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."Having built so much equity into the Polo and Ralph Lauren names, the modern company's growth has been powered by three engines: a multitiered brand strategy, high technology and international markets.

The brand strategy was used as early as 1973, when Chaps was created to counter unauthorized knockoffs of Polo. That was when Lauren's older brother, Jerry, now executive vice president of men's design, joined the company.

It's a rare thing for any two people, even brothers, to be as simpatico as Ralph and Jerry Lauren. Few colleagues would care to spend their off hours and vacations together after working side by side for 34 years and counting. But so it goes for this pair.

As adolescents, they were both fascinated by traditional men's wear and would visit the temples of Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart and J. Press together.

"We were intrigued by the lifestyle," Jerry Lauren said. "One time we discovered a store for hunting clothes. I never went hunting in my life, but there was something intriguing about it. Hemingway and all that. You admire that type of person who was real, who lived life, as opposed to a guy who has 40 pairs of shoes. Because it's not about clothing; it's what you do in it."

Jerry, 73, is five years older than Ralph. (They also have an older brother and a sister.) Colin McDowell's biography, "Ralph Lauren: The Man, The Vision, The Style," describes how Ralph idolized Jerry when they were kids in the Bronx. Today, the feeling is mutual. Jerry speaks of Ralph with palpable affection and pride.

"He was my kid brother, but now we're the same age," he is fond of saying.

A year after Chaps got off the ground in 1973, Jerry said, "I was still there and it was already a whole different entity. Nobody dreamed it was going to be this. Well, I think Ralph had a little bit of a suspicion, but I didn't think about it. I just thought it was great to be working together as it developed."

Jerry stayed on to oversee men's design indefinitely. "I have this cute remark," he related. "For men's design, Ralph is God and I'm Moses. I take the people to the promised land on God's word."It's a joke, but not a bad metaphor. There is perhaps no one else whom the famously exacting Ralph Lauren could have entrusted with such a responsibility all these years, because they come from the same place, literally and aesthetically. (Born to Russian Jewish immigrants, it was Jerry who first changed his surname to Lauren from Lifshitz to ease assimilation.)

The brothers had in common a visual education from their father, a decorative artist, and from the movies of Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Steve McQueen, James Dean, Frank Sinatra and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. They also hero-worshipped Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.

Their weddings (to similar women, according to Jerry) were six months apart. Then they had children in the same sequence of age and gender. Jerry's son Brad is a maitre d' at Manhattan's Union Square Café, while his daughter, Jenny, and son Greg are both artists. Greg is married to the actress Elizabeth Berkeley.

"Our families do everything together," Jerry said.

There are other, uncanny similarities. When Ralph had a precancerous mole removed, Jerry got one a year later. When Ralph had a benign brain tumor, Jerry suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Both recovered fully.

Jerry described their creative process as a give-and-take.

"Either you show Ralph an idea and he reacts, or he comes to you with an idea. He's always ahead of the curve. But as the company gets bigger, you can't have every idea yourself. You have to have people who bring you the market."

Especially since, over the last 34 years, the company has expanded well beyond the Chaps and Polo brands. The additions of Polo Sport, Polo Jeans Co., RLX, RRL, Purple Label, Black Label and the golf and tennis lines have made the brand relevant to specific demographics and resulted in a wider overall reach.

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"A man just doesn't walk in and buy a pair of chinos," Ralph explained. "He can buy chinos with writing on them, he can buy cargoes, he can make wide legs, he can do cutoffs, he can wear shorts, he can wear anything he wants to. So what you have is a tremendous amount of products to look at, so a man is now open for a lot of choices. But within that world, he's also looking for guidance and he's looking for the right clothes at the right occasion. And the ability to have customers who are anywhere from 16 and 17 to 60 says that you're doing well. We do well in all kinds of stores."The challenge of expanding while preserving the air of exclusivity is a high-wire act braved by scores of designers, with varying degrees of success. Stratification into secondary and tertiary lines can frequently erode the original label. Polo Ralph Lauren has avoided this by expanding in two directions, adding lower-priced lines as well as increasingly expensive ones. At the higher end, for example, suit prices for Polo range from $1,295 to $1,795; Black Label runs from $1,795 to $2,095, while Purple Label tops the pyramid at $3,595 to $5,495.

Thus, while the world of Ralph Lauren becomes ever more accessible, the offerings for connoisseurs of true luxury — that is, customized goods made with high-quality materials and craftsmanship — have also flourished and multiplied.

Nowhere is this more evident than with Purple Label, which launched in 1994 and burst to prominence with its 2002 runway show in Milan. Only the second men's show in company history, DNR deemed it the season's best. With made-to-measure tailored clothing, Purple Label is the company's ultimate expression of quality and luxury. For spring 2008, the collection is flamboyantly nautical. Yacht-worthy ensembles of dark jackets and bright linen trousers are finished with a brilliant neckerchief, ascot or wide tie in a paisley or English floral pattern.

Working with traditional men's wear as raw material, Jerry believes the number of ways to add finesse is unlimited. As a man matures, sees more of the world and gains more of the means to see it, he learns the modes of traditional and high-class style can vary widely.

