In the opening scene of HBO’s new documentary Very Ralph, Hollywood star Audrey Hepburn tells the designer, “Your story is not about trends and fleeting moments but about values and things that last.” It is a fitting way to open a film designed to celebrate five decades of Ralph Lauren, the designer and businessman who has arguably had more of an impact on the American fashion industry than anyone else.
Throughout the documentary director Susan Lacy presses this point home by slowly revealing the ‘firsts’ Lauren has achieved. First designer to open up a stand-alone New York boutique, first designer to make African American models the face of his brand, first designer to create a home collection, first American designer to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II – there’s no denying his achievements. It is, however, Ralph Lauren as a creative visionary able to conjure entire worlds and lifestyles through his brand that the documentary really celebrates. This, after all, is where the documentary gets its name: the ability to describe a suit, a room or even a whole home as ‘very Ralph Lauren’ and have people the world over know exactly what you mean.
It is the formation and evolution of this world – a WASPy, privileged, carefree idyll of the American Dream – the documentary charts alongside the highs and lows of Ralph Lauren’s own professional and personal life. Born in the Bronx as Ralph Lifshitz to working class immigrant parents, Lauren’s ascension to the heights of success is the stuff of business legend. Recently married and living in a tiny New York apartment below the L train, Lauren started his career in 1967 as nothing more than a dapper tie salesman with a penchant for custom-made clothing and the confidence to turn down his first big sale with Bloomingdale’s after it demanded he exchange his labels for their own.
The department store eventually capitulated and Lauren’s flamboyant ties were an instant hit. Cannily, Lauren’s four inch wide ties were so oversized in comparison to the standard two and a half inch designs that they also called for new shirts with wider collars and jackets with bigger lapels. Before long the Polo brand was born.
Inspired by classic Hollywood films, American clothing traditions and those who embodied them – stars such as Cary Grant, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman – Lauren created a brand which eschewed fashion and trends in favour of tapping into the aspirational worlds Lauren had grown up admiring. Or, as he himself puts it, “I’m taking things from different worlds – military, safari, Western, English riding – they’re all romantic stories. When I’m working on a collection I’m thinking of different people, characters, movies, books.”
Over the next few decades the success of offering customers perceived access to these lifestyles – be it ranching in Texas, sailing in the Hamptons or skiing in Aspen – saw the brand grow on an international scale. Women’s lines were added in 1971, fragrances in 1978, Ralph Lauren Home debuted in 1983, Polo Sport in 1992 and watches in 2009. There were also collaborations with the US Olympics team and Wimbledon and costumes for films including The Great Gatsby and Annie Hall.
At present Lauren lends his name to no fewer than 20 ranges spanning childrenswear, denim, golf and even restaurants and coffee shops. As Robin Givhan, fashion critic at the Washington Post explains, “You can now live this whole Ralph Lauren life and it’s become the industry standard. I don’t know any brand now that just wants to a be a clothing brand – they all want to be a lifestyle brand.”
This is not to say, of course, that it has all been plain sailing. The documentary notes briefly that, after an IPO in 2009, Ralph Lauren went through a succession of short-lived CEOs each of whom failed to convince the eponymous designer to change his way of working. In the same vein, the film ponders the future of the brand and whether its consistent reliance on a vision of upper class American aspiration might be out of step with modern culture. For his part, Lauren dismisses the criticism, saying he would have ‘quit a long time ago’ had he listened to what others had to say.
It is, however, a largely celebratory film elegantly woven through with intimate insights into Lauren’s family life – his love for his wife Ricky, the importance of family summers at the beach and his desire to keep his children – many of whom now work for the business – close. This is especially clear in a scene capturing Ralph Lauren’s 50th anniversary collection show, a glorious, colourful celebration of diversity, joy and friendship, in which Lauren appears in bow tie, double-breasted jacket and jeans and makes a beeline for his wife and children. “I’m living the life I dreamt about living and I enjoy creating my whole world,” he reflects. “As you get older you don’t need all the things you thought you needed. Sometimes you have to fulfil your dreams to know what your real dream is about. The real dream is family, children, having peace.”
Like the man himself, Very Ralph, is an insightful, elegant portrait of a charismatic, imaginative and forward-thinking man who sees the world as a series of cinematic vignettes – and wants to be perfectly dressed for every one of them.
Very Ralph airs on HBO at 9pm ET on 12 November and on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on 15 November.
Want more from the man himself? Ralph Lauren reflects on 50 years in fashion…