Ralph Lauren is a pretty intriguing character. He’s an 80 year old man from the streets of the Bronx, who spends his time riding majestic palominos around a ranch the size of Manhattan. He buzzes off teddy bears, he’s got a shed full of old cars and he apparently loves nothing more than kicking back in his wigwam and watching Downton Abbey on a Sunday night. Oh yeah, and for over half a century he’s been carving out his own wearable vision of the American Dream™—peddlin’ pony-smattered aspiration to everyone from Ivy League students to New York gangs.
His life would probably make a half-decent film, but until someone sorts us a few million quid and one of those clapperboard things, you’re going to have to settle for this meagre write-up. Saddle up…
The scene begins in the Bronx. It’s 1939 and two Jewish immigrants from Belarus have just welcomed their fourth child, Ralph into the world. Even from an early age, Ralph was into swanky garb, and whilst most young lads were busy smashing baseballs through windows and stealing apples from market-stalls, Ralph was working part time jobs to get his mitts on the sorts of clothes he’d seen on the silver screen. And when he couldn’t find the specific schmutter he was after, he’d have it custom made.
During his teens he was making his own ties and flogging them to his fellow classmates, and by the 60s he was working for Brooks Brothers. This was admittedly only for a pretty short slab of time, but the link from Brooks Brothers to Ralph Lauren is worth mentioning. The American equivalent of a classic British gentleman’s outfitter, Brooks sold a heady mix of button-down shirts, Shetland wool sweaters and tweed jackets, providing a solid blueprint for the all-encompassing lifestyle Ralph would later make his own.
After his stint at Brooks Brothers, Ralph convinced fancy clothes company Beau Brummel to let him design his own range of ties. Going against the trend at the time for narrow neckwear, Ralphy’s ties were big and wide… harking back to what he saw as the glory days of men’s style. Realising he was onto a winner, in 1967 Ralph busted out from Beau to go it alone—Polo was born.
Taking its name from perhaps the classiest sport in existence, Polo saw Ralph go beyond the jugular-shielding domain of the necktie and break into making a full range of clothes, inspired by the kind of comfortable way of life he’d always aspired to. Expanding on what Brooks Brothers were doing, he offered a full uniform for those who wanted to join him in his version of the U.S.A.—a parallel universe where everyone drove vintage Bugattis and had a summer house in Maine.
Rene Lacoste’s classic pique tennis shirt was tweaked to become the Polo Shirt.
This uniform quickly expanded, and rather than just focus on one thing, Ralph looked over the whole expanse of the American dream before serving up choice cuts on one big metaphorical buffet table. Rene Lacoste’s classic pique tennis shirt was tweaked to become the Polo Shirt, cowboy ranch-wear sat side-by-side with pleated slacks and years before Massimo Osti and Daiki Suzuki were traipsing around army surplus shops in search of inventive pocket configurations, Ralph was harvesting details from functional garb to make hard-wearing gear for civilian life. Fishing… sailing… skiing… no bold and wholesome activity was safe from his magpie eye.
Fishing… sailing… skiing… no bold and wholesome activity was safe from his magpie eye.
Perhaps more importantly than all this, Ralph knew there was more to clothes than just clothes. Ralph’s adverts (a lot of which you can see on this Tumblr goldmine) ignored tech-specs and jargon in favour of glossy images of perfect humans living the good life. Not afraid of a bit of camera time, he even got stuck into the mix himself, kicking it as a New York banker or suppin’ suds like a leathery-faced Andy Dufresne.
His shops pushed the boundaries too. Rather than just scruffily shove his wares on shelves and expect them to sell, he created mahogany-panelled wonder-shops that looked more like exclusive country clubs than ’retail outlets’. No secret handshake or membership card was needed for this club… all you had to do was buy a shirt—or in the case of a certain New York gang… steal one.
By the late 80s Polo had finally outgrown its WASPy customer base, and thanks to the brash multicoloured skiing and sailing garb Ralph was crafting, had caught the eye of a gang of working class New York kids looking to stand out on the streets of Brooklyn. Dubbed the Lo Lifes, this lot spent the late 80s and early 90s nabbing the most audacious Polo garb from fancy department stores before competing between themselves to see who could wear it best.
A similar, but slightly more subtle, thing was happening over here in Britain. With the birth of ‘club culture’, dress codes were enforced as a desperate attempt to do away with violence and pesky troublemakers. Sportswear was out the window and countless scallies were sent in search of ‘a smart shirt’. The humble Ralph Lauren button-down soon became the shirt of choice for lads trying to get through the doors. In an era that was big on logos, that embroidered pony only added to the appeal.
Today his fanbase continues to expand, and Levi’s aside, there’s probably not any other clothing company out there which has been involved in so many different cultural movements and worn by so many iconic figures (from Raekwon to… er… Johnny Vaughan). In the same way that VW is the second largest car manufacturer in the world, but still manages to maintain a cult following with obsessives, Ralph creates relatively attainable mass-produced clothing which can still appeal to dozens of niche subcultures, each with their own version of Ralph’s vision.
Denim obsessives hanker for vintage RRL selvedge… modern day Lo Lifes hunt down technicolour sailing jackets… skate brands endlessly rip off his classic low-profile sports cap… and all the while, Ralph is still out there, still heavily involved in his dream-weaving empire and still getting about like some denim-clad, horse-riding Yoda. Some man.