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Ralph Lauren, 2006; California
Photo: Claus Wickrath



By Shine Anthony-Dharan

NEW YORK, 1 NOVEMBER 2007 — Rizzoli throws down the gauntlet and raises the bar for luxury publications with the long awaited release of Ralph Lauren. As Ralph Lauren celebrates his 40th anniversary with a spectacularly lavish runway show and black-tie dinner at the Central Park Conservatory, the moment is ripe to re-examine the life of an American icon. With over five hundred pages containing some seven hundred and fifty photographs and illustrations, the publication is the first comprehensive retrospective of the prolific designer’s career.

Ralph Lauren has never been a designer’s designer. He does not follow trends, change his line dramatically season to season, or even sketch. He is no Issac Mizrahi lending himself to endless television shows and magazine articles, no tortured genius à la Yves Saint Laurent, nor even a sound-bite friendly Karl Lagerfeld. By smartly sidestepping the fashion world Ralph Lauren has risen to become the most commercially, if not critically, successful designer of our time.

Raph; 1989; RRL Ranch, Ridgway, CO
Photo: Barbara Walz

Rizzoli’s book reveals how many of Ralph Lauren’s aesthetic tastes can be traced back to his youth. The late Audrey Hepburn unwittingly penned the tome’s introduction during her speech to Lauren at the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony in 1992. A seemingly bizarre choice of auditor given that Ms. Hepburn will be forever associated with another living designer, Hubert de Givenchy. However, we soon discover that to Ralph Lauren there are no greater accolades than those spoken by his sepia-tined childhood idols—the movie stars . Divided into four sections, Living, Movies, Heroines, and History, the book explores the designer’s various influences and journey to the top.

The young designer was born into surprisingly humble beginnings. October 14th, 1939 was not the most auspicious date for Ralph Lauren to be born. World War II was just around the corner and most Americans were still smarting from the Depression. Born Ralph Lifschitz to immigrant Russian Jews, the young Ralph Lauren was raised in the Bronx. Academically challenged, he spent his days playing sports and watching movies. This was at the height of the Hollywood studio’s power, when Louis B. Mayer ensured that men were men and women were there to be wooed.

Ralph, 1955, Bronx, NY
Photo: Lauren Family Album

As a teenager, he was employed as a waiter at camp Roosevelt in the Catskills. Having been born working class, he saw for the first time the miniatures of middle class children’s lives. He noticed the seersucker jackets of the boys, the box pleated skirts of the girls, and most importantly the confidence they all exuded. Though his personal taste ran towards well-worn leather jackets and khakis, he appreciated quality and tradition. This elevated taste level led to him later becoming a sales clerk at Brooks Brothers, a brand he is accused of overly referencing in his own collections.

After being discharged from the army with a leg injury, Ralph Lauren began work in New York’s garment industry. By 1967 he had designed a line of wide European style neckties that revolutionized the American tie industry and brought him his first critical acclaim. The Polo brand was born with even the name of the company hinting at a privileged lifestyle. A men’s clothing collection soon followed, as did a women’s line in 1972.

Buzzy Kerbox; 1980; Shelter Island, NY
Photo: Bruce Weber

Ralph Lauren’s clothes were neither about trends nor fleeting moods, but rather a sense of timelessness. Ralph Lauren did not liberate the modern women’s wardrobe as Saint Laurent recently had. Neither did he generate the media frenzy Halston did at the time. Instead, he designed women’s blouses in men’s fabrics that sold like hot cakes. Over the next four decades a plethora of licenses, secondary lines, and fragrances turned the Ralph Lauren Corporation into a billion dollar empire. Meanwhile, Saint Laurent was trapped in a Parisian time warp and Halston had died a pauper.

Ralph Lauren: Marcus Abel; 1984; England
Photo: Bruce Weber 

A major but often overlooked key to Lauren’s success was his marriage in 1964 to Ricky Low-Beer. In many respects she was the girl he needed to meet in order to reach the next level. A blond Viennese dancer, educated and sophisticated with a European outlook, she was his ideal muse. Her influence helped Ralph Lauren to become one of the very few American designers to have gained both critical and commercial success outside of the United States. Pictures of Ricky feature heavily in the tome and her sensibility seems to shine most clearly through her husband’s home collections. The juxtaposition of silver framed family snapshots with Apache Indian throws in the Lauren’s country retreat indicates a homely yet refined woman’s touch.

Ralph Lauren, 1988 / pillows
Photo: Francois Halard

Revealingly, the models in Rizzoli’s book look more like Cary Grant and Veronica Lake than the typical Euro-waif’s. In fact many of Ralph Lauren’s signatures such as New England refinement, the Wild West, and Native American culture can be traced back to the images he was drawn to as a child. Unlike most designers who design collections around recent inspirations such as an exhibition or a specific artist, Ralph Lauren constantly reinvents his favorite looks, tweaking them slightly season-to-season. This is good news for the customers who do not have to buy a new wardrobe every six months, but bad news for fashion editors who need to sell magazines.

Ralph Lauren: Kristin Clotilde Holby; 1981; Nantucket, MA
Photo: Bruce Weber

Ralph Lauren runs his company with absolute control over image and product, a fact that is clearly evident in this book. Rizzoli also published former Gucci creative director Tom Ford’s 2004 self-titled photographic biography. This seminal book began the trend for fashion designers to stamp ownership over their work with luxury publications Three years on it is still impossible to get through an edition of Architectural Digest or The World of Interiors without spotting that great tome carefully laid askew on at least three coffee tables.

