Looking back at the story of Ralph Lauren, it’s easy to think he was fated to end up where he is today. In spite of his unlikely beginnings, his life has a sense of inertia to it. In his early years, he was convinced that he had something different to offer the world and, although it would take some time before it became clear to him exactly what that was, he always moved clearly in the direction of success. It wasn't because there was anything outside himself pulling him along, but because Lauren had what has driven so many self-made successes: a powerful belief in their own dream.
In spite of his dream, the future that Lauren would eventually create for himself wasn’t entirely clear and the path he took wasn’t always straight. The story of his rise from humble childhood to iconic fashion designer worth billions wasn’t the expected one. He didn’t attend school to learn to design fashion. He didn’t even finish college at all. All Lauren did was follow his passion for clothing, his eyes always fixed on a dream different from what the rest of the world around him was focused on.
It was a vision very different from his own upbringing. And maybe his desire to escape his humble beginnings is what first drew him to imagine the kind of life he saw in old movies. He's said himself, “The clothes that I design and everything I’ve done is about life and how people live and how they want to live and how they dream they’ll live.”
The difference for Lauren was that his dream was one he wanted the rest of the world to share—and his refusal to compromise throughout his rise made him one of the few who was able to get the rest of the world to see it his way.
Style From the Beginning
Before he built his fashion brand worth billions, Ralph Lauren was just another poor kid in New York. He was born as Ralph Reuben Lifshitz in 1939, the son of Belarusian immigrant parents in the Bronx, where he grew up sharing his bedroom with two of his three brothers. His father was an artist who Lauren remembers painting houses when times were lean, and that sort of industriousness balanced by artistry was a unique combination that Lauren would exhibit from his early years.
Growing up, Lauren had an early passion for fashion and he worked a variety of part-time jobs to keep himself dressed well. Which was a necessity. At home the only clothes he got were hand-me-downs he had to make do with.
But whether it was those secondhand clothes or the things he bought himself, Lauren always found a way to dress in a way that showed the world he saw things differently. When they all came to school slouching around in leather jackets, Lauren came wearing tennis sweaters. His splurges were on fancy suits. He did unusual things like mixing tweed and army camouflage. In these early years when he crossed paths with Calvin Klein, also a kid from New York, the other future designer wondered to himself what on earth Lauren was thinking. But Lauren had a vision. And it came from a specific place.
I don’t design clothes, I design dreams.-Ralph Lauren
A Vision Takes Shape
The upper-crust nature of the Polo Ralph Lauren brand he would eventually create came from his love of film during those childhood years. To this day, Lauren describes his lines in the terms of movies, thinking of heroines as the basis of his female lines and describing his collections like building worlds more than designing pieces.
As a boy, Lauren often escaped into those other worlds, immersing himself in the aesthetics of classic actors like Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, losing himself in his visions of dreams of living like them. He may have not known how to get there but, by the time he was in high school, Lauren's vision had grown beyond the size of his life. He didn't know how to get there, but he knew he wanted to share the glamour of his heroes on screen. When he listed his life goals in his yearbook in 1957, he had the brashness to write down that he would become a millionaire.
Leaving high school, Lauren’s vision may have been clearer, but the path was still unclear. Fashion was just something he knew that he loved—not a career that he was pursuing. He enrolled in Baruch College and began studying business.
After two years, he was drafted to the army, where would serve for two years—a stint that even more firmly established the distinctly American taste of Lauren's brand. Later in life, he would even pledge $13 million to preserve the flag that The Star Spangled Banner was written about. It was a way of giving back to the country that gave him the opportunity to make himself into a success.
I started with nothing but good parents and a good family, but the opportunity that I had to use my talent — America gave me that.-Ralph Lauren
After leaving the military, Lauren took a job that changed his trajectory forever. He began working at Brooks Brothers as a salesman, selling clothing items from suits to gloves, and it was there that he attended his first polo match.The refined nature of it spoke to him. Full of silver and leather, it was the sporting equivalent of the glamorous world on the screen he had been so enamored with as a boy. As someone who always believed in being active, something else about the sport clicked with him, providing the final piece of the vision for the type of clothes that he wanted to create.
Turning Dreams into Designs
In 1967 at the age of 28, Lauren took the first step to making that now-clear vision a reality. He was tired of selling other people’s ties and decided to design his own in spite of not having any training.
These were not ordinary ties. Much as his fashion as a child clashed with that of the other kids in school, Lauren's ties were wide and dramatic, inspired by images of European wealth, when the rest of the world was buying skinny ties. But when he took the ties to his boss at Rivetz & Co. where he worked, the response was not warm.
When Lauren showed his boss the ties, the response was, “The world is not ready for Ralph Lauren.” But Lauren took it as a compliment. He left and began working for a new tie manufacturer, Beau Brummell, where he convinced the owner to make a set of ties in his new, wide pattern. Lauren had no store front or office—he didn’t even have a desk, but worked out of a single drawer in a showroom in the Empire State Building. He drove around New York with his ties trying to sell them, but met resistance wherever he went.
The ties, as simple as they were, looked very different from other ties. They were wide and unusual. I never said to myself, 'I'm going to be the greatest.' I just wanted to do my own thing.-Ralph Lauren
Sold Without Compromise
Then, one day, a man from Neiman Marcus showed up. He’d seen Lauren trying to sell his ties around town and asked him to send them to the main buyer for the department store. But Lauren knew that there was no way his vision would come across if he just mailed the ties. So, in spite of not being a fan of flying, he got on a plane and went to the meeting in person. It paid off. He returned with an order for 100 dozen ties. He was in business.
Next, Lauren set his sight on Bloomingdales, but the deal fell through because Lauren was unwilling to compromise on his vision. The famous department store wanted him to change his designs—make the ties narrower and put their label on them. But, as always, Lauren stayed true to his ideas and walked out without the sale. Once the ties landed in Nieman Marcus, however, they started to fly off of the shelf. Within six months, Bloomingdales was calling him back. They didn’t want to rebrand his ties anymore or have them changed; they wanted to put a case in their store.
Within a year, Lauren’s company, Polo, had $500,000 dollars in sales. But Lauren’s vision was bigger than that. He wanted to create an entire line of menswear and found an investor to fund it. Within a year, he launched the full line—still without any fashion training—and, by 1969, Bloomingdales bought exclusive access to it. In 1970, their relationship expanded again when the store that had once rejected him gave him a chance that no other designer ever had: an opportunity to open the first boutique dedicated to one designer within the store.
Reinventing the Fashion World
From there, it was only up for Ralph Lauren. In 1971, he shifted once again by extending into womenswear, launching the first womenswear line in the world where he used men’s fabrics in a way that was unheard of. In 1980, he did it again, becoming the first fashion designer to ever create a line of home goods. And today, the Ralph Lauren empire covers everything from fragrances to its iconic polo shirt, all guided by that uncompromising vision of a kid from the Bronx.
Lauren has stayed true to his vision over the course of his life—from the time he was a boy following his own fashion sense, to the mogul he is today. And the world has rewarded him. In 2019, Forbes estimated his wealth at $6.3 billion. He has become a household name, with his styles worn by millions of people for decades. Many would have been willing to trade their originality for success, but not Lauren. Just like when he walked out of Bloomingdales all those years ago, his willingness to get nothing in exchange for staying true has given him everything in the end.