How Ralph Lauren styled the American dream

“The world of Ralph Lauren,” wrote Jonathan Raban in his travelogue of America, is “a version of pastoral” – a world with no peasants, no faulty plumbing, bad teeth or damp homes. Despite his reputation as the designer who “styled the American dream”, he sought inspiration globally – falling especially for a particular version of “Englishness” inspired by Brideshead Revisited.

“With besotted unrealism”, writes Raban, “Lauren idolised the countryside, the past and a class system that America had never experienced at first hand”. Americans loved it. Lauren, who resigned as CEO of his eponymous company last week (see below), after building it into a $10bn global fashion brand, is “a successful fantasist who turns his dreams into reality”, says The Guardian. No matter that he actually made most of his billions from polo shirts and denim.

Whether at home on Fifth Avenue, in Jamaica, or on his ranch in Colorado, he and his photogenic family (who featured in early campaigns) are “the authentic embodiment of the world of Ralph Lauren”, says Harper’s Bazaar: “a golden-tanned clan, with warm smiles and clear eyes”. Visit him in the Hamptons, and you could be walking into the world of Jay Gatsby. As it happens, Lauren designed the costumes for the 1974 film adaptation starring Robert Redford, but the parallels go beyond that.

Born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx in 1939, to a family of Jewish immigrants who had escaped Belarus, Lauren’s early fantasies were fuelled by the golden age of Hollywood glamour. His heroes were Fred Astaire and Cary Grant – and he was “in love with Rita Hayworth”. When he and his brother changed their surname as teenagers, they chose to name themselves after Lauren Bacall. Following college, Lauren joined the US army, says the FT. After that, he worked as an assistant at clothing stores, including Brooks Brothers, the chain specialising in preppy menswear, before setting up on his own in 1967 in a small office in the Empire State Building. He called the tiny company Polo, inspired by Porfirio Rubirosa, the Dominican diplomat, playboy and polo player.

Lauren’s first designs were ties, whose wide knots were in “stark contrast to the super-skinny versions then in style”, says the Daily Mail. His big break was getting them into the American department store Bloomingdale’s, where they sold so successfully that Bloomingdale’s encouraged him to release a full menswear line. But it was the Ralph Lauren polo shirt, launched in 1972, that became the blockbuster product and launched Lauren’s international career.

Lauren is “a mythmaker”, but has his feet on the ground. “There are some nasty people in the fashion world, particularly designers who think they are gods,” says Lauren’s biographer, Colin McDowell, in The Guardian. But Lauren “never, ever thinks he’s a god: he’s a working man”.

I didn’t step down, says Lauren – I stepped up

The “designer of the American dream” has been having a hard time of late, says John Gapper in the Financial Times. Ralph Lauren shares had fallen 44% this year until last week’s announcement that he was stepping down as chief executive. His replacement, Swede Stefan Larsson, is credited with having revived the fortunes of Old Navy, the Gap brand; before that, he spent 15 years at H&M. It’s hardly a CV that slots seamlessly into the Ralph Lauren mystique. But Larsson is steeped in the world of “fast fashion” retail, which has been trouncing the likes of Ralph Lauren and J. Crew. “The cult of the blazer is not sufficient any more, you also need a sharp supply chain.”

Still, it must have been blow to Lauren’s amour-propre (if not his $6.4bn fortune) when shares jumped on the news. It doesn’t look as if Lauren is ready to walk away just yet, says Emine Saner in The Guardian. Rather than step down, he told staff in a memo, he is “stepping up” to a new role as chairman and chief designer.

“How very Ralph,” noted his biographer Michael Gross, to reassert his control immediately. “He is like a Steve Jobs character. He can literally shape reality to his own will. Ralph has the ability to create worlds and make people believe in them.” That might explain, says Gapper, why Lauren is still respected by fashion cognoscenti when he hasn’t been on luxury’s leading edge for decades. He goes his own way.

Lauren has no intention of abandoning his company, says Andrew Hill in the Financial Times. Even so, the founder’s step back from operational management “must increase the risk of brand abuse”. The best insurance against it is Ralph Lauren’s “timeless look”, which should “easily outlast him” so long as the brand is nurtured properly. As a cautionary tale, he need only look at Pierre Cardin, once a byword for cachet, now “adorning an extensive range offered at the UK’s biggest discount chain, Sports Direct”.