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That look of Ralph Lauren

  • Story Highlights
  • Ralph Lauren began as tie salesman from the Bronx
  • First design: Wide ties when others were narrow
  • Has designed high fashion for four decades
  • Goal: Glamorous clothing that is "consistent and accessible"
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By Hal Rubenstein
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(InStyle) -- It all boils down to this. It doesn't really matter all that much what hot, nubile French maverick has set the fashion world on fire. Or which Milanese visionary has a new fabric technique discovered during a life-changing trip to Angkor Wat that's sure to bring back sixties minimalism with a twist. Or that so-and-so has signed a deal to develop boutique spa hotels around the globe in former monasteries. Because, in the end, he's Ralph Lauren, and we're not.

Ralph Lauren has his eye on China and Japan.

For four decades no other designer has had a greater impact, not only on the way American men and women dress but also on the way they imagine, seek and indulge in the Good Life, than the former tie salesman from the Bronx.

"Those ties were handmade, by the way," recalls Lauren. "Back then, ties, even designer ones, didn't sell for more than $5 apiece. Mine were $12 to $15. Such luxury in something so simple was revolutionary."

And ironic. Because while no other designer logo exemplifies aspiration in the home of the free and the brave like the mallet-wielding guy on the pony, Lauren originally named his company Polo because "it was the sport of kings. It was glamorous, sexy and international." Photo See his designs »

In the beginning a few people questioned if it was named after Marco Polo -- but today the fact that virtually none of Lauren's millions of devoted customers has ever even seen a polo match is immaterial. Lauren instinctively caught something that was in the air before any of his competitors had a chance to grab it -- the desire, not just to be a success but to look like one before you'd even achieved your goal.

What's more, Lauren made it look as easy as Fred Astaire dancing down a staircase.

"What matters the most to me are clothes that are consistent and accessible," says the designer.

"When I look at the people I've admired over the years, the ultimate stars, like Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant and Astaire, the ones who last the longest are the ones whose style has a consistency, whose naturalness is part of their excitement. And when you think of the blur of all the brands that are out there, the ones you believe in and the ones you remember, like Chanel and Armani, are the ones that stand for something. Fashion is about establishing an image that consumers can adapt to their own individuality. And it's an image that can change, that can evolve. It doesn't reinvent itself every two years."

However, with a media that is insatiable for the new, the now and the next, being steadfast doesn't always make for good copy.

"The spotlight is always going to search for the newcomer," Lauren admits. "And that's fine. But the key to longevity is to keep doing what you do better than anyone else. We work real hard at that. It's about getting your message out to the consumer. It's about getting their trust, but also getting them excited, again and again. My clothes -- the clothes we make for the runway -- aren't concepts. They go into stores. Our stores. Thankfully, we have lots of them," says Lauren.

"What I rely on is people walking into my store saying, 'I want your clothes.'"

Well, if all of Lauren's customers shouted that together, he would go deaf faster than he could pull on one of his classic pullovers.

Lauren's effortless luxury is all over the red carpet, on ski slopes and boats, at Wimbledon and elsewhere. It furnishes living rooms and graces dinner tables. It's on the bed, in the bed and under the bed -- and now sits on coffee tables, thanks to the tome Ralph Lauren (Rizzoli), celebrating his 40-years-and-growing career.

But far from giving his customary over-the-head wave and riding off into his Colorado-ranch sunset, the designer is going even more global.

"Americans have a real inferiority about their own style. We've brought sportswear to the world, and yet we have a long way to go."

Already in Milan, London, Paris and Moscow, Lauren has more stores planned for China, Japan ... oh, everywhere. "There aren't enough Americans out there," he says. Who better to start with than Ralph? Just as long as he doesn't let on that most of us still can't play a lick of polo. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend


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