ralph lauren interview
Ralph Lauren photographed in the library at Spencer House, London

Ralph Lauren reflects on 50 years in fashion

As he celebrates his 80th birthday, the polymathic designer reminisces on half a century in style...

A business mogul, American dreamer, philanthropist, salesman and innovator, the real genius of Ralph Lauren is that he has created an entire world all to himself — a semi-fictional country of Cape Cod pastels and Western cowboys, Ivy League quads and Oxford punts, cocktails on lawn tennis courts and après-ski fondue.

His world is a republic marked by good taste, grace and optimism, and his approach to the imagined country is almost writerly in its detail and colour. Ralph Lauren makes novels you can wear.

The latest chapter in this well-thumbed book saw Lauren celebrate 50 years of the company that bears his name in 2018 – as well as his 80th birthday in 2019.

What’s so remarkable is that the milestone comes with no world-weariness or cynicism — five decades in, and the brand and its founder still exude the same optimism, fun and aspiration as they did when a plucky Ralph Lifshitz first started selling ties from a drawer in the Empire State Building.

On discovering a passion for watches...

“The first watch that really left its mark on me was one my father wore when I was a child. It was nothing fancy, but it was always on his wrist. I have always felt a man’s watch is his most personal accessory.”

"I think optimism is deeply embedded in the American spirit..."

“Later, there were many watches that I was drawn to and collected. Some of them were built for utility, others for pure elegance, but for me a watch, like a car, has a very specific purpose — and the craftsmanship involved was always inspiring.”

“I love the utility aspect of watches. The romance comes from the wearer: the pilot who wore it on his wrist under a flight jacket; the aged patina of a leather strap that has been handed down from father to son; the watches that were worn by charismatic personalities incorporating them into their personal style.”

On a lifelong love for the teddy bear...

The teddy bear has always been an icon of American culture. It was named after Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt in the early years of the 20th Century. Our own Polo Bear, which featured in the 50th Anniversary collection among others, was a natural extension of our world — he dressed in our looks and later became a much-loved mascot.

It was my brother Jerry that presented me with an authentic Steiff teddy, perfectly styled in a miniature outfit that mimicked one of mine precisely.

We called it the Polo Bear, and every year they would add to my collection with a different character from my world. Eventually, we decided to do limited edition runs of our Polo Bears to sell to collectors. Each piece of clothing was made in the same factories that our real clothes were.  

On finding inspiration...

I write through my clothes. They tell my stories. But the authors that have most influenced me are Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Ayn Rand, to name a few.

I find inspiration everywhere — in movies, books, places I travel to and people I meet. When I started creating my ties I would see a checked tablecloth and think: “that would make an interesting tie.” One of my favourite home collection pieces was a tartan highboy inspired by my collection of tartan boxes.

My advice to young style entrepreneurs is simply to believe in yourself. Believe in your vision. Find ways to reinvent it, but never stray from the essence of what inspires you.

Good taste isn’t just something you’re born with, or something you learn, but a combination of the two. I always had something inside of me I wanted to express, and over time I found different ways to say it — through the things that we wear, the things that we live with — a world of quality that is timeless and authentic.

On an enduring sense of optimism...

I think optimism is deeply embedded in the American spirit. We are always optimistic about the future and the things that we can accomplish and who we can become. That’s all tied up with the American Dream. I believe in the precepts that built this country. They were created by a diversity of leaders who set about to define freedom for the citizens in the broadest of terms.

I’m optimistic about the American family and the dream of a better life, which, by the way, is something all people desire, not just Americans. In fashion there is too much focus on ‘new new new’. I believe in things that stay, that endure, that are timeless and have to do with the personal style of the individual.

On looking to the future...

In another 50 years, Ralph Lauren may look different. I hope it will feel the same and stand for the same quality and timeless style I’ve built it on for the first 50.

If I have a motto, it’s this: Work hard, work together, believe in yourself and, most of all, love what you do.

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Further Reading