Ralph Lauren: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

What defines American Elegance?  Who decides the ways in which American men may dress so that they cut a dashing figure while still retaining the uniqueness of the country they call home?  There have been many icons over the years to bear the mantle of American taste setters: Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, John F. Kennedy.  But these days, when one thinks of ‘elegance’ and ‘good taste,’ what comes to mind is not an icon but a brand, albeit a brand that bears a man’s name: Ralph Lauren.  The sprawling Ralph Lauren empire, from the most glamorous tops to the most rugged bottoms, contains within its folds nearly every conception a man may have of what constitutes style and taste.  And none of it would exist without Mr. Ralph Lauren himself, whose vision and savvy have made him arguably the most influential man in menswear for more than a quarter century.

Ralph Lifshitz was born in the Bronx on October 14, 1939 to Fraydl and Frank Lifshitz, two Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from what is now Belarus.  He went to several preparatory schools as a child, culminating in his graduation from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1957.  Mr. Lauren changed his name legally when he was 16, not out of shame for his heritage but from his own burgeoning desire for elegance.  He even recognized the seeds of his own success; his high school yearbook mentions that his fondest ambition was to become a millionaire.  Mr. Lauren attended Baruch College for two years before dropping out and serving two years in the US Army, after which he worked briefly for Brooks Brothers.  But Mr. Lauren’s real break came in 1966, when he took inspiration from European tastes and designed a wide, elegant necktie that the tie company he worked for told him was unmarketable.

Convinced of his potential, Mr. Lauren left the tie company and started his own small tie retail business out of a drawer in the Empire State Building, where his small but ambitious enterprise grew so successful it attracted the backing of menswear giant Norman Hilton.  With their financial support, Mr. Lauren opened his own boutique in Beverly Hills for his own line, which he dubbed ‘Polo’ after securing the trademark from Brooks Brothers.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, Ralph Lauren is a massive sartorial hegemony, containing within its folds everything a man could desire to shape a lifestyle of elegance and taste.  For the young roughneck with little funds but lots of style, there is the Denim & Supply brand, filled with denim and sportswear, lined with youthful fervor.  For those who are still rugged, but somewhat more refined, there is the RRL line, drawn from the heritage of the American West, yet infused with the luxury of any fine clothes maker.  The great old bastion, Ralph Lauren Polo, endures as strong as ever, with its unique fusion of American daring, English elegance, and Continental vibrancy; even after more than three decades, there is still no brand with an aesthetic quite like it.  For those who love luxury but also live on the cutting edge, Ralph Lauren offers its Black Label line, a world where technical design blends with sharp tailoring to create the perfect look for the man of active elegance.  And at the top of Ralph Lauren’s world is Purple Label, the finest in suiting, sportswear, and accessories, made for the man with the resources of a monarch and the lordliness to match.  Meanwhile, every Ralph Lauren man can dip into the company’s RLX line, with bright, vibrant exercise and sporting gear that nevertheless carries Ralph Lauren’s signature class.

And Ralph Lauren contains yet more dimensions.  It has six full women’s lines, perfect for a gentleman’s significant other.  It has a full line of housewear and bedding, allowing a man to decorate his home with the same level of taste that he decorates himself.  Ralph Lauren does not merely sell clothes, it sells a full lifestyle, a mode of refined, elegant living that any man of any income bracket can take part in.  This is the genius of Ralph Lauren, and why his name and his company will outlive him for generations to come.  Ralph Lauren brings the class and style of the American elite to all Americans, inviting them to participate in the finer things.

To read our Style.No.Chaser feature on Legendary Style icons – click here. 

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