Peter Strom and Ralph Lauren

Peter Strom, the former vice chairman of Ralph Lauren who was considered the designer’s “alter ego,” died Jan. 8 at the age of 91.

Strom was instrumental in developing Lauren’s business from a men’s necktie concept to a full lifestyle collection. Born in Passaic, N.J., Strom entered the men’s wear industry after graduating from college and serving in the U.S. Army. Strom, whose given name was Peter Goldstein, used his mother’s maiden name in business.

Strom was a vice president at Norman Hilton Clothing, the men’s wear manufacturer, when they started making the Polo Ralph Lauren men’s suits. Norman Hilton had been an original investor in Lauren’s company. Once the designer paid off Hilton’s original loan, Lauren asked Strom if he wanted to join him at Polo and he became a business partner, owning 10 percent, in 1974.

In 1978, Strom was named president and chief operating officer of Polo Ralph Lauren, assuming Lauren’s operating responsibilities, and was elevated to vice chairman in 1991. Strom developed  the licensing template that allowed the Lauren business to grow, striking deals for such categories as women’s apparel, Chaps, footwear, the home, and men’s specialty stores, which operated as licensees.

Strom retired from Lauren in 1994 at the age of 65 and became a senior adviser to the company. He reduced his ownership from 10 to 7 percent during Polo’s refinancing deal with Goldman Sachs in August 1994.

Known for his sense of humor, humility and warmth, Strom was also a great collaborator with Lauren and provided the business structure for the company to expand.

“We were best friends,” said Ralph Lauren on Tuesday. “Peter Strom was always there for me — as a friend and a business partner for over two decades. He liked to say his role was ‘to do all the things I didn’t want to do,’ but he was right there supporting all those things — ‘the magic,’ he called it, and helped make it happen.

“During these days when we talk about the importance of decency, integrity and character, I think of Peter. He had all those qualities, along with a great sense of humor and humility.”

In an interview in 1994, when Strom retired, Lauren told WWD, “Peter Strom has been my partner, alter ego and dear friend for over 20 years and his contribution to the success of this company can not be overstated.”

John Idol, chairman and chief executive officer of Capri Holdings Ltd., who earlier had been Ralph Lauren’s group president and chief operating officer of product licensing, home collection and men’s collection, said, “Peter was the most influential person in my business career. He taught me how to position the Ralph Lauren brand at the highest standards, and to never compromise on quality. His compassion and dedication also taught me the value of developing the people on your team, who are the driving force behind any company. He was a visionary leader and set the stage for how a global fashion luxury brand should be built. I will miss him dearly.”

Cheryl Sterling, who held a variety of roles at Ralph Lauren leading to president and chief operating officer of Ralph Lauren Womenswear, worked with Strom for more than 20 years. She recalled Tuesday how Strom hired her when she was the boys’ buyer at Bloomingdale’s and had built a large shop at 59th Street for the Ralph Lauren boys’ line. They got into a disagreement because Bloomingdale’s was running an ad and there was no merchandise in the shop, and Saks Fifth Avenue’s boys’ shop was filled with Lauren merchandise. She kept following up with Strom, and the next time he saw her, he offered her a job.

She said she went back and forth between Strom and Marvin Traub, former CEO of Bloomingdale’s, and figured she’d try it out for a year and asked Traub if she could come back if it didn’t work out. After she resigned and signed the papers, she went to meet Strom for lunch and he told her two things: “‘One, I curse a lot, and two, I’ve never had a woman [on my staff] who’s ever been successful.’

“Peter was my mentor. He was tough and a wonderful complement to Ralph. They were a great team together, and he was critical in building the early years of Ralph Lauren,” said Sterling. One thing that stood out about him was anytime he’d meet someone, he’d always remember their name. “And God forbid if you were late for a meeting with him,” said Sterling.

Buffy Birrittella, executive vice president, senior adviser to Ralph Lauren, and senior creative director of Ralph Lauren Womenswear, worked closely with Strom. “He was a very strong partner in helping me augment and implement Ralph’s vision through our licensed partners. He was a very special guy. We had terrific times together, and he was a warrior. He did it with such kindness and humor.”

Robert Burke, who has an eponymous consulting firm, worked at Lauren in various managerial roles when the business was considerably smaller.

“Peter always represented a great leader and he was a mentor to many people in the organization. People looked up to him tremendously because of his business acumen and his intelligence. What stood out was his incredible understanding of the fashion industry and the importance of the creative process. He was Ralph’s biggest advocate and supporter in helping the company fulfill its dreams back then. Even when some of the dreams were so big, Peter understood the job to make them happen.”

For years, industry observers have said that designers need someone like a Peter Strom to turn their dreams into a reality.

“He was a different type of CEO that unfortunately we don’t see often today,” said Burke. “He was the kind of guy who remembers everyone, he was warm and personable and understood the importance of asking questions and listening.”

Stuart Kreisler, an industry consultant who was previously president and owner of Ralph Lauren Womenswear, said, “Peter was a great partner. He’s someone I enjoyed working with immensely. He was a master in men’s wear, and I had complete appreciation for his ability and knowledge. He was a good partner for Ralph and he was a good partner for me because he was men’s wear and I was women’s wear,” he said.

Arnold Cohen, who was Ralph Lauren’s accountant, recalled Strom’s collaborative nature. “He was able to work well with Ralph in terms of advisory and sensitivity. He helped him at a critical time [1975] when the company was turning itself around.” Cohen recalled how Strom was head of production for Norman Hilton before he joined Lauren as a partner. Hilton had a $50,000 investment in Ralph Lauren and owned 50 percent of the company, and later sold his stake back to Lauren, said Cohen.

Cohen said Strom and Lauren had a wonderful partnership. “He [Strom] took adversity with a grain of salt, and he was the kind of person you went to for sage advice,” said Cohen.

Jeffrey Banks, who was an assistant designer at Ralph Lauren, said he got to know Strom although their tenures didn’t overlap. “I knew him very well and adored him. He had the greatest sense of humor. Someone told him I did a great imitation of Ralph, and he said, ‘you got to do it for me.’ Every time I saw him on Fifth Avenue or at Saks Fifth Avenue, he’d say, ‘Do Ralph.'”

Marty Staff, who led men’s sales at Ralph Lauren and today is president of Siskind Group, said, “Peter was my first big boss and real mentor. We worked together from 1980 to 1988, and it was intense. We met every morning at 7:30 a.m. and worked until 8 or 9 p.m. We’d always end up at the same bar and with the same drink. [Italian Pavilion, which is now Michael’s.] “We were as close as could be. But then Peter had to make a decision, me or Edwin Lewis, and Peter chose Edwin,” and Staff went to run Calvin Klein men’s. “He was an unbelievably magnanimous guy who demanded a great deal of loyalty in return,” said Staff.

In a WWD interview in 2002 after Strom had retired, he spoke about Lauren’s success.

“It’s absolutely great and miraculous. It’s rare for a designer brand in the fashion business to remain that strong. It’s a very fickle business, and for what Ralph is doing there, it’s just great,” said Strom. He recalled that Lauren’s decision to go into women’s wear was the most important step in his development. “That is where you get a lot more fashion exposure. But there were other important things — his position internationally and by working for a long time to establish that cachet,” said Strom.

Strom spent his summers in Truro, Cape Cod, Mass., and was an avid fisherman. He is survived by his wife, Helen Goldstein; his children, Tom and his wife, Andrea, and Susan and her partner, Jeremy Scott, as well as four grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the MSK Ralph Lauren Cancer Foundation.