In the history of fashion, there are many rags to riches stories, tales of the underdog rising to the top to create world-famous brands or become the face of fashion. Yet one story always sticks out, of a man that came from adversity and not only created a world-famous brand but went on to sell a lifestyle. Ralph Lauren is arguably the biggest and most recognizable name in fashion today and has a fashion empire that made him a multi-millionaire. Not bad for a bullied kid from the Bronx.
Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx, New York City, on October 14, 1939, the third of four siblings. His parents Frieda and Frank were Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who had fled Belarus, and the youngster grew up in the Mosholu Parkway area of the family’s adopted borough. At the age of 16, Ralph and his brother Jerry changed their last name to Lauren after having been teased consistently at school. Another brother, Lenny, retained the family name. Ralph was known for his distinctive fashion sense as a teen, finding inspiration in screen icons like Fred Astaire and Cary Grant while having a taste for both classic preppy wear and vintage looks. Unlike his fellow classmates who donned the “Fonz” leather jacket and jeans look Lauren instead wore tennis jerseys to cool, a look he found more aesthetically pleasing and fashionably sensible. Possessed of an innate fashion sense from birth, he took part-time jobs early on to fund his penchant for designer clothes. His chosen course of study, however, was business, although he left the course at City College in Manhattan before receiving his degree. Unhappy with the design of men’s clothing at the time, Ralph designed his own despite his lack of formal training and had them custom made.
“You have to remember this was the late sixties and everything was three buttons and narrow lapels,” says the fashion maestro. “I had always loved the look of the old English gentleman who dressed in class and style, who knew what he was wearing but acted like he didn’t care. That’s the image I wanted. I loved fashion and wore clothes well, but had no idea I could use that in terms of a career.” After dropping out of college, he served two years in the U.S army between 1962 and 1964. The same year he married Ricky Anne Low-Beer. For the next few years, Lauren worked as a sales assistant at Brooks Brothers and then for A Rivetz & Co., a tie manufacturer. However in 1967 things changed for the former Bronx kid, Lauren finally achieved financial backing from Norman Hilton to open a necktie store in New York, where he sold his own designs. While developing his collection of tie designs, the department store Bloomingdale’s took interest, but insisted Lauren remove his name from the ties’ label and make them narrower but Lauren refused to sell to Bloomingdales under their conditions. With the Polo label ties the direct opposite of the conventional styles of the time, his wider, flamboyant ties, made out of opulent materials quickly became a menswear status item. The following year he designed a menswear line and in 1969, Polo by Ralph Lauren established the first shop within a shop, in the department store Bloomingdales.
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