By  on October 15, 2007

Men's wear is the power plant that drives the business.

Ralph Lauren has built a $4 billion empire on his far-ranging appeal, yet among his myriad of achievements, it's the ones in men's wear that have consistently stood out. After all, Polo Ralph Lauren was founded on neckties, and still does almost twice as much business in men's as in women's.

Those Continental, 4-inch ties ushered in a reversal of America's preference for skinny styles and marked the birth of the Polo brand, named after a sport that connotes tradition, exclusivity and class. After the pricy ties became a status symbol, Lauren applied his label to men's wear, which he designed as a cohesive collection, an uncommon approach to the category at the time. The line was conceived as a subtle improvement on the traditional American men's wear Lauren had admired and worn throughout his young adulthood.

It was through men's wear Lauren first defined "American style" as privileged, steeped in heritage and harmonized with the outdoors. The signature mesh polo shirt with the polo player logo bowed in 1972 in 24 colors and became an instant classic. Those shirts — along with oxford button-downs, chinos and tweed jackets — became staples of the brand's romanticized preppy style.

The costumes Lauren designed for the 1974 film adaptation of "The Great Gatsby," starring Robert Redford, glamorized Polo immeasurably. And Woody Allen and Diane Keaton wore Polo men's wear in 1977's "Annie Hall," making Keaton a fashion icon.

In the late Seventies, the company launched Western wear, extending the brand's identity to the rugged ideal of the Rockies and Southwest from its more refined roots in the Northeast.

Subsequent men's wear designers putting their own spins on classic American sportswear — many of whom, like Thom Browne, Michael Bastian and John Varvatos, worked for Polo at some point — are indebted to Lauren's definitive version.

"Men have been exposed to a lot more. Fashion has become mainstream in so many ways," said Lauren. "Everyone knows about fashion. But I think taste is taste, I think quality people still are quality people, people who want refined taste and have a classier look are different. And there are ages, what you wear for what occasions, and so the change and the expansion of all the products have become a big thing."

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