Amassing a fortune of $7 billion, American fashion designer Ralph Lauren has gone from rags to riches, after growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood of the Bronx. The army veteran and former clerk has earned his fortune through his Polo clothing brand, launched in 1968.
Despite his humble origins, he was always thinking big – as proven by his entry in the 1957 DeWitt Clinton High School yearbook, where he wrote “millionaire” as his life goal! So, who is the man behind the fashion house fortune?
Born Ralph Lipschitz, in October 1939, to Jewish immigrant parents Frank and Frieda Lipschitz, he was the youngest of four siblings. The family wasn’t well off and Ralph immersed himself in the fantasy world of the cinema to escape his dull life.
Biographer Michael Gross, who wrote Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren, described how the youngster used his vivid imagination to step into the fictional world of cinema greats like Cary Grant and Gary Cooper. Gross said it was this imagination that later helped Lauren become so successful in the fashion industry.
He changed his name to “Lauren” in his late teens, after reportedly enduring years of teasing due to his surname. In 1962, aged 23, he joined the US Army and served until 1964, when he took a job as a clerk at Brooks Brothers – the oldest men’s clothing brand in America.
Lauren then worked for Beau Brummell, the well-known tie manufacturer. He persuaded the company president to let him design his own line of ties – hence the Ralph Lauren Corporation was born in 1967. His interest in sport then led to the launch of his iconic brand, Polo.
Watching his first polo match seemed to activate his entrepreneurial spirit. He went with a friend, Warren Helstein, who described how they were exposed to “fabulous things” – the horses, the silver, the leather, the “tall blondes with big hats” and the high society.
It spurred Lauren into developing an elegant and high-class brand, which later became known as Polo Ralph Lauren. It was a massive risk launching the company, as he had only a high school diploma and a handful of business classes, having dropped out of the City University of New York midway through his business studies.
His next big risk was designing wide, colourful ties, in an era when plain and narrow was the fashion. His radical approach paid dividends – he won over Bloomingdale’s and sold $500,000 worth of ties in his first year.
In spite of his rapid rise to the top, he didn’t stand still, instead expanding his company. He believed in enjoying the moment – but also keeping on the ball and moving forward. When it came to designing clothing, he came up with designs that he would want to wear himself. He imagined clothing fit for movie stars.
“The things that I made, you could not buy. You could not find them anywhere,” he said in an interview.
He started out in menswear and launched his first tailored shirts for women in 1971, with his now-famous Polo player emblem. He also opened his store on Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, the same year.
His signature cotton Polo short was launched in 1972, while his range of fragrances made their debut at Bloomingdale’s in March 1978. He opened his flagship store on Madison Avenue and 72nd Street, in New York, in 1986.
In 1992, Lauren launched his iconic Polo Sport line, followed by additional lines and acquired brands, such as Ralph Lauren Purple Label in 1995. His company was publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange on 12th June 1997.
In June 2016, it was reported the Ralph Lauren brand was struggling in some quarters. Analysts blamed discounting and lower-end products, claiming they cheapened its image, while a failure to attract younger consumers was also cited.
In 2017, the designer responded by launching wearable tech, in the shape of a fitness technology shirt, combined with a mobile app. The PoloTech Smartshirt athletic apparel pioneered physical tracking technology. It was embedded with sensors, tracking the wearer’s heart rate, breathing, stress level and calories burned.
Data was streamed to an app that generated customised workout programs, enabling Polo Sport to compete with the likes of Nike, Adidas and other leading sports brands.
Now aged 79, the designer is reaping the fruits of his labour. The kid who dreamed of becoming a millionaire is a multi-billionaire, with homes in Long Island, Jamaica, Bedford and Manhattan, plus a 17,000-acre ranch in Colorado.
He owns one of the most valuable car collections in the world. He once said, “For me, owning a rare and magnificently designed car offers a different kind of experience. You can enjoy the beauty of the machine and the journey it takes you on.”
He believes a key to his success is having style, rather than following fashion. He famously said, “Fashion is over quickly. Style is forever.” Well said that man!
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