He began his $7.6 billion empire on Rodeo Drive. Fifty-plus years later, he’s back
Words by BRIDGET FOLEY
RALPH LAUREN at The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino in October, on the occasion of his brand’s Spring/Summer 2023 runway show. Photo courtesy Ralph Lauren.
The Rhinelander Mansion on New York’s Madison Avenue is as iconic a retail locale as any in the United States. When Ralph Lauren installed his brand flagship into the French Renaissance Revival structure in 1986, he changed the face of American shopping with shock-and-awe bravado. From then on, the storied multibrand luxury retailers would have some serious competition: the vertical brand retailer.
Yet before there was Rhinelander, there was Rodeo Drive. Despite his scrappy-guy-from-the-Bronx-makes-gold narrative—a cornerstone of American fashion lore—Lauren opened his first freestanding store not in his beloved hometown but on the hallowed Beverly Hills shopping street, in partnership with Jerry Magnin, a scion of the famed I. Magnin retail family. That happened in 1971, when Rhinelander was just a dusty relic of Gilded Age residential excess.
Lauren notes that milestone early in our conversation. We’re sitting in his spacious New York office, which is intensely appointed with a carefully curated menagerie of meaningful brand-related artifacts—books and photos galore; race car and airplane models; Polo teddy bears. He references the Rodeo Drive store to make a point, since today’s primary topic is his recent fashion show, which he presented in October 2022 in Los Angeles. Yes, he’s native New York to the core, but he’s no stranger to California; he offers that the Rodeo store’s opening “was the beginning of a lot of firsts.”
The classic Polo Ralph Lauren shirt. Photo: Paul Christensen.
Lauren, his wife, Ricky, and their children in the Hamptons in 1977. Photo: Les Goldberg.
Still, it was a long time between that West Coast first and the fashion show, held at The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens (and staged coincidentally on the eve of Lauren’s 83rd birthday).
It proved worth the wait, attracting a high-octane celebrity audience, some of whom made it a couples or family affair: Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck; Jessica Chastain and her husband, Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo; Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher; Lily Collins and Charlie McDowell; Robin Wright and her daughter, Dylan Penn; Sylvester Stallone and Jennifer Flavin with daughters Sistine and Sophia. Also there: John Legend, Chris Pine and Diane Keaton, the latter of whom goes way back with Lauren—to Annie Hall. (When I reference the impact of the iconic fashion look Lauren created for the 1977 film, I get a politely firm rebuke. “I did some of the clothes, but it was Diane’s own style,” he says.) Keaton and the others settled in for a trek through the wonderful world of Ralph.
Lauren takes a bow at the Spring/Summer 2023 show. Photo courtesy Ralph Lauren.
Determined to show the full breadth of his signature aesthetic, he enlisted more than 100 models from multiple generations who wore clothes from across the Ralph Lauren product range—Polo Ralph Lauren, Collection, Purple Label, Double RL, Children’s—covering all his revered classics, from Western to preppy and polished sportswear to soigné evening gowns. It was his most in-depth runway display since his remarkable 50th anniversary show in Central Park in September 2018. While many of global fashion’s mega brands (most notably Chanel and those within the LVMH and Kering stables) embrace the itinerant show concept as core to their operations, particularly for resort, Lauren has mostly shown in New York, with some digressions to Milan for his menswear. (For the Fall 2017 show, he famously transformed the garage of his private home in Bedford, New York, into a runway, his models walking past spectacular, shiny beauties of the Bugatti, McLaren and Ferrari sort.) Once he decided to venture to Los Angeles, he knew expectations would be sky-high.
“I didn’t want to come to California and not say something exciting and special,” Lauren says. “So I really worked on this. Living in California, what does that feel like? What could it feel like? And it came out of me. I had my whole team together. I said, ‘We’re going to do something really special.’ It was exciting for everybody. It was alive and young and spirited. That’s [the mood] I wanted to leave L.A. with.”
Ready-to-wear looks from the runway.
“Living in California, what does that feel like? Alive and young and spirited”
To that end, Lauren worked his signature tropes with sass and sparkle, injecting newness in tweaked silhouettes and a punched-up color palette. It all looked smart and fresh while utterly signature. Read: refined and optimistic.
