In designing his products, whether the clothes or house wares, Lauren says he always strives for one thing: consistency. “What matters the most to me are clothes that are consistent and accessible,” he says. “When I look at the people I’ve admired over the years, the ultimate stars like Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant and Astaire, the ones who last the longest are the ones whose style has a consistency, whose naturalness is part of their excitement.”
The challenge of remaining consistent is one that Lauren believes plagues much of the fashion industry. “When you think of the blur of all the brands that are out there, the ones you believe in and the ones you remember, like Chanel and Armani, are the ones that stand for something,” he says. “Fashion is about establishing an image that consumers can adapt to their own individuality. And it’s an image that can change, that can evolve. It doesn’t reinvent itself every two years.”
After viewing his first polo match in New York, Lauren was inspired to quit his job as a clerk at Brooks Brothers and start his own company. He had no experience, and only a high school diploma and a few business classes on his résumé, but he won over Bloomingdale’s with his brazen attitude. Within one year, the designer sold $500,000 worth of ties at the department store. There is never a “right time.” If you have an idea, go for it and shock everyone with results.
Ralph’s first big break was with Bloomingdale’s—the hottest store around at the time.
They said they loved his neckties, but they wanted to take his name off the label and replace it with the Bloomingdale’s name. He said, no way, left the deal on the table and walked away.
Six months later, Bloomingdale’s came back. Turns out they DID want his neckties AND they’d keep his name on them!
Ralph Lauren’s real name is Ralph Lifshitz. He is an American fashion designer, whose net worth is $5.5 billion.
Ralph Lauren was not born into privilege. He was born in the Bronx, New York City, to Jewish immigrants.
At the age of 12, he worked after school to fund his extravagant taste in clothing and was known for selling hand-made ties to his fellow students at school – little did he know this would become the driving force of his entrepreneurial success.
It had taken him two decades to progress from his first low paid job as a glove salesman to multi-millionaire status.
Oprah: How have you instilled that integrity in your children, who were raised with every material thing anyone could want?
Ralph: We just passed on our values by how we lived. My kids also knew our parents, and both sets were very humble. My kids and I had a very normal life. My work is my work and, yes, they were exposed to things other kids weren’t, but they know what my wife and I value—we’ve always had the right value system about what’s important in terms of family and people. That has nothing to do with being rich or poor. I could have less and essentially be the same person. Having success at an early age gave me more of a sense of what’s important in life rather than always driving to make it. I loved what I did, and my satisfaction came from my own sense of stretching. I was fulfilled inside as opposed to needing outside fulfillment. Now, did I want good things that I’d never had? Yes. Did I have dreams about living this kind of life? Sure. Most everyone has those dreams—a nice house, a pool. That’s part of the American thrust. Did I give up my family in order to have it? No. Did I jump to another group because they were going to make me bigger? Never. I have always been who I am.
You can enjoy the moment, but you have to keep things going—and you can’t be a one-trick pony.” You’re only as good as your latest success. Appreciate your accomplishments, but always strive to improve.
He did not let fear of acceptance or failure stop him from living the life he wanted to live and running the company he wanted to run. If you are constantly worried about how people perceive you or how you think you should appear to others, you will never be able to pursue your own true ambitions. Be comfortable in your decisions and your lifestyle, and make sure that you are not living anyone’s dream but your own.
Oprah: I saw an interview you did when you were about 26, and you said, “I always wanted to be special.”
Ralph: And I still do.
Oprah: Unless you’re set apart.
Ralph: Well I don’t want to be a zero. I want to say something, to do something, to have a voice.
Oprah: There’s this wonderful line in East of Eden where Steinbeck writes: “Will liked to live so that no one could find fault with him, and to do that he had to live as nearly like other people as possible.” That struck me because it made me realize that if you’re going to be extraordinary, then you can’t be like most other people.
Ralph: Yes. And yet I’ve seen a lot of bad people become successful. You don’t want anything they have because they’ve sold their souls.
Oprah: I feel you have a connection with people, just as I have a connection with my audience.
Ralph: Yes, I’ve always said that. Sometimes when I walk into one of my own stores, I look at the display and say, “This looks so good—I want to buy it.” Yet other times I walk in and the displays and mannequins will be all wrong, and I don’t want to buy anything. When a customer walks into a store, she’s looking for inspiration. So I’m tuned in to people, and I care about what they need and who they are. Where do they go on vacation? Who are their families? What do they value?
I’ve lived through dreaming and not having, and I’ve lived through having. The basics are still getting up in the morning and feeling good about yourself—I don’t care how rich you are.
Oprah: After 35 years in the business, how do you continue to create great new items every season?
Ralph: That’s a question I don’t even want to ask myself. I can just feel the vibrations and the pulse of the world out there. And yet I have a sense of my own style. I don’t want to be anyone but myself.
Not long after Bloomingdale’s started selling his neckties, another rack—right next to his—started selling neckties that looked exactly like his. “Oh no,” he thought, “where am I going to go from here?”
But a Bloomingdale’s employee advised him not to worry because his ties were made with love and passion. Love & passion trump the competition!
Whether it was his children, the interns working at his company, or the customers in his stores, Lauren made sure to listen to what the young people were saying about fashion tastes and trends.
