“I never knew I would be a designer,” Ralph Lauren insists. “I didn’t even know what a designer was, but I knew I had something inside of me that I wanted to express.” The particulars of his story are well-trod: The kid from the Bronx who started out making ties, and with no formal design training whatsoever, now has 11 fashion labels, 1,014 stores, four restaurants, a philanthropic foundation, and six Olympics’ worth of team uniforms to his name. (And he still makes ties, too.)
It is, he acknowledges, a very American narrative, one that could have been spun by Horatio Alger. Not just the part where he summits the peaks of high fashion, but the part where he brings along with him the standbys that were once seen as casual workingman’s staples or regional curiosities. Would we be seeing ripped and weathered jeans or lumberjack plaids on the runway if not for his influence?
“When I started out, everyone in the fashion world seemed to look toward Europe for newness and real fashion,” Lauren recalls. “I was always inspired by America. I loved East Coast preppiness, the utility of the cowboy’s worn jeans, American folk art, the glamour of Hollywood, and the rich heritage of Native American craftsmanship. It’s always been there, right in front of us—on the streets, in the small towns, in the big cities—in the way people live.”
Not only did Lauren anticipate the rise of streetwear and casualwear, but he was early to the table on athleisure, too. In 1993, after he introduced the Polo Sport line, he told WWD that “health spas, good healthy food, working on your body” would become the new fashion. And long before Goop and Draper James, he helped pioneer the lifestyle brand via immersive store experiences, a home line, and his Polo Bar restaurant concept. “What I do is about living,” he says. “It was never about buying a shirt or a dress, but being part of a dream.”
Namely, the American dream. It’s no surprise that Lauren designed costumes for Robert Redford’s incarnation of Jay Gatsby, another self-invention and fashion devotee. He’s leaned into his patriotic fervor with his iconic American flag sweater—which Cindy Crawford sported on ELLE’s cover in 1994 (see page 411)—and his financial support of the campaign to preserve the original Star-Spangled Banner, now more than 200 years old and housed in the Smithsonian.
When I ask what it’s like to have represented America through the ebbs and flows of its international reputation, he is careful to note, “I have never consciously designed to promote any form of political message.” But, he says, “I am proud to be an American and proud to be an American designer. Though things have changed in the world and in fashion, I don’t think the passion that fills the hearts of young designers today has changed.”
There’s an expansiveness to his approach that befits such a varied country. His vision has appealed to everyone from New England preps to western aficionados to NYC kids who collect Polo pieces, calling themselves Lo Lifes. “I never designed for a special community,” he says. “What I do has always come from the way people live—all kinds of people. It’s honest and from the heart and never pandering, so hopefully that is what touches the diversity of people who wear my clothes.”
Lauren celebrated his fortieth anniversary with a blowout at the Central Park Conservatory. As he approaches his fiftieth, he’s thinking about the smaller milestones along the way. “I remember [my wife] Ricky and her parents sitting around the kitchen table sewing the Polo labels into my first ties, the small team I started with in what had been an apartment building on West 44th Street, my first store in London, the opening of our first flagship on Madison Avenue, and wondering how we could re-create that world in the digital age.”
And at 78, he shows no signs of slowing down: “This has never been a job for me. It’s a joy.”