’s first-ever awards presentation in 1980. In 1992, he won the CFDA’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2007 he was given the first CFDA American Fashion Legend Award. (It seems they keep creating new awards because he keeps winning them all.)
Lauren has dressed many first ladies, starting with one former, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, then Hillary Clinton – who he also dressed throughout her presidential campaign – and through to Melania Trump, who wore a custom blue Ralph Lauren dress to her husband’s inauguration (for which the designer, as a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, was roundly criticised).
Bella Hadid sparkles at Ralph's Club. Getty
Celebrities are not his barometer, though. “If Mrs Clinton is running for president and wants to wear Ralph Lauren, well, that’s a big compliment,” he says. “I’m a big fan of hers, too. But the celebrity thing? I don’t care. I care more about the people who’ve worked very hard for their money and want to enjoy it. They could choose to wear anything, and they chose me.”
He still feels ambitious, even after half a century and all those stamps of approval. “The world changes, time changes, people change tastes. So you have to keep going or you just … don’t.”
I respect critics but I also respect my own knowledge. If I listened to every critic I’d be in trouble. You have to be who you are.
— Ralph Lauren
Last night’s show, he says, and the standing ovation it received from New York’s fashion elite, was a validation. “It was one of the good days, sure,” he says. “I’ve had shows when people didn’t think much, but I walk in here today and I feel great.”
He reads criticism, but “does what he has to do”, he says. “I would like them to like everything. But critics do their job. Some are great because they’re smart, and some are not. I respect critics but I also respect my own knowledge and confidence. If I listened to every critic I’d be in trouble. You have to be who you are.”
Lauren’s adherence to these values has worked, and then some. Last year the company made $US6 billion ($8.7 billion) in revenue, netting $US901 million in profit. There are more than 465 Ralph Lauren and Club Monaco stores worldwide, and the company oversees six different brands. Ralph Lauren outfits America’s US Open players and its Olympic team, and is the official designer for Wimbledon.
Many designers who once worked for Lauren have gone on to their own successful ventures – Thom Browne was a designer at Club Monaco, John Varvatos designed menswear for him, and Tory Burch, whose preppy image might edge out Lauren’s own, worked in his womenswear department, as did bridal designer Vera Wang.
It must be nice, I say, to see his employees strike out on their own with such good fortune. “Well, I’d rather they do it with me,” he says with a laugh. “When John Varvatos – a good friend of mine – left, I said, ‘What are you going to do? Do you have something to say?’ And he really did have his own voice. Because you don’t want to be a copy of somebody else.”
Leading a company, he says, is extremely difficult: you have to be sure you’re on board for that. “You take the good and the bad, you have no choice. Sometimes you go backwards.”
Gigi Hadid models tuxedo-inspired creations at Ralph's Club.
There was a time in the 1970s when the bank cautioned Lauren against growing too quickly. “Nothing too deep, but enough to make me stressed,” he says, in a rare display of vulnerability. He pushed $150,000 of his own life savings into the company and recruited a business partner in Peter Strom, allowing Lauren more time to focus on design and marketing.
The company went public in 1997 and even though Lauren insists he has no interest in retiring, one gets the sense that he’s no longer on the front line. Over the years a small coterie of employees has stayed loyal to him. Buffy Birrittella, a former Women’s Wear Daily journalist, came to work for him in 1971 and stayed for 45 years (“Buffy says she worked at Ralph Lauren before I did,” he quips). Peter Strom was there for 35.
Everyone thinks they’re indispensable, and nobody is.
— Ralph Lauren
Lauren has always been at the top, but savvy enough to employ those who can be ersatz Ralphs when the need arises. Today, Lauren sets the mood of the collections, and the team reports back, he says. “What I did last night was my idea, and my team got it done.”
In 2015, Lauren stepped down as CEO and installed Stefan Larsson, known as the high-street whiz who turned around the ailing Old Navy and H&M brands. In 2017, former Procter & Gamble president Patrice Louvet took over. Both times, Lauren sent around an office memo to let his staff know that he was still the company’s driving force.
At 80, he says there is no clear succession plan in place, but there are plenty of “great people” within the company who could take over. “Maybe they won’t be as great as I am,” he deadpans. “But everyone thinks they’re indispensable, and nobody is.”
Lauren’s son David is the company’s chief innovation officer, strategic adviser to the CEO, head of the Ralph Lauren Foundation and vice-chairman of the board. Those interested in placing bets might be wise to put their wager on him.
Through the years, the business has been unusually untarnished by scandal, all the more surprising given this is an industry where players tend to burn brightly – and then burn out. But not so with Lauren, whose image is as pristine as that of his brand. There was a rivalry with Tommy Hilfiger in the ’90s that seems like ancient history now. Rumours of an extramarital affair – Lauren has been married for 54 years to Ricky, with whom he has three children – appeared to be unfounded.
Lauren with his wife of 54 years, Ricky.
When Larsson began his tenure as CEO, the brand was a little shaky, and the new boss shut 50 underperforming stores and laid off 1000 employees. But mostly – and that’s a big mostly – across 52 years in business, Ralph Lauren has epitomised success, as much in its external image as in its designs.
Oprah has said that her first big splurge, many years ago, was on a set of Ralph Lauren towels. There is something about buying into Ralph Lauren, even if it’s just a polo shirt or a set of towels, that seems to say “I’ve earned this.”
Standing in his New York flagship, you can still feel that intangible sense of magic in his designs and in the world he’s created. Tourists and regular New Yorkers have walked in off the street, to find a live band in full swing while waiters proffer champagne.
The entire experience feels less like shopping and more like you’ve arrived at a party at your rich uncle’s house in the Hamptons, where everyone’s invited.
They want to be part of Ralph’s club. And for a brief spell, they are.
The 60-page bumper Jewellery issue of LUXURY is out on Friday, November 15, inside The Australian Financial Review. Follow LUXURY on Instagram.