Amidst the glittering toasts at last week’s Ralph Lauren 50th Anniversary Celebration, Ken Burns said it best, “I make documentary features about America — he makes dreams about it.”
This may be the seat of Lauren’s genius: over the last 50 years, he has distilled the dream of America down to a highly profitable essence and offered it to the masses. Paul Goldberger put it this way, “Not since Walt Disney has one man persuaded so many to buy into his personal fantasy. Ralph Lauren’s vision of Wasp perfection—the silver cocktail shaker without the drunken bickering, the shingled beach house without the shoreline erosion—is a $4.3 billion global business and an exquisitely detailed expression of the American Dream, free from cynicism or edge.”
It follows that Ralph Lauren embodies the American Dream: the child of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who fled Belarus, Ralph Lifshitz was the third of four children raised meagerly in the Bronx. As a teenager he changed his last name to Lauren, adopted a distinctly American style of dress (inspired by Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, classic preppy and vintage looks), and began to sell ties to classmates at the Jewish Day School he attended. Following brief stints at college and in the Army, Lauren worked in sales and design at Brooks Brothers and Beau Brummell, soon convincing the latter he should make his own line of (wide, bright, handmade) ties under the brand name Polo. Working out of a single drawer in a show room at the Empire State Building, he sold $500,000 worth of ties to retailers like Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales in the first year, making deliveries himself.
Ralph Lauren quickly and successfully expanded: he won the Coty Award for men’s wear in 1970, unveiled his Polo shirt in 1974, designed costumes for The Great Gatsby and won the Coty Award for women’s wear in 1974, and designed costumes for Annie Hall in 1977. The early 80’s saw him draw on more diverse design inspirations (Santa Fe and Safari collections), expand into home goods and furniture design, and open his flagship store at the landmarked Rhinelander Mansion in Manhattan.
He has not veered from his tightly drawn aesthetic since then; instead, he hones it. Some people feel this is his weakness, others point to the fact that Ralph Lauren is the only American brand with international presence on par with Gucci, Prada, and Louis Vuitton as a mark of long-term, international appeal. The reason? I don’t know, exactly, but as I write this blog from London I am aware of the good (and seemingly disparate) things about America Ralph Lauren represents: rugged self-determination, wealth, ease, optimism, athleticism, and the idea that anyone can make it big, or at least look that way. Just like him.
Read this: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/08/fashion/ralph-lauren-50th-anniversary-show.html
And this: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2007/09/lauren200709
XOXO (from London),