From rags to riches … the designer life of Ralph Lauren

Karin K. Nastawa

He’s responsible for the little horse on your button-down shirts and the small bears parading all over your roommate’s sheets. His career started as a necktie designer for Beau Brummel and it continues to flourish as his classic fashion extends to mens, womens, childrens and home design.

Born Ralph Lipschitz in 1939, Ralph Lauren is a fashion designer who has changed much of the industry in which he works.

From a middle-class Jewish family, Lauren’s interest in fashion started early. As young as 12 years of age, Lauren worked after-school jobs just to pay for expensive, classic suits. He entered City College in Manhattan to study business and dropped out just shy of a degree.

Returning to school at night, he worked during the day for a necktie line. He gained experience in the business, took out a $50,000 loan and began his first entrepreneurial line under the Polo name in 1968.

Vendors such as Bloomingdale’s took notice and slapped him with criticism. They demanded he re-design the tie layout. Lauren refused.

As his business took off, Bloomingdale’s conceded and begged for his lines to be supplied in their stores.

Lauren designed costumes for the films as “The Great Gatsby” (1974) and “Annie Hall” (1977). He later added the must-have “power suit” for men in the ’80s, followed by women’s clothing and a home collection line.

Lauren’s greatness stems from his ability to create not only the look craved by Americans, but also the lifestyle. He portrays classic, comfortable and sophisticated looks through such tailored fabrics as silk, cashmere, cotton, Harris tweeds and English flannel.

As an extension of his talents, Lauren also designs luggage, tableware, linens and furnishings for the desired lifestyle.

Ralph Lauren stamps his name on many lines: Polo/Ralph, Lauren for Men, Ralph Lauren for Women, Double RL, Ralph Lauren Home and Ralph Lauren paint.

As founder, designer and chairman of a $3 billion company, he is proud to claim the Coty Menswear Award (1970), Coty Fasion Award for Women’s Wear (1974), Coty Hall of Fame (1977) and the Lifetime Achievement Award (1992).

Referred to as “the first image-maker” by New York magazine, Lauren’s empire continues to grow as his name spreads worldwide.

Though he never finished school, his company grew on determination, skill and a few great ideas.