From socks to paint, from bedsheets to gold-lamé screen-goddess gowns, the world has boughtand bought and boughtinto Ralph Lauren's vision of the good life. What the boy from the Bronx began in 1967 as a collection of fashionably wide ties under the Polo label, he has nurtured into a billion-dollar public company by reimagining the traditional emblems of various iconic elitesnot just the WASP aristocracy but also the English country house set as seen through the lens of golden-age Hollywood, the American cowboy, and so on.
Born Ralph Lifshitz in 1939 to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant parents, as a young man Lauren worked as a tie salesman at the ur-preppy emporium Brooks Brothers. After the ties of 1967, he launched a full-blown menswear collection in 1968 and, a few years after that, introduced the polo shirt that would make him a household name, with its horse-and-rider insignia. Wooing the public with sweeping, cinematic advertisementsnearly always created in collaboration with photographer Bruce WeberLauren has convinced millions that they can aspire to a world of romance and jodhpurs if only they wear his brand. Allowing customers lavish glimpses into his own good life (via his five oft-photographed homes, from the Double RL Ranch in Colorado to High Rock in Round Hill, Jamaica), he has mythologized his own lifestyle more effectively than any other modern designer.
Though he began as something of an outsider, Lauren has become the ultimate insider in the galaxy of American sportswear. He has won numerous Coty Awardsthe precursor to the CFDA awards, which started in 1981and taken home eight honors from the CFDA, including the first-ever Legend Award in 2007. That same year, the company celebrated its 40th anniversary with a meticulously art-directed, My Fair Lady-themed black-tie bash under a wisteria-draped arbor in Central Park; New York City granted him special permission to host it there. "He's as American as Coca-Cola!" gushed Diane von Furstenberg, one of many, many famous guests.
If "classic" and "enduring" are appropriate descriptors for Lauren's design goals, they are also apt words to describe his business plan. "I'm not a fashion person. I'm antifashion," Lauren has said. "I have never been influenced by it. I'm interested in longevity, timelessness, stylenot fashion."
The sun never sets on the Lauren empire. Valued at about $4 billion today, the company went public in 1997 and encompasses childrenswear, fragrances, cosmetics, and a home collection. In 2006 Time magazine named the designer one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
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