October 14, 1939, is the birthdate of Ralph Lauren, the Bronx-born businessman who founded a design empire inspired by his own daydreams, fantasies that centered around an ambition to possess the style and flair of movie star Cary Grant.
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He was born as Ralph Lifschitz, the youngest of the four children of Frank Lifshitz, an artist who made a living as a house painter, and the former Freydl Kotlar. Both parents were Jewish immigrants from Pinsk, in what is today Belarus.
The family lived in the Norwood section of the Bronx, and had a summer bungalow in Monticello, in the Catskills. Ralph attended the Israel Salanter Jewish Day School, P.S. 80, and the Manhattan Talmudical Academy (as the boys’ high school of Yeshiva University was then called) before graduating from the public DeWitt Clinton High School, in 1957. His yearbook noted his desire to become a millionaire.
A tough name
Ralph was always interested in clothes, fashion and sports, and in high school supposedly sold neckties to fellow students. Growing up, he took a lot of teasing about his last name, because, he told Oprah Winfrey in a 2002 interview, it “has the word ‘shit’ in it. It was a tough name.” That, he insisted, is the reason he legally changed his family name to “Lauren” when he was 16, not to conceal his Jewish background. “Absolutely not,” he told Winfrey, “That’s not what it’s about.”
He took business classes at Baruch College, but dropped out after two years, and worked briefly at Brooks Brothers, the purveyor of staid men’s clothes, before being drafted into the army in late 1960. His two years of service were uneventful and undistinguished, following which he sold perfume briefly and then began working in sales for a tie manufacturer.
When Lauren’s own design for a wider-than-normal tie was rejected by his boss, who supposedly told him, “The world is not ready for Ralph Lauren,” he left to set up his own shop, which he dubbed Polo Ralph Lauren. (He had been to a polo game, and was entranced by the elegance of everything about it.)
The world was ready
His big break came in 1967, when Dallas-based Neiman Marcus ordered 100 dozen of his ties. They were followed by Bloomingdale’s, which gave in on its original insistence that Lauren replace his “Polo” label with one from the store, and reduce their width by one-quarter inch. He had refused, but, a half-year later, Bloomie’s was back, without the conditions.
From there, Ralph Lauren’s global empire crystallized with relative speed. In 1967, he opened a Polo necktie shop in New York; by 1971, a store with a wide range of men’s clothing graced Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive; and a year later, Lauren had designed an entire line for women.
His goal wasn’t trendiness, but timelessness. “My clothes are all about a mood and style I like,” he told Oprah Winfrey, “such as tweed jackets. It's all about creating a dream I'd want for myself.”
In 1977, he designed Diane Keaton’s wardrobe for the film “Annie Hall,” and the following year began appearing himself in his ad campaigns, evocative multi-million-dollar productions that portrayed him on the beach, on the ski slopes, on the savannah.
Clearly, millions of others were happy to buy into Lauren’s dreams. By 2014, according to the London Telegraph, the 15 separate Lauren brands employed some 23,000 people in more than 500 shops, generating $6.9 billion in revenues.
With all his success, however, Lauren insists that he has remained a family man. He has been married since 1964 to the Austrian-born Ricky Loew-Beer, whom he met when she was a dentist’s receptionist and he was a patient. For a while, they kept secret from Lauren’s parents the fact that only Ricky’s father was Jewish, and that her mother was a Catholic. They have three grown children: Dylan, the youngest, who owns a chain of upscale candy stores; David, who heads the Lauren empire’s marketing and communications operations, and who in 2011 married a niece of former President George W. Bush, making her Lauren Lauren; and Andrew, a filmmaker.
Last month, Ralph Lauren, who is today 76, announced that he was retiring as CEO of corporation he built, though he will remain its “chief creative officer.”