AN EARLY CHAT WITH THE KING OF LIFESTYLE.
Byline: Nancy Collins, October 1974
Lots of people like to make a big deal out of the facts that Ralph Lauren grew up in the Bronx, changed his name and is really not a women’s apparel designer but a men’s wear designer — who started out designing ties at that.
All of the above is true. Lauren will tell you himself — sometimes whether you ask or not.
But also interesting, and just about as relevant, is the fact that Roy Halston Frowick came to fashion fame via Des Moines, Iowa, is tall and started out designing not dresses, but women’s hats.
However, Halston won the Coty award two years ago for the same reason Ralph Lauren won it this year — both design good clothes that women like and women buy. And both are generally criticized on the same grounds — namely that they lack originality.
As for Ralph Lauren, he does not claim to be original. “I don’t think I created fashion,” said the designer recently as he sat in his office toying with a lit cigarette. “I don’t know what original means. I think I made a mark, a niche that was a little distinctive for what it is personally. Frankly, I was very surprised I won. I didn’t think my time had come yet.”
Lauren admits his “home base” is with men’s clothing. “I always associated designing for women with designing dresses. I got into women’s clothes because I just felt there was something missing — a gap — and decided I’d try and fill it.”
Apparently Lauren has accomplished that to some degree, if running a $4 million business in three seasons of production means anything. But then filling a gap — a wide tie gap — is what got Lauren into the fashion business.
At 19, Lauren was selling ties and shirts for Brooks Bros., going to night school at City College and waiting to do a six-month stint in the Army. After the military he came back to selling — this time gloves for Daniel Hayes. At that point Lauren did not know what he wanted to do with his life, but he did know how he wanted to dress. Unable to find the kind of clothes he wanted — “a tweedy English-American look with a French cut” — he began designing his own clothes and having them custom-made.
“You have to remember this was the late Sixties and everything was three buttons and narrow lapels. I had always loved the look of the old English gentlemen who dressed in class and style, who knew what he was wearing but acted like he didn’t care,” said Lauren. “That’s the image I wanted. I loved fashion, wore clothes well but had no idea I could use that in terms of a career.”
Turning his preoccupation into a profession actually began when he started selling ties for a company called Rivetz and began trying to interject his own taste level into some of their ties. “It was then that I started feeling that maybe I could design something, although I had never had any formal training. I figured the easiest thing to start with was ties, and I wanted to do wide ties. I was unique at that time and the industry fought me. Nobody understood my concept until finally I was able to talk Ned Brower at Beau Brummell (who at that time was doing about $4 million in tie sales) into letting me open up my own division with him.”
Brower agreed in 1967, under the condition that Lauren would run everything himself — from designing to delivery.
“I went in without rules,” explained Lauren. “If I felt something, I just let it happen. I learned how to do everything as I did it. I didn’t even know how to buy piece goods. I have always believed in quality mixed with fashion and I just kept hitting at that. I never knew a slow moment. Everything I did at the time was right. I made the mistakes later on, but at first the newness covered the mistakes up.”
The result was $500,000 volume in tie sales the first year and the birth of Polo. “Why the name Polo? Well, what kind of people play polo? Wealthy, cosmopolitan, chic, wealthy. I wanted to create a concept for the name.” The concept expanded the next year when he went into partnership with Norman Hilton under the same name and added suits and shirts.
Today Lauren’s men’s Polo division is a $7.5 million venture featuring suits in the $195-$350 range. He has also just opened a more moderate-priced division — $135 to $185 — called Chaps by Ralph Lauren.
However, it wasn’t until 1972 that he decided to design for women. He started with shirts. “I tried to do a man’s shirt, only fitted on a girl,” explained Lauren. “Bloomingdale’s picked it up right away, built a shop around it and, next to Missoni, mine became the most popular shirt department in the store. I made one skirt that first year, too, a pleated skirt made like a man’s pants. That, I might tell you, was not a hit.”
The next year he added pants, skirts and jackets and, as he said: “It was somewhat of a success; but in some places it was terrible. A lot of people said the clothes didn’t fit. Eventually I worked that out. I felt people in women’s sportswear were skirting the issue. A lot of women wanted a very tailored look, but most manufacturers were softening the lines too much. I felt a girl could look sexy when the lines weren’t softened — Garbo, Dietrich and Hepburn did. I was aiming at the unfashionable fashion girl — a girl with enough authority to carry off very tailored clothes in a feminine way. I never went into this business to be all things to all people, and lots of people didn’t like the look. You either loved it or you hated it. Some people thought it was too dykey. I loved it when Lauren Hutton said she wore Levi’s and Ralph Lauren. That’s the spirit I was aiming at.”
Although he admits the fashion business has been good to him, there are still a few things — mainly personal — that rankle the designer. “I’ve done what I wanted to do. I’ve had lots of success, but lots of pain, too. I haven’t ass-kissed. Whatever I’ve done I’ve built myself and I wish people would concentrate more on that than the fact that I changed my name from Lifshitz to Lauren. (The name change was made with his two brothers when he was 15.) “I didn’t do it when I became a designer. Some names are tough, they overshadow the person. Ours was a tough name — especially because of the end part,” he laughed. Of his Bronx background, Lauren said: “I never knew whether I was poor or wealthy. I grew up playing a lot of basketball, reading and living at the movies. I guess they influenced my taste level. I liked the good things and the good life. I didn’t want to be a phony. I just wanted more than I had.”
Lauren notes, for instance, that his sister “wears my clothes but is not really a Lauren customer. My sister is super-practical. I once offered her a bunch of shirts for her husband and she said, ‘Ralph, can I throw them in the machine and not have to iron them?’ Well, she can’t so she turned them down. Pure cotton shirts are a pain in the neck for some people.
“The point is, I like class things, but you can’t take yourself too seriously. I believe in lots of looks. Part of clothes is playing. For instance, one day I like to be an English gentleman and the next day I think I’m a cowboy.” (Today he is a cowboy — faded blue work shirt, boots, cotton bandanna cum ascot, casual pants). “People should be lots of things, and clothes are the easiest way of manifesting anything.”
On Thursday, Lauren will receive his Coty award in New York. Last Monday he turned 35. The last six years since he began by plugging ties in New York have been nice indeed to Lauren. How has he changed?
He toyed again momentarily with another nearly unsmoked cigarette, before answering: “Well, I’m more secure in myself now. I don’t hunger for things anymore. What I want now is to be really peaceful. I want to enjoy what I’m doing when I’m doing it. The biggest change is just simply that I don’t need anymore. My nose is not pressed up against the window of anything anymore.”
“I wanted to be a basketball player, but I wasn’t tall enough. When I was growing up, I loved movies and I loved a certain style — the kind that goes with a tweedy, rugged horsey atmosphere. I don’t know if the things that inspired me ever existed. I loved Fred Astaire, the Duke of Windsor — they were my inspiration.”
— December 1978