By now, it’s a truism to note that Lauren is a fashion lifestyle maestro. As depicted through years of elegant, laser-focused brand imagery, his is a world populated by beautiful people behaving beautifully while always impeccably dressed. They love the rugged outdoors as much as spectacular interiors, decorated to elegant perfection with furniture and accessories from the Ralph Lauren realm. It’s a world sans ugliness or angst—aspirational, not in the traditional fashion sense (a young customer buying in at a brand’s entry-level price point), but in the larger, human sense. Even in ugly times such as now, we aspire to the core civility that radiates through the Ralph Lauren oeuvre.
In real life, Lauren seems to live in that kind of a world. He has been married for 58 years to Ricky, who, he says, “has always been an inspiration. She’s smart, she’s not overly conscious of fashion.” Which suits him fine, since he has always positioned himself as anti-fashion, disinclined to engage in trend-mongering. His oft-stated mantra is “I do what I do.”
The designer and businessman in the south of France in 1977. This photograph, taken by Buffy Birrittella, was one reference point for the L.A. show.
The couple has three children. Their daughter, Dylan, owns the well-known confectioner chain Dylan’s Candy Bar. Their son Andrew, primarily a film producer, takes on various creative projects; he did the music for the L.A. show. Only their son David was interested in joining the business, and now oversees all marketing and advertising. “He’s got a big job,” Lauren says. One other family member is involved in the business: Lauren’s brother Jerry Lauren has consulted on menswear practically since day one.
The family spends a good deal of time together. Though Lauren attends major events, he’s never been a regular on the social circuit, including industry outings, such as the CFDA Fashion Awards and the Met Gala, often preferring to have David and other staffers represent the company. “It’s just not my style,” he notes, citing two reasons: “I enjoy my own privacy and enjoy my own family.” And “I don’t have that much time. You’ve got to do work.”
And work he does. Lauren remains an incredibly hands-on steward of the $7.6 billion empire he built. He holds the titles of executive chairman and chief creative officer, having relinquished the CEO title in 2015 when he brought in Stefan Larsson for that role. The hire proved to be the proverbial “wrong fit,” and Larsson exited the role in 2017. (He is now CEO of PVH Corp.) Patrice Louvet took on the role swiftly thereafter. Lauren was a bit concerned that Louvet came from a very different, larger corporate culture, P&G Beauty. Still, “I liked him,” Lauren explains. “I said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’ He is a very warm, loving guy and works with people in the company in a great way. I don’t worry about the company because I have him.”
“My wife has always been an inspiration. She’s smart, not overly conscious of fashion”
If “warm” and “loving” strike as unusual descriptors for a founder and majority shareholder of a multibillion-dollar public company to note of his CEO, it’s because kindness within the workplace has always mattered to Lauren. “It’s important to be as sharp and as strong as you can be,” he maintains. “You build a team of people that work with you. So equal to the concept of shareholders is the people that work for me.”
Lauren is renowned for the longevity and loyalty of much of his staff, many of whom have stayed with him for decades, working side by side with the younger employees who rotate in, keeping the mood and vision vibrant.
Zofia Borucka Reno in Ralph Lauren Collection, photographed by Perry Ogden in 1994.
That approach has worked over the long haul. Growing up in the Bronx, Lauren was fascinated by the Hollywood icons of the time (Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra were at the top of his list), and he became a keen observer of their styles. He also took from the movies the notion of storytelling, of building a world and opening it up to others.
Early on, he identified a dearth of chic in the American menswear arena and saw opportunity via one small aspect: neckties. He brought swagger to the staple, cutting it extra wide, and went to the menswear company Beau Brummell, which offered him showroom space—a single drawer—from which to sell. He did so with audacious confidence.
When Bloomingdale’s offered to buy with a double caveat—to cut the ties narrower and remove the Ralph Lauren label—he passed. The store ultimately relented and became a major supporter. Lauren’s temerity paid off quickly. He soon added a full men’s range, followed by women’s in 1971.
Today, Lauren describes his brand-extension process as a series of inevitabilities—sort of a fashion mogul’s version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. “I started making ties and I went to shirts, I went to suits, I went to womenswear, I went to children’s. I went to home. As soon as you do a tie, it’s nice, but I figured, it’s not my whole statement. I wanted to express myself and what I believe in, and what my world is.”
