February 10, 2007

Ralph Lauren

And the man behind the brand is...
Ralph Lauren

Ralph Lifshitz was born in the Bronx in 1939, the son of an artist and house painter. The father changed the family name to "Lauren" in the 1950s, just before his son started a stint in the Army.

Lauren always had an interest in clothes. He spent most of his spare money on clothes and wanted to get into fashion designing after his discharge but he had no portfolio, no sketches. "All I had," said Lauren later, "was taste."

He worked as a salesman and garment buyer until 1967 when he landed a design job with Beau Brummel Ties. Using unusual fabrics Lauren created ties 4" and 5" wide, 50% wider than traditional ties. The tie was the only fashion statement a businessman could make and Lauren's innovative ties were wildly successful. He persuaded Beau Brummel to allow him to start his own division which Lauren called Polo because of its aristocratic image.

Lauren took Polo on his own shortly afterwards. He built his entire empire on the shape of a tie. The tie made a larger knot so he had to design shirts with large collars and suits that complemented the shirts. His clothes were distinctly American with more shape than traditional menswear.

Lauren was widely criticized not only for his clothes but lack of formal design training. He was accused of stealing styles and eras for his designs. Lauren was not affected by the carping. He was one of the first designers to leave a specialty and design across the entire spectrum of clothing. In 1971 he crossed over from mens clothes to womens clothes.

This line was popular as well but Lauren's company was near collapse. Business was not Lauren's strong suit. He had been staked by Norman Hilton in 1968 for $50,000 in exchange for 50% of the business. He bought Hilton out for $633,000 in 1972 and strained the company treasury. Now he switched some lines from manufacturing to licensing to steady the ship.

The man who sells more than a billion dollars worth of clothes with a personal fortune in excess of $400 million personally favors faded jeans and tweed jackets: "I wanted to be a history teacher. I liked the gum-soled shoes and tweed jackets and the pipes. I never liked the business world because I wanted a life that was free of not being honest or straightforward."

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