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Ralph Lauren: the road from wannabe sports star to fashion pioneer

Sandra Halliday
05 December 2016

So Ralph Lauren is going to be honoured by the British fashion Council at The Fashion Awards this evening. It this just one establishment body buttering up another establishment figure?

You might think so, but would be wrong. It’s easy to forget, given what a mega lifestyle (and ‘establishment’) name Ralph Lauren the brand is these days, just what an impact Ralph Lauren the person has had on fashion over the past 40-plus years. No, he didn’t invent the mini skirt or athleisure. But he’s one of that unique breed of mainly-American designer-entrepreneurs who’ve changed the fashion sector fundamentally and changed the way we dress in the process.

Besides, you only have to look at his philanthropic efforts (massive investment both in time and money in breast cancer among other causes) to see that a pat on the back is long overdue.

The accidental entrepreneur

So what has Lauren done? Let’s rewind to the beginning. Despite harbouring youthful ambitions to be the next Joe DiMaggio and then the next Cary Grant, he actually went on to study business then served in the US army for two years.

So having left the army, what does a young man with drive do in 1964 when he needs to earn a living in the outside world? He joins Brooks Brothers as a sales assistant. It may have been completely at odds with everything he’d done before (apart, maybe, from that Cary Grant obsession) but he obviously found his niche and then moved on to work for a tie company called Beau Brummell.

Not necessarily what you'd expect for a quiet fashion revolutionary but it’s at this point that the seed for Ralph Lauren Corporation was planted. He launched his own line for Beau Brummell and decided to draw on his youthful interest in sport to do so.

Given that this was a man without formal design training, that made sense and underscored the practical fashion that has always been at the heart of his brand.

Launching Polo in 1968, he rode a wave of the move towards a more casual way of dressing that wasn’t really about the high-profile fashion trends of the 1960s - the miniskirts, space age looks, hippie style and so on.

Ralph Lauren

Ralph Lauren circa 1970

But, importantly, his connection of sport and comfort with fashion was an underlying trend throughout the last century and one that really picked up pace just as he was getting to work.

You only have to look at movies and TV shows from several decades back to see just how formal everyday dressing was back then. But the trend that Lauren tapped into is the same trend that means men no longer have to wear wing collar shirts to the office and that means women (for the most part) are no longer forced into bunion-inducing shoes and impossible-to-walk-in skirts.

The big time

So here Ralph is in the late 60s with a line that’s delivering to stores in person. Bloomingdales was obviously impressed by his offer, giving him an in-store boutique, its first ever designer shop-in-shop and so setting a retail template that is now the standard for designer brands in department stores.

Ralph Lauren

Ralph Lauren in 1971

But if the 60s was good for Lauren, the 70s saw him making an even bigger splash. He launched into womenswear; he unveiled the polo player logo; he opened the first standalone store for a US designer on Rodeo Drive; he launched the still-with-us-today cotton mesh polo shirt; and he influenced wider fashion looks not through the runway but through Hollywood.

In 1974 that meant dressing the male cast of the Great Gatsby and being responsible for a defining 70 trend. And in 1977 he dressed Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and so was responsible for yet another look that defined an era.

Ralph Lauren

Diane Keaton in Annie Hall

He was also an early entrant into blockbuster designer fragrances too in 1978 and was the first to launch one for men and one for women at the same time.

Since then he has pioneered the multiple sub brand model (Polo Sport, Purple Label et al) and also ridden the lifestyle wave opening a restaurant as early as 1999 expanding into multiple categories, and striking deals with retailers like JC Penney for special lines.

Not that it’s been all plain sailing. The company is currently in a turnaround phase that suggests some of the expansion of the past has been a step too far (or maybe a sub-label too far). But the polo pony is still hugely lucrative and Lauren is still responsible for one of the key brands of the age.

Ralph Lauren

Ralph Lauren AW16

His name is a feature of the Interbrand top brand list and also topping the list of luxury online clicks in the latest year compiled by digital-marketing company PMX Agency and data-analytics firm Hitwise.

It’s clear that nobody should be writing Lauren off just yet. This is a brand with plenty of life in it and its founder, at the age of 77, is still going strong too.

Ralph Lauren will receive the Outstanding Contribution to Fashion Award at The Fashion Awards, which take place at the Royal Albert Hall this evening.

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