"You grow up, you travel to Paris and London, you see things beyond what you saw in school or your country club," he said. "You're exposed to different ways of dressing. It increases the total dimension. And then we go the other way. There's a great admiration for guys who do hard work. Truckers and farmers with sunbaked faces — that's America. We love that."

Thus the RRL flagship in SoHo sells clothes with a vintage patina and a rough masculinity. They often have frayed edges, holes and stains. Today, RRL fills a tiny niche, but no one should be surprised if it proves to be the seed for a much larger business.Another label still in its infancy is Rugby, a retail chain for young men who can't yet afford Polo. The brand's nine stores are strategically located near college campuses, and the entire concept is traditional-collegiate. Think rugby shirts and crested blazers in stores resembling a Harvard finals club. The chain could easily expand by an order of magnitude, the company has said. Rugby initiates a new generation to the Ralph Lauren lifestyle — the very definition of which is ever broadening.

"A guy doesn't have to wear his prep school uniform his whole life," observed Jerry. Case in point: Black Label, launched in 2005, is the most aesthetically contemporary of the three designer collections. Ralph Lauren describes it as sleek, modern, minimal and low-key. "This is the hardest thing to do, moving ultrasimplicity," he said early this year.

The name alone implies modernity, as black has not really been part of the Polo vernacular, historically. The full Black Label collection offers streamlined tailoring and buttery leathers. Whittled silhouettes with narrow ties and lapels, along with an absence of pattern or embellishment, keep it relatively minimalist. The company has found that Black Label integrates easily with the technical sport line, RLX.

"The challenge is always to do the core, the traditional, and then reach out to what's happening out there," Jerry pointed out. "We introduced Black Label because there's a guy out there who's contemporary, who's downtown, like my sons, who will wear a pink button-down like me, but with a black suit instead of navy."

Ralph and Jerry are also always perfectionists.

"It's always about making it better," Jerry said. "Ralph and I never went to any design school at all. But when you're creative...and you look at something and admire it, after you've admired it for awhile, you start noticing what could be a little better."

As much as they liked Brooks Bros. in its heyday, or as much as they like their own designs from last season, they always see room for elaboration and improvement. Yet their particular taste is fundamentally consistent.

"I have a photo of myself at age 25 or 30 in Newport, and it's the same damn stuff," Jerry laughed, gesturing toward his pink oxford, navy trousers and navy cable-knit sweater. "Ralph is more of a chameleon."Ralph's passion for cars is well known, and he surprised Jerry with a Bentley GT for his 70th birthday. Jerry responded with four matching, solid-gold Rolexes, one for each of them and their wives. (The brothers are both watch-obsessed, according to Jerry, who has about 50.)

"That's the kind of relationship we have. When I'm out and I find something great, I get one for Ralph," he said.

Non-Laurens must strain somewhat to relate to the combination of the lifestyle, work ethic and familial closeness. On the other hand, the family's reputation lends a certain advantage from a marketing standpoint. Images of the Laurens, including Ralph's wife, Ricky, and three children, contribute to a perception of the company as a family business. People may feel, when they buy a Ralph Lauren product, that they are in some small way emulating the family.

"It's a wonderful thing because I think Ralph is very family-oriented. He's not one of these guys you see partying all over the place, appearing at events, unless it's with Ricky. People feel like he's a legitimate, family-conscious guy," Jerry said.

It has been suggested (as a criticism) that Ralph Lauren markets nostalgia, that he's too enamored of tradition. Yet Black Label and RLX counter this criticism. And for another example of the company's forward-thinking approach, one need only consider how enthusiastically Polo has embraced technological innovation. The firm outpaces other heavyweight fashion houses in e-commerce capability. A nearly full range of product is available online at ralphlauren.com, as are create-your-own programs that bring customization to the masses via affordable polos, oxfords and baseball caps. You don't have to be a Purple Label client to get something made to your specs.

Online, items can be browsed by product category as well as by label, illuminating the differences between the subbrands. Never have their identities been more crystalline.

"They could be worn by the same guy or they could be different," Ralph Lauren noted. "Some guys just say, 'I'm a Black Label guy,' or some guys only want the luxury of Purple Label. I could wear it all, because I like playing with clothes and I like the diversity of a wardrobe."Next fall, he'll be able to add Ralph Lauren watches to his repertoire, thanks to a new joint venture with Switzerland's Richemont, owner of such watch brands as Vacheron Constantin, Cartier, Piaget and Officine Panerai. As cell phones have rendered timepieces less necessary, men are seeking extraordinary watches for sheer style value. "Ralph withstood the pressure to do watches until he was convinced we could do very fine watches," Jerry said.

Until then, the quintessential Ralph Lauren accessory might be a 4 1/4-inch tie from Purple Label for spring. Although the company originated with wide ties, the founder says the latest batch is no retrospective gesture.

"I just felt it was exciting for right now," said Ralph. "The boldness of the colors and patterns makes the whole look exciting. For years, the tie was put away. Guys were wearing shirts and suits with no tie. I think that's over," he said. "The tie is the news."

As it was in 1967.

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