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Ralph Lauren upset by biography

Biographer says Ralph, left, chose wife Ricky, right, for her WASP looks.
Biographer says Ralph, left, chose wife Ricky, right, for her WASP looks.

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LOS ANGELES, California (Reuters) -- Fashion designer Ralph Lauren became rich teaching Americans to crave his patrician WASP vision of life, but his mother still wishes he had become a rabbi, according to a new biography.

"Genuine Authentic" charts Lauren's rise in fashion from an itinerant tie salesman to the helm of Polo Ralph Lauren dwelling on what the author says was the designer's constant need for approval, his legendary indecision, his brain tumor and his extramarital affair with model Kim Nye -- with details gleaned from people Lauren may have squashed on his way up.

The book was not supposed to be that way. Lauren, 63, initially approached author Michael Gross to write his biography to coincide with the 35th anniversary of Polo Ralph Lauren last year but changed his mind when Gross said he refused to leave out Lauren's affair with Nye.

Gross, who riled the fashion world in 1995 with "Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women," his expose of the fashion industry, decided to write the book anyway.

"There are a lot of people out there who feel this is a true story that needed to be told," Gross told Reuters. "There were a substantial number of people who have worked there and left and who feel that he is a tyrant."

Lauren's influence -- his personal assets were recently estimated by Forbes magazine at $2 billion -- is such that most people who participated in the book declined to be identified.

The unnamed sources were "many, many former Ralph Lauren employees and many in the industry who were willing to talk about him but were afraid of offending him," Gross said.

"There are some people who buy into the fashion myth ... and they will never help you, and then there are people who realize they are in a business of pretty lies," said Gross, a former fashion writer. "I'm lucky there are enough people out there who get it and were willing to help me."

A spokeswoman for Lauren said he hasn't read the book and doesn't intend to. Some critics say it is much harsher on the man than previous biographies and some friends have publicly said they don't recognize the Lauren Gross presents.


But many do recognize Gross's claim that Lauren built his massive fashion empire on an image that captures America's "lust for roots we no longer have and for status as a replacement for birth."

The same applied to Lauren himself, who grew up Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx and who, from his high school years, could talk for hours about the placement of buttons or the depth of cuffs and longed to become a force in fashion.

The title of the book is a play on the fact that Lauren "is often tarred as fake" -- a reputation Gross doesn't think the designer deserves.

"He wanted the best of America and he saw that as something that was very different from the world in which he grew up," Gross said.

Gross walked the streets of Lauren's boyhood neighborhood to trace the fashion mogul back to the dreamy boy with the lisp who yearned to be a preppie. "All the people from the old neighborhood were really nice," Gross said. "They wanted to claim part of the Ralph Lauren myth. They wanted to say they knew him when."

But Lauren's mother, Frieda Lifshitz, descended from an ancient and distinguished line of rabbis, has never wavered in the belief that her son should have been a rabbi.

"It's heartbreaking -- his mother said she wishes he would have been rich in religion," Gross said. "My theory is that he basically created a world in which his company could be his Jewish mother and tell him how great he is."


Lauren's desire to create a perfectly patrician world has extended to putting portraits of fake ancestors on the walls at his homes, having himself photographed in polo regalia despite not playing the sport and coordinating the outfits of family members for a night on the town, according to the book.

Gross sources claimed that Lauren chose his fashion muses, as well as his wife, Ricky, for their WASP looks, old-world tastes and haughty demeanors.

His perfectionism and demand for loyalty from associates gained Lauren a reputation as a ruthless egomaniac. A former Polo executive told Gross that employees "lived in fear of his moods...He has a terrible dark side."

Gross said he witnessed the "dark side of Ralph Lauren" during his argument with the designer over the Nye affair.

Sources told Gross that Lauren's two-year affair with Nye nearly ended his marriage and ended with the former model being pushed out of Polo and the fashion industry.

"The moment I said 'no' to him about Kim Nye was scary," Gross said. "Seeing him get that angry was shocking for me... There was a hardness and a coldness and an implicit threat to it."

Despite that, Gross said he remains a fan. "I have slept on his sheets and under his blankets," he said. "I admired him and identified with him in some senses: He's a short Jew from a second-generation Eastern European family, a guy whose life was spent on the periphery."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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