Ralph Rueben Lifshitz was the youngest of four sons of two Jewish immigrants from Belarus. He wore hand-me-downs from his three older brothers, as his father was an artist who when hard up for money painted houses. Yet his youngest son, a Jewish kid from the Bronx, would conquer the fashion world with a style that exuded WASP gentry.
Even the name of his product line was a nod to the sport of American uppercrust and British aristocracy: Polo.
Born on October 14, 1939, in the Bronx, at 16 he dropped the name Lifshitz. Cousins in California had adopted the name Lawrence. He wanted something with a little more flair and became Ralph Lauren.
He told Oprah Winfrey in 2002: "My given name has the word shit in it. When I was a kid, the other kids would make a lot of fun of me. It was a tough name. That's why I decided to change it. Then people said, 'Did you change your name because you don't want to be Jewish?' I said, 'Absolutely not. That's not what it's about'."
In changing his name, he also followed a Hollywood tradition. While he played stickball and basketball and dreamed of turning pro like any other boy in the Bronx, Ralph Lauren secretly wanted to be a movie star, or at least dress like them. He spent afternoons at the theater watching Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and other matinée idols. He admired their attire. He dressed well. He wore tweed.
"It was a pretty tough neighborhood. There was this area, Parkway, near all the schools, where we used to sit. Some guys liked what I wore and some didn’t. But I was just an individual, and a good athlete, so no one said anything to me. Anyway it wasn’t about the guys, it was about the girls," Lauren told the Telegraph in 2014.
In his senior yearbook at DeWitt Clinton High School in 1957, he wrote he planned to be a millionaire.
He would be off by three digits.
Lauren attended Baruch College in pursuit of a business degree but dropped out after a couple of semesters. He joined the Army. Honorably discharged in 1964, he worked at Brooks Brothers as a salesman. He sold ties. Thin, black ties which were part of the buttoned-down America of the 1960s.
"I had no credentials but I was dressed well. With my last money I’d bought some clothes from Brooks Brothers. And I sold those ties. There was this Englishman, I remember. He used to come over from this company called, Vanners and Fennell. I loved the way he looked. He used to wear this beautiful scarf, very casually thrown away. He gave me that scarf and I still have it today," Lauren told the Telegraph.
Meanwhile, in June 1964, he visited an eye doctor, and fell for his receptionist, Ricky Anne Loew-Beer On December 20, 1964, they married, but he did not tell his family that she was only half-Jewish. Fifty years later, they remain married to one another.
The job at Brooks Brothers bored him. He went to work for Beau Brummel. He came to favor wider, colorful ties which were popular in London in the 1960s, and suggested the company allow him to design such cravats. He recalled more than 40 years later, "So I asked the company if I could. They said, 'The world’s not ready for you, Ralph!' "
It was also at Brooks Brothers that he saw debonair Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Lauren told Oprah Winfrey, "I thought, 'Wow — that guy looks cool.' Later it hit me: The reason I was looking at this older guy's suit instead of at guys my own age was because his look represented something I didn't see around me. Back then everyone was wearing cookie-cutter clothes: button-down shirts, thin ties. I wanted the spread collar, the wide tie, the shaped suit. At the time, you couldn't find those clothes, so I made them, piece by piece."
Lauren saw a market.
"What you thought Cary Grant was wearing, you could not walk into a store and buy," he told Charlie Rose in 1993. "The things that I made, you could not buy. You could not find them anywhere."
The world may not have been ready for Ralph Lauren, but he was ready for the world. In 1967, he struck out on his own with an office in the Empire State Building and an investor willing to front him $50,000. He took rags and turned them into wide ties. Literally. He struggled, but he was a good salesman. When Neiman-Marcus placed an order for 100 dozen, he knew he would make it.
Lauren worked hard, learned the market, and had a competitive advantage called style. He named his brand Polo, a sport he never played. The name sounded vaguely British. He used natural fabrics at a time when polyester was taking over the world. He also went for quality merchandise that would remain fashionable for a long time.
''I was always inspired by those kind of prep-school people and their clothes,'' Lauren told the New York Times in 1983. ''By classic things, by the way those people looked and dressed. Maybe because I didn't have it, I always reached for it.''
But the fellow at Beau Brummel was right. The world was not quite ready for Ralph Lauren. He almost went broke his first year.
"What I'm most proud of in my life is that I went into this business on my own terms. I never threw myself away. I kept going in a straight line even when people said, 'Give it up.' And there was a period when the business suddenly got very bad. The clothes literally weren't fitting and I ran out of money. In the early years of my business, I'd brought in a friend as my financial guy, and he hadn't watched the money. The bills weren't being paid. People were calling and saying, 'Mr. Lauren, the check that was supposed to be in the mail never arrived.' I remember being scared I'd lose everything. What was most upsetting was the thought of having to call my father and say, 'Dad, I lost my business.' That's what I was worried about — disappointing my father. He was so proud that I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. So I took my last penny and put it into the business, and somehow I made it through," Lauren told Oprah Winfrey.
What made him was a shirt, the Polo shirt, a simple utilitarian garment that is comfortable and gives the wearer the feeling of being part of the upper crust. There is something brilliantly American about that shirt, the sense that we are all going to be millionaires. It is everyman elistist.
Lauren stays relevant because he listens and learns, which he demonstrated in an interview with Dirk Standen of Vogue. I like this passage:
DS: Can I just ask why you closed the Rugby stores? I personally loved what you were doing there. Why did you feel it wasn’t working?
RL: The problem is that when I decided to do Rugby, which was considerably before you started to see it, Rugby was much younger than Polo and it was a “son” of Polo. The Polo guy was getting more sophisticated, a little older, and he’d go in and shop with his son. But as I made Rugby better and better, it started to look more like Polo. And so I said, “Why should I do this? Let me go focus in on Polo and add what I think the Rugby thing had said,” which were some younger things. A lot of people ask me about Rugby. People come in my store and say, “I want Rugby!” When you don’t do something anymore, all of a sudden everyone treasures it.
DS: I actually shop Black Label and Purple Label and Rugby. And Polo occasionally.
RL: So you’re my man. What are you seeing about that? What’s your take on Black Label and Purple Label and Polo?
DS: Purple Label I think is perfect. I have a Purple Label chesterfield — I think it’s 10 years old now, and I still wear it every winter. I’ve had it relined a couple of times.
RL: Purple Label is flying out of stores.
DS: I think Purple Label is great. Black Label, when it first came out, I bought maybe three or four suits and I still wear those. But if I’m being honest, I wonder if it’s developed since you launched it. RL: Black is not as good as Purple.
DS: I’m just not sure how it’s developed since you launched it. And the more kind of sport direction you’ve introduced to it is less my style, so that’s just a personal thing.
RL: I got it. I got it. A lot of guys that like Black Label, they like Polo sportswear.The CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company (RL) is not just answering questions, but asking them. He wants to know what customers think, even if it is Dirk Standen of Vogue. He converses with people -- customers, salesmen, doormen -- to keep in tune with the product. This is how Ralph Lauren never goes out of style.
My series on Exceptional Americans is designed to remind readers that the greatness of America is that it allows individuals to reach their potential, which means a poor kid in the Bronx named Ralph Rueben Lifshitz can grow up to become billionaire Ralph Lauren.
I am publishing the best of these tales, in Kindle and on Amazon. Volume I covering American history from the 16th through the 20th century is here. And Volume II on The Capitalists is available here.
Suggestions are welcome. Email me at DonSurber@GMail.com