GWYNETH PALTROW in Ralph Lauren Collection at the 1999 Academy Awards. Photo: Jeffrey Mayer / Wire Image.
Through the years, as that world has grown, the defining vision has remained consistent yet agile. Right now, the company is focused on brand elevation within the luxury sphere. Given that goal, one might think that Lauren and the brand would be all in on fashion’s celebrity obsession. They aren’t. However, Lauren certainly isn’t immune to star power and has had his share of big red-carpet moments. Among the most memorable, spanning decades: Alicia Keys at the 2022 Met Gala; Lupita Nyong’o, 2014 Golden Globes; Gwyneth Paltrow, 1999 Oscars. Lauren is delighted with such affiliations and certainly understands their marketing resonance. But unlike the major European luxury brands, he hasn’t made it a pillar of his strategy, and even sounds a bit ambivalent about the whole thing. “I don’t look for red-carpet moments,” he says. “I love doing a show where I create the whole story and there’s a dream.”
“For the wedding, [Jennifer Lopez] said, ‘I want Ralph Lauren’”
Nevertheless, Lauren has, almost out of nowhere, become a go-to guy for celebrity nuptials. Somehow, he managed to avoid the bridal aisle, sartorially speaking, for just over 40 years until, in 2011, he dressed two very important brides: Dylan, for her marriage to Paul Arrouet; and David’s now-wife, Lauren Bush Lauren. Give or take a decade, and others have come calling. He dressed Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas for their Western wedding, with her look one of regal glam. When Collins married McDowell, he wore a velvet tux, and she a sweeping, ethereal hooded lace cape and sensual gown that seemed straight out of a romantic fable. And for presidential granddaughter Naomi Biden, who had worn Ralph Lauren to the 2020 inauguration, Lauren delivered a classic, Grace Kelly-esque vibe, in a collaboration that came about casually. One night, she was dining at his hot-spot New York restaurant, The Polo Bar. “I said hello to her, and she said, ‘I love your things,’” he recalls. “‘I’m getting married. I would love if you would consider doing a wedding dress. It’s going to be the first major wedding in the White House [in years].’” Then there was the event that might just be the bridal “get” of the decade—the Bennifer nuptials. Lauren dressed both Affleck and Lopez, including three gowns for Lopez, as well as the attendants (the couple’s kids). Photos remain scarce, but enough have been released to show that each dress portrayed a different aspect of Lopez’s glorious diva-goddess persona.
A prior relationship proved significant here, as well. “We made something for one of Jennifer’s shows, a long trench dress that dragged onto the floor,” Lauren recalls. “She loved it and she sort of put a toe into Ralph Lauren. She knows what she wants to look like, and [for the wedding], she said, ‘I want Ralph Lauren.’”
Former President BARACK OBAMA, QUEEN ELIZABETH II and former first lady MICHELLE OBAMA (wearing a Ralph Lauren gown) in London in 2011. Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images.
J.Lo is but one of the millions around the world who want Ralph Lauren. The brand is unique in the luxury arena for its range, from high evening to those iconic Polo shirts. It’s remarkable, too, for the long-running, hands-on involvement of its founder. In luxury fashion, only Giorgio Armani compares, and his house is eight years younger than Lauren’s. (Similar but different: Miuccia Prada remains highly engaged at the family company she took over in 1978.)
One may wonder if Lauren considers stepping back, now well into his brand’s sixth decade. While he may “ultimately, somewhere,” for now, he maintains, “I don’t consider retiring.” He will indulge in a bit of positive self-assessment. “I’m proud of the work,” Lauren offers. “I feel like I created a world that was new and special, with integrity. I’m proud about how I live with the people I work with. I’m a lucky guy.”
AUBREY PLAZA wears GUCCI top and pants; POMELLATO jewelry.
Feature image: The mogul surrounded by his family, including David Lauren, Max Walker Lauren, Dylan Lauren, Ricky Lauren, Lauren Bush Lauren, Kingsley Rainbow Arrouet, Paul Arrouet, Cooper Blue Arrouet, Andrew Lauren and James Lauren. Photo: Pamela Hanson.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of C Magazine.
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