Ralph Lauren vision’ s of WASP perfection became over the years a $4.3 billion global business and a detail expression of the American dream
Ralph Lauren tied in with WASPs fantasies
There is no irony to Ralph Lauren’ history. When it comes to creating a precise understanding of menswear, what people often find is a vast network of roots that spread far and wide. Between denim jeans’ origins as uniform for miners and farmers, the rise of the t-shirt thanks to early film stars, and the dapper Ivy style that defines cultural depictions of famous universities, menswear is fragmented in its origins. Ralph Lauren brought all those influences together creating a wardrobe. Aspiration has never been far from the brand, whose idea of preppy, aspirational America was solidified as a key pillar of the industry. In 1980 Lisa Birnbach published The Official Preppy Handbook, a how-to manual on the pink Polo shirts, twinsets, and the Brooks Brothers blazers. The origin of preppy style actually goes back further; it is a narration on how Jewish American designers, descended from immigrants helped transform WASP style – White Anglo-Saxon Protestant – into an international uniform which endures today. At the outbreak of World War II, most American women, as well as journalists, still looked to Paris with manufacturers paying French couture houses for the right to copy their design. But with Paris paralyzed by the war, New York was freed from its moral principles. A new generation of designers was about to give the chance to define America style on their own terms. Ralph Lauren was officially born Ralph Lifshitz to Jewish immigrant parents in the Bronx in 1939; he was motivated by an admiration for a culture he most hadn’t inherited. What marks differences between Lauren and every other Jew with WASP fantasies is how he saw them in visual terms and his determination to design every piece of it, down to the last detail, in order to make a living selling his fantasies to others, from ties, moving on to menswear, womenswear, accessories and perfumes.
From rags to ties: Lauren’s own line
Lauren’s first foray into the business began at DeWitt Clinton High School. In the evening he’d work at Alexander’s – a now closed chain of stores around New York City – but during the day he would upsell handmade ties to fellow students. After graduating from high school, Lauren spent some time in the army before becoming a neckwear salesman at Brooks Brothers. His biggest goal at the time was to continue selling his ties. Soon after the designer began looking into designing and making his own neckwear, Brook Brothers – whose aesthetic becoming a key influence in his designs – refused Lauren the time to work on his own line, forcing him to approach several other manufacturers before landing at upscale New York neckwear boutique, Beau Brummel. Here, the company allowed him to sell his own hand-made pieces in their Empire State Building showroom. When he was twenty-eight years old, Lauren took out a $50,000 loan and added “Polo” to his own name because it sounded more English. By 1969 Manhattan’s department store Bloomingdale’s opted for exclusive access to the men’s line. They gave Ralph Lauren his own shop. Two years later, Lauren would launch a women’s line of tailored shirts. A year after, in 1972, the designer introduced the world to the short-sleeved collared sport shirt featuring his embroidered polo pony on the chest – quickly being dubbed the Polo Shirt for short. The Polo brand became increasingly popular in the United Kingdom in the early Eighties, when a pastel-collared Oxford shirt was a must to get into clubs. Channeling references from movies, music sport and culture into a single, coherent language, Ralph Lauren created a sartorial style that would come to define the very notion of élite academia.
American style as synonymous to WASP culture
Throughout the trajectory course of Ralph Lauren’s career, his design sensibility became known: «The way I do collection and what inspires me is a story or theme that gets to me, that says I know to build this» said the designer «I don’t build a collection from the sleeve or from a specific fabric. I build it out of a dream». In the second half of the twentieth century, American designers – with Lauren among them – began to explore closer to home, finding their own inspiration in the athletic, informal and practical category of clothing known as sportswear. It was the uniform of the prep school, the yacht club, and all those institutions that had historically been closed to Jews. Conservative in both its appearance and in its resistance to change, WASP style was exclusive and democratic at the same time. Author Susanna Salk in A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP style defined preppy clothes as an ideal combination of intellect, grace, and joie de vivre. Ralph Lauren took part in this cultural conversation. Fashion industry was his defense mechanism against his poor immigrant upbringing. His career behind the counter at Brooks Brothers allowed the designer to study WASPs in their natural habit. Though Lauren had no formal design training, he realized that the most effective way to sell clothes was to sell an entire lifestyle. «People ask how a Jewish kid from the Bronx does preppy clothes. Does it have to do with class and money? It has to do with dreams» explains Lauren.
Ralph Lauren: the upper classes to the masses
His aspirations turned out to be the aspirations of many – the Regan-era and all those nostalgic WASPs who’d seen their lifestyle crumbling in the anti-establishment tumult of the late Sixties and early Seventies. After that, anyone could buy a piece that had once been considered to be part of an élite – it was no longer how you wore it, but what you wore. From the brand’s casual blazers to its varsity sports references, the Ralph Lauren brand is a fluid amalgamation of everything people think of when imaging America’s elite academic institutions. His ability to envision a whole world in idealized form and then persuade others to buy into it, marks a consistency in transforming the conventional into something uplifting and optimistic. If America is based on the idea that everyone should have an equal opportunity to get rich, Lauren’s idea is that everybody should have an equal opportunity to look and feel rich. Elitism masquerading as democracy or democracy masquerading as elitism?
Ralph Lauren sold the image of the upper classes to the masses without diluting his appeal to the people who made it in the first place. He has made aristocracy feel entirely democratic continuing to stay true to his ultimate vision, by focusing on his dreams in each new line he creates.
Mr. Ralph Lauren
In 1968 a young designer started his business out of a showroom in the Empire State Building. Over the next fifty years Ralph Lauren would come to define not just the male American wardrobe, but his design became synonymous of the WASP culture – an elite which has dominated American society and politics for the most of the history of the United States.