Ralph Lauren’s book is a very different beast. Whereas Tom Ford’s effort was a stylistic reflection of the culture of 1990s fashion, of celebrities and red carpet posturing, Ralph Lauren’s is a solitude to himself. Even the self-proclaimed control-freak Tom Ford allowed editorial interpretations of his designs into his book. Vogue’s Anna Wintour penned the introduction and magazines such as Harpers Bazaar and Vanity Fair contributed many of the images. Ralph Lauren however has not permitted any outside influence to enter his namesake. Every page is either a piece of inspiration, a personal photograph, a runway shot, or an advertisement. The result is a carefully edited view of one man’s vision of himself and the world.

Ralph Lauren: Valentina Zelyaeva; 2006; New York City
Photo: Carter Berg

Within fashion circles, the Ralph Lauren design studio is regarded as a finishing school of sorts. Alumni include Vera Wang and Tory Burch who themselves are in the process of building fashion empires. Vera Wang credits Lauren as instrumental to her success by instilling in her the importance of never sacrificing the integrity of a collection, however unprofitable it may prove to be. Ralph Lauren understood early on that for every woman who pays $16,000 for one of his gowns, there are a thousand others who will see it, and go on to buy his T-shirts or towels.

Ralph Lauren has long been held up as the pallbearer of ‘anti-fashion’. His continuous recycling of classics is implied to be lazy and not ‘real design’. In truth, he has never demonstrated the cerebral artfulness of Muccia Prada or the imagination of John Galliano. Celebrities do not over-run his shows and Vogue does not fawn over his color palette. But his clothes sell in huge quantities. His garments neither age nor age the wearer; A father and son can wear almost identical outfits and not look ridiculous.

Ralph Lauren:Tim Easton; 1986; Sante Fe, NM
Photo: Bruce Weber

Ralph Lauren was also one of the first to push the envelope in terms of fashion marketing. He very quickly asserted his signature all-American aesthetic and never wavered from it. Renowned photographers including Bruce Weber, Patrick Demarchelier, and Michael Thompson helped to define the Ralph Lauren look and their work makes up a good portion of the book. By sticking to an accessible image, the brand was able to reach the broadest possible market instead of being limited to the fashion’s inner circle.

Ralph Lauren: Saffron Aldridge; 1988; San Francisco, CA
Photo: Bruce Weber

In a largely conservative Christian country such as the United States, the marketing of family values also makes good business sense. It is perhaps not a coincidence that America’s favorite is one of the few heterosexual male fashion designers around. In the 1980s, Calvin Klein and Halston went to great lengths to keep their personal affairs out of the papers, while Ralph and Ricky Lauren introduced their children to the public. The others were never able to capture the Mid-western shopper the way the Laurens did. Today, Ralph Lauren’s son David is famously the escort of Lauren Bush, fashion plate and niece of President Bush. Again, Ralph Lauren went against the tide by courting Americana over celebrities.

Ralph Lauren, 2004; Glen Cove, NY
Photo: Claus Wickrath

The iconology of the Ralph Lauren brand has come to rival that most iconic of fashion houses, Chanel. The Cameilla is replaced with the Polo logo, the quilted handbag with cricket sweaters, and the gilt chain by well-worn khakis. Image equates to sales in fashion and Chanel remains one of the world’s more prestigious labels because Karl Lagerfeld has cleverly rewritten the history of its namesake’s life to his advantage. In reality, Mme. Chanel was popular in the 1920s and had a resurgence in the 1950s. In between she was very much out of mode due to her pro-Nazi sympathies during the war. By constantly reinventing the house’s signature icons, Lagerfeld has created an illusion of what Chanel was then, and is today. In the same vein, Lauren understands that the best way to write is his own legacy is to stay in the background, rework the classics, and let his pictures tell the story.

The tome’s images of Ralph Lauren emporiums across the globe illustrates how clothing often takes a back seat to in-store set design. Each flagship is carefully executed to resemble an old world home resplendent with family oils on the walls and framed snapshots strewn across every surface. The overall impression is one of old money accented with Englishness, academia, and adventure. And herein lies Lauren’s genius, his creation of a world in which we would all love to live regardless of age, gender, background or sexual orientation. One cannot buy the store and the life it promises, but a $75 Polo shirt or $2000 suit make happy mementos.

Ralph Lauren: Josie Borian; 1984; England
Photo: Bruce Weber

Ralph Lauren effectively markets a lifestyle as opposed to simple garments. Others have followed in his footsteps, Calvin Klein made his fortune selling sex in the 1980s and Donna Karan outfitted working woman of the 1990s. Both were successful concepts at the time but trends change, gratuitous sex is no longer shocking, and power suits are out of fashion. Lauren’s concept of elegant living however, has never gone out of style and he is not faced with the challenge of reinvention that Klein and Karen do face today.

Ralph Lauren: Candice Lake, Jeppe Zeller; 2003; New York City
Photo: Martyn Thompson

Rizzoli’s book is in many ways the personal manifesto of a man who communicates through images instead of words. When one thinks of Ralph Lauren, one thinks of cowboys riding the Prairies in faded denim, of khaki-clad adventures exploring the African safari, or of smart families sipping cocktails in immaculate apartments. The man himself remains something of an enigma. With unprecedented access to Ralph Lauren’s personal and professional spheres the publishers unravel the Lauren saga to offer an intimate view of one man’s work, family, and life. Ralph Lauren offers fashion for those who do not particularly care for fashion. Fortunately for him, that turned out to be most people.

Ralph Lauren
Written by Ralph Lauren

Rizzoli (October 16, 2007)
Hardcover, 482 pages
11-1/2 x 15
ISBN-10: 0847829901
ISBN-13: 978-0847829903
US Price: $135.00
CAN Price: $174.00

Shine Anthony-Dharan is a British fashion writer and designer based in New York. He covers fashion, beauty and interior design for

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