B. October 14, 1939 Birthplace: Bronx, New York
Awards: Coty Award, 1970, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1981, 1984 Neiman Marcus Distinguished Service Award, 1971 American Printed Fabrics Council Tommy Award, 1971 Council of Fashion Designers of America Award, 1981 Coty Hall of Fame Award, 1981 Gentlemen's Quarterly Manstyle Award, 1982 Neckwear Association Special Achievement Award, 1985 Retailer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, 1987, 1992
Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement Award, 1992
Woolmark Award, 1992
Some describe Ralph Lauren as a stylist rather than a designer, but he has contributed more to the marketing of fashion than anything else. He became one of the first designers to market the lifestyle behind a fashionable image. Whether it was polo grounds or the frontier west, Lauren captured a glamorous vision of the lifestyle and enticed consumers to purchase clothes that fit it.
Lauren's origins were very different from the lives of leisure and luxury exemplified in his advertisements. He was born in the Bronx and attended the City College of New York for two years. He joined the U.S. Army reserves, worked at Brooks Brothers, and worked for two glove makers.
Wide ties were Lauren's first fashion statement. When he began selling Abe Rivetz's conservative ties, he tried to convince the company to sell wider ties. Another company, Beau Brummell, was more receptive to the wide tie idea and hired Lauren to run its modern tie division in 1967. He named the division Polo Fashions.
In 1968 Lauren was ready to strike out on his own. He purchased the name Polo Fashions and the remaining stock of ties from Beau Brummell. After borrowing money from Norman Hilton, he established a menswear company called Polo by Ralph Lauren.
From the beginning, he connected the company's image with wealth and leisure. He sold high-quality fashions with an Ivy League look. His timing was impeccable; just as clothes were becoming more casual, he introduced clothes that were a formal type of casual which evoked images of relaxing gentlemen at a country estate. His designs epitomized classic nostalgia and featured elements of 1920s fashion. His interest in 1920s fashion peaked in 1974, when he designed the men's costumes for the film The Great Gatsby.
In 1971 he introduced Ralph Lauren women's wear at his in-store shop at Bloomingdale's. It was a line of tailored clothing that echoed his mens-wear. Although self-assured women such as Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo were the original inspiration for the line, Diane Keaton's clothing in Annie Hall (1977) personified and popularized Lauren's women's wear.
In the 1970s, his women's collections included trousers, Shetland sweaters, tailored shirts, walking shorts, trench coats, and pajamas.
By the late 1970s, Lauren seemed unstoppable. He published his first catalog in 1976 and introduced Polo for Boys in 1978; his version of the tennis shirt was so popular that the style became commonly known as the Polo shirt. In 1978 he launched his first fragrances, Polo for men and Lauren for women.
The American West had always captured Lauren's imagination. In 1978 he introduced the "Prairie look," which featured layered petticoats, into his women's line. His fascination with the West also prompted him to introduce Chaps, a moderately priced line which evoked the image of cowboys; Polo continued to epitomize the Ivy League look.
Lauren introduced the fragrance Chaps to capitalize on the clothing line. In 1980, the year it was introduced, sales of the fragrance amounted to $14 million. Like the clothing, the fragrance was marketed as an inexpensive version of men's Polo. While Polo was sold through department stores, Chaps was sold through chain drugstores. Although Lauren was targeting a different market with his Chaps clothing and fragrance, he remained successful by sticking to his formula of marketing a lifestyle.
Lauren used his lifestyle strategy in his stores as well. Jerry Magnin opened the first Polo store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California, in 1971. Since Magnin sold Polo exclusively, Lauren allowed him to forego licensing fees. From the first store, Lauren was involved in the visual display. Always wanting to create his lifestyle image, he carefully selected fixtures and props to support and enhance that image. His flagship store in New York, the Rhinelander Mansion on Madison Avenue, features a fireplace, sculling oars, cricket bats, and even an Old World scent. Even department store boutiques are required to follow the company's rigid merchandising specifications. By 1996 there were more than 170 Polo stores worldwide.
Polo experienced great success during the 1980s. Lauren's high-quality upper-crust designs appealed to the status-conscious consumers of the decade. He continued to use his formula of marketing a lifestyle to win consumers.
Lauren introduced new themes to his designs, but they all referenced a nostalgic view of the past. The women's line evolved from the Old West to the New West. In 1981 he unveiled the Santa Fe look complete with concha belts, prairie skirts, and muted Southwestern colors. In 1982 his collection followed a romantic theme, featuring lace, velvet, and Victorian blouses accented with cameo jewelry.
In 1983 he launched the Ralph Lauren Home Collection. Unlike other designers, who simply selected patterns and colors for their home collections, Lauren created collections that revolved around themes. Consumers could chose from a diverse array of themes, like the Serape, English Coun tryside, or Safari collections. By 1987 the 2,200-item home collection list included bedding, towels, table linens, rugs, robes, and furniture. More recently, the company added an interior paint line.
In the 1990s, Lauren began to move away from designing historically inspired clothes. In an effort to attract younger consumers, he launched Polo Sport in 1992, Polo Jeans Co. in 1996, and RLX, an extreme sportswear line, in 1999. Although these lines were successful, they began eroding the company's reputation for updated classics which allowed a consumer to purchase part of a lifestyle. By 1999 Lauren had closed nine stores, and the stock price was falling. At the end of the 1990s, the world's most successful designer seemed to be falling off his pedestal.
In 1996 Lauren had retail revenues of $5 billion. The company's net sales were $900 million, while competitor Tommy Hilfiger's net sales were only $478 million. Most of Lauren's profits come from licensing. Currently, the company produces all of its products through independent contractors, and it has twenty-six licensees and about 180 contract manufacturers. Jones Apparel Group and Warnaco, which produce sportswear, are two of the company's largest partners. The following is a selected list of current licensees: Pietrafesa (men's tailored clothing), Peerless (Chaps men's clothing), Sun Apparel (Polo jeans), Cosmair (fragrance), Rockport/Reebok (footwear), WestPoint Stevens (sheets, towels, and bedding), Sherwin-Williams (paint), and Reed and Barton (flatware).
Early in his career, Lauren used licensing as a means to realize his designs. In 1973 he showed his first licensed shoe collection, which was produced by Kayser-Roth. In 1975 Hishiya Co., Ltd., acquired the Japanese rights to distribute Polo ties, making it Polo's first Japanese licensee. L. Greif became the licensee for the Chaps collection in 1974, and Lauren licensed a line of Vogue patterns. In one of his most ambitious licensing ventures, Lauren teamed up with The Gap, Inc., to produce Polo Western wear. In 1979 the line debuted in department and specialty stores, but it was canceled within a year because the two companies disagreed over how to market it.
Today the company is named Polo/Ralph Lauren, as it has been since the name was changed in 1987. In 1997 the company went public, and in that year, 52 percent of the business was menswear. Fragrances, house-wares, accessories, and women's wear each constituted 10 percent of the sales, and children's apparel made up the remainder. See also: Tommy Hilfiger; The Gap, Inc.
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