In the world of fashion, being comfortable in what you are wearing (both physically and socially) is vital to your success. Ralph Lauren understood that fashion trends come and go. What really lasts is a person’s personal taste and style. In his pursuit of the American Dream, Ralph Lauren never cowered to express his own individuality. He once said, “Personal style is about having a sense of yourself and what you believe in everyday.” He never failed to remain true to his own beliefs and tastes, and he tried to show a piece of himself in his work everyday. We cannot have a vision or a dream if we do not know who we are underneath. Staying in touch with our morals and our values is what keeps our dream in focus, and allows us to persevere in working towards accomplishing it.
Every once and a while, take the time to remind yourself of why you are doing what you’re doing, whether that’s trying to start a business, get a college degree. Keeping your goals in line with your beliefs will make chasing them much more enjoyable.
His mother was disappointed in him for not becoming a rabbi. Bloomingdales rejected him for being too daring in his designs. In his early years, it seems as if no one was on side with Lauren. But he did not care. He stood his ground, followed his passion, and designed how he wanted to design. That was how he made a name for himself.
Ralph Lauren had only a high school diploma and a few business classes under his belt, when he made the decision to start his own company, which was the first of many risks Lauren would take in his legendary career.
The next was designing wide, colorful neckties at a time when narrow and plain was the norm. The radical approach won over Bloomingdale’s — and loads of customers. He sold $500,000 worth of ties in one year.
Despite such quick success, Lauren relentlessly expanded his company. Ralph doesn’t sit on his laurels for one minute, you can enjoy the moment, but you have to keep things going.”
Oprah: What you do is beyond clothes—it’s about life. I get you, Ralph!
Ralph: Brooks Brothers was very important to me; I worked there when I was 24. But Brooks Brothers got to be boring. One day when I was coming out of Brooks Brothers, [1930s film star] Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who was then in his fifties and wore a double-breasted suit and spread-collar shirt, walked by me. I thought, “Wow—that guy looks cool.” Later it hit me: The reason I was looking at this older guy’s suit instead of at guys my own age was because his look represented something I didn’t see around me. Back then everyone was wearing cookie-cutter clothes: button-down shirts, thin ties. I wanted the spread collar, the wide tie, the shaped suit. At the time, you couldn’t find those clothes, so I made them, piece by piece. Then a businessman offered to lend me $50,000 if I would come and work for him. I told him I’d go into partnership with him if he’d put up the money. So he did, and I made my suits, and they started selling.
Now, nearing 70 years old, Lauren insists he is still just getting started and that his fashion empire still has leaps and bounds to go. “I’ve always believed one could live many lives through the way we dress and the places we travel to, even if just in our imagination,” he says. “The world is open to us, and each day is an occasion to reinvent ourselves.”
No matter what industry you are in or what profession you practice, bringing new ideas to the table is what makes an individual, or in this case a company, progress. Ralph Lauren first achieved success by designing colorful and patterned ties in a world where thin and black uniform ties was still the norm. The decision paid off handsomely in the end, earning Lauren $500,000 in his first year alone. From there he was able to expand on new ideas and take his company in new directions. So the next time you have an idea, don’t be afraid to share it. You never know where it might lead you.
After that I wanted to sell to Bloomingdale’s, which was the kingpin in New York. When I finally had the chance to show the buyer the ties, he said, “Ralph, I like the patterns—but you gotta make them a quarter of an inch narrower. And I want you to take your name off and put on Sutton East”—that was their private label. I said to the guy, “Gary, I’m dying to sell to Bloomingdale’s, but I’m closing my bag because I can’t take my name off. And I can’t make the tie a quarter of an inch narrower.”
Later that day after I left Bloomingdale’s, I told some colleagues what had happened. They said, “Ralph, who cares if you have to change your tie?” I said, “No, no—I’m not going to do it,” and I continued to sell to other stores. Six months later, Bloomingdale’s called me again. “Listen,” the buyer said, “we’re gonna put in a whole rack and case of your ties!”
Oprah: Was it always your dream to create this empire?
Ralph: I didn’t have a vision as in, This is where I’m going. I had a vision as in, “This is what I love to do.” The ties, as simple as they were, looked very different from other ties. They were wide and unusual. I never said to myself, “I’m going to be the greatest.” I just wanted to do my own thing. I’d worked for a tie company, and I said, “Can we do this kind of tie? I think we could sell them in New York.” This older guy who ran the company said, “No—the world is not ready for Ralph Lauren.” That was a big statement to say to a 26-year-old kid. The guy laughed at the idea of doing your own thing. I left there and started out of a drawer in the Empire State Building. I used to go out and find rags and make them into ties, then I’d carry them to stores and sell them. People started saying, “More—we want more.” That was so exciting for me. A guy from Neiman Marcus came to my office one day and said, “Let me look at your ties. I’ve been seeing them around.” Then he said, “Would you send these to the main buyer?” At the time, I wasn’t big on flying—I had little kids, and I wasn’t that experienced in jetting all over the place. But I got my little rags together, got on a plane, and flew there, because I knew the buyer wouldn’t understand my ties unless I explained them to him in person. I came home with an order for 100 dozen! That was my first big success. I thought, “I can do this—I’m in business.
Oprah: Do you still celebrate your Jewishness and honor the holidays?
Ralph: Absolutely. I’m very proud of my history and of my life.