Born: Ralph Lifschitz, Bronx, New York, 14 October 1939. Education: Studied business science, City College of New York, late 1950s. Military Service: Served in the U.S. Army, 1962-64. Family: Married Ricky Low-Beer, circa 1964; children: Andrew, David, Dylan. Career: Part-time sales assistant, Alexanders Stores, New York, 1956-57; assistant menswear buyer, Allied Stores, New York, 1958-61; salesperson, Bloomingdale's and Brooks Brothers, New
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Style, as opposed to fashion, is the major imperative underlying Ralph Lauren's work. Initially a designer of the high-quality ties that started the Polo label, Lauren soon directed his talents to menswear. Inspired by such notable dressers as the Duke of Windsor, Cary Grant, and Fred Astaire, he began to produce classic lines derivative of the elegant man about town or the country squire of a bygone age. A love of the fashions of the F. Scott Fitzgerald era led him to introduce wide neckties and bold shirt patterns. In 1974 Lauren achieved world acclaim as the designer of the men's fashions in the film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby.
When he turned to womenswear, Lauren applied the same qualities of timeless elegance to his designs. By using uniformly high-quality tweeds, tailoring down men's trousers and jackets, and producing shirts in finer cottons, Lauren created clothes for the active woman of the 1970s, as epitomized in the Annie Hall look. These classic, tailored garments have changed little since they were first introduced but continue to epitomize long-lasting quality and style.
Another side of Lauren is seen in his Roughwear clothing. Directly inspired by the tradition of America's past, Roughwear takes the form of long tweed or plain skirts combined with colorful, hand-knitted, Fair Isle or sampler sweaters, tartan scarves, trilby hats, and lumber-jack's wind cheaters and brushed cotton shirts. The origins are easy to trace, but the result is an updated, truly American style. Romantic touches of Edwardian and Victorian times occur in lace-trimmed jabots and large collars delicately held together with aging cameo brooches. Shades of the classic English riding costume appear in his tailored tweed jackets. Lauren's contribution to fashion can perhaps best be summed up on the names that he gave to his cosmetics introduced in 1981: Day, Night, and Active.
In the 1990s, Lauren continued to tune into contemporary life. The Double RL label featured new, high-quality clothes that looked old as a response to the craze for the vintage and second-hand. For increasingly fitness-conscious women, he produced informal clothes with a strong fashion input. To appeal to the youthful interests of younger customers, Polo Jeans launched a line of contemporary casualwear in 1996. Two years later, Lauren's trademark aesthetic sensibility and superior craftsmanship was applied to the Polo Sport RLX line of high-performance athletic apparel.
As the new millennium approached, the Ralph Lauren Company began moving from Ivy League to pop culture by acquiring Canadian-based Club Monaco, marketing contemporary apparel, home furnishings, accessories, and cosmetics for the hip, urban crowd. In 2000, Ralph Lauren Media launched the Polo.com website, offering "comprehensive online access to the Ralph Lauren American lifestyle with clothing, accessories, fragrances, vintage items, travel, style tips, multimedia information and entertainment, world-class customer service and more." With son David Lauren as creative director, Polo.com aimed to "spread the upper-crust Ralph Lauren image to a new generation of shoppers," wrote Phyllis Furman in a February 2000 article in the Daily News.
Still, Lauren's womenswear for fall 2001 came full circle, offering the classic styling of equestrian looks from the country estate such as hacking jackets, taupe and ebony pants with suede knee patches, sleek crocodile belts with thoroughbred buckles, and riding boots with oilcloth spats. For the menswear spring 2001 collection, the timeless Polo line was updated with slim polo shirts and lime green, Nantucket red, and hot orange fuchsia-front trousers. The more dressed up Purple Line offered suits with sculpted waists and soft natural shoulders, paired with striped ties, creating the classic Lauren look.
Lauren's skill and experience has enabled him to design for women and men, their children, and their homes. As a native New Yorker, Lauren has promoted a truly American casual style in his prairie look while developing classic, uncluttered lines that have brought him international fame. Along with colleagues Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, and six other designers, Lauren earned a white bronze and granite marker along the Fashion Walk of Fame in New York City. This worldwide notoriety will also be the subject of a new biography of Lauren, the story, according to a March 2000 article in Publishers Weekly, of "a poor Russian Jewish immigrant boy who began in Seventh Avenue fashion house stock rooms and became a billionaire."
For Ralph Lauren, fashion is something that lasts for more than one season. It is this timelessness, abetted by inspirations deep in the soil of America's past, that distinguishes his work and won him a Lifetime Achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1992.
updated by Jodi Essey-Stapleton