Born Ralph Lipschitz in 1939, the name of American designer Ralph Lauren became synonymous with status, class, and taste.
More than a fashion designer, Ralph Lauren was the master marketer of elegant living. In addition to clothing, he ventured into home decorating products such as furniture, bedding, drapes, towels, rugs, china, silverware, and even potpourri.
Born in the Bronx, New York City in 1939, Lauren grew up in a working-class neighborhood. Although he did not receive formal design training, he was royally steeped in fashion retailing, having worked for New York department stores in his youth. While selling ties at Brooks Brothers, he studied business at night school. It may well have been during his sales stint at Brooks Brothers, the conservative stylish menswear store, that Lauren met the "muse of tradition" which would earn him a formidable position in fashion history.
The Old Money Look
Oddly, Lauren's initial entry into fashion was designing napkin-wide Beau Brummel neckwear in 1967. At the time narrow dark ties were the norm, but he successfully shattered that tradition with colorful, opulent trendy ties. The next year he launched a menswear line, Polo, offering styles that were refined, a mix of English classic and traditional American, and conveyed the image of landed gentry to a society that had little use for class, but enormous use for money.
In 1971 Lauren introduced his women's line, which developed into four lifestyle groups: collection, classics, country, and active. Eyewear was launched in 1974, boyswear and the fragrances Polo for men and Lauren for women in 1978. Girls' clothing was introduced in 1981; footwear followed in 1982; an extensive home collection in 1983; then came scarves, hosiery, sleepwear, leather goods, luggage, jewelry, and finally his Safari fragrance in 1990.
His costuming for the films The Great Gatsby (1973) and Annie Hall (1978) influenced the way millions dressed. Modestly describing his work, Lauren stated: "I believe in clothes that last, that are not dated in a season. The people who wear my clothes don't think of them as fashion." Lauren's vision was to represent timeless American style with a dash of British elegance and the comfort of natural fibers.
From Fashion to Lifestyle
Woody Hochswender, editor of Esquire magazine, said, "Ralph is a great interpreter of American traditions and he shapes these traditions in an ongoing way." Some critics said that Lauren sold a high-priced lifestyle dream more than innovative designs. There is no question that his to-the-manor-born clothing, accessories, and home furnishings endow the owner with a sense of good taste. His advertising drove the message by focusing on the concept, rather than a single item; and his marketing and merchandising translated the vision at retail. It was a winning combination that had a tremendous impact on the way the world dressed and lived in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Haysun Hahn of Promostyl, an international fashion forecasting agency, said that "It's costuming, it's not real. He's influenced by romantic Americana and he taps into our fantasy and makes us believe it applies to everyday life." But apparently, consumers want to believe in Lauren. His formidable fashion formula was the most successful in fashion retailing, garnering a multitude of honors from his peers. He had seven COTY Awards and was inducted into the COTY Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1992 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of American Fashion Designers, and a tribute for 25 years of impact on American style from the Woolmark Awards. The Council of Fashion Designers later elected him Designer of the Year in 1996. Alan Millstein of the Fashion Network Report said, "Lauren is the only 7th Avenue high roller who has a successful chain of retail stores. He's the billion-dollar baby."
A Merchandising Genius
In 1971 Lauren opened his first retail store on Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, California, building toward a total of 116 Polo-Ralph Lauren freestanding stores in the United States, plus one in London, Paris, and Shanghai, as well as 1,300 boutiques in department stores. Company-owned outlet stores selling overruns and outdated merchandise at discounted prices followed in the early 1980s, and by the mid-1990s included 62 stores. In 1986 he made fashion retailing history with an expansive megastore housed in the huge, elegant, former Rhinelander Mansion in New York. A tour de force of his concept of dreams and designs, the store is a stunning showcase for Lauren's lifestyle marketing philosophy. John Fairchild, chairman of Women's Wear Daily, called it "The best boutique in America, probably the world." Consumers worldwide responded to the magic— spending over $5 billion a year by 1997 to have the Lauren Look—making him the best-selling designer in the world.
Lauren exemplified the image he projected, and was often featured with his family in magazines chronicling lives of the rich and famous. He was the first designer to market a lifestyle, and also the first to appear in his own advertising.
His womenswear fashion previews held each spring and fall in New York were the predictable hits of the designer collection week as he managed to tastefully interpret trends with an undisputable flair for understanding that his customers wanted to look fashionable without looking like fashion victims. For inspiration, he sometimes based collections on themes such as African safaris, Indian princesses, rugged westwear, bohemians in Paris, or Russian revolutionaries. His mix of tweeds, velvets, chiffon, and silks exuded a nonchalant elegance.
An Empire Poised for Growth
One of the secrets of Lauren's success lay in his obsession with detail, always checking product quality and maintaining tight control over the brand image he crafted so carefully. This enabled him to leverage the Polo/Ralph Lauren brand with over 25 lucrative licensing contracts, as well as introduce sub-brands such as Polo Sport (in 1994) targeted to a younger, more active adult. Experts predicted that what began as a fragrance line would grow to include well over 100 skin color and treatment products, new cross-merchandising opportunities, as well as new retail distribution. In fact, in 1996 a new Polo Sport store featuring active wear opened in Manhattan across from Polo's flagship store.
In addition to its top-of-the-line men's and women's clothing still manufactured by Polo/Ralph Lauren, licensed products are an important source of revenue. Two major new ventures began in 1995 taking the brand into the highly competitive blue jean and mass market women's clothing categories. Both took the Lauren name to a new customer at lower price points, and were instant hits. Growth was not relegated to fashion and fragrance, however. In 1996, Lauren's Home Collection contributed about $535 million in sales worldwide—more than any other designer's. Paints were launched the same year, along with instruction videos and all the tools needed to create the living environment of ones choice—Thoroughbred, Country, Santa Fe, Safari, and Sport. By 1997 investment bankers were vying for the opportunity to help Lauren take the company public; however, the success and staying power of Lauren's empire has not been lost on Wall Street
Further Reading on Ralph Lauren
For more information on Ralph Lauren and the world of fashion see Ralph Lauren: Master of Fashion by Anne Canadeo (1992), Ralph Lauren: The Man Behind the Mystique by Jeffrey Trachtenbers (1988), the Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion (1988), McDowell's Directory of 20th Century Fashion (1987), and NY Fashion: The Evolution of American Style by Caroline Rennolds Milbank (1989). Countless magazine articles have been written, including: Fortune (November 11, 1996); Newsweek (January 8, 1996); Brandweek (June 10, 1996); Town & Country (October 1996, March 1996, January 1996); Harper's Bazaar (